Harvard Business Review

Mark Zuckerberg and Misery as Motivation


Posted on Harvard Business Review: November 1, 2010 11:57 AM

Did Mark Zuckerberg start Facebook friending because he was unable to make friends? That's the main theme of the hit film The Social Network. Zuckerberg didn't care about money, several say; he was compensating for a lack of friends.

Did Evan Williams, who just stepped aside as CEO of Twitter, jump on the bandwagon of an instant communication site because he is quiet and slow to make decisions? That's an inference that can be drawn from a New York Times profile.

These could be examples of entrepreneurship as compensation for personal weaknesses and inner misery. Strategy-as-psychology might be back in fashion.

In recent decades, popular explanations for behavior shifted from Freud to Friedman, that is, from psychic motives to profit motives, a la the late University of Chicago economist. Should theories about entrepreneurs' psyches make a comeback?

Although entrepreneurship as psychic compensation can be taken too far, this perspective provides something interesting to ponder. Accidental entrepreneurs (to play off the title of Ben Mezrich's book about Zuckerberg and Facebook co-founders, The Accidental Billionaires) might succeed because they are driven by something they are bad at, something they must overcome. In this perspective, the inner drive to succeed emanates from a personal shortcoming or void in life that is filled by the venture. And not just by venture success, but by the nature of the venture itself—like virtual friends for the friendless.

Entrepreneurs always have something to prove—the viability of their ideas, for one thing. They must make good on their promises that they can create something new or live up to the claims on their business plans or project proposals. But are they also, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to prove, that they can transcend a personal deficit through their venture? And does this increase the motivation to throw themselves fully into the venture? Does psychic compensation fuel the passion to succeed? Is inner misery a motivator?

These questions are not far-fetched. Some kinds of deprivation can increase motivation. Yale sociologist James Baron has compiled evidence that productivity increases when people who are disadvantaged get more than they expected, in what he calls a gratitude factor. This can be seen in the hunger of many immigrants for a better life. A Cleveland, Ohio, civic activist told me that he wants to build an economic revival strategy around attracting Asian immigrants, hoping, I suppose, that Korean shopkeepers and Indian IT entrepreneurs will lead a new venture renaissance. In contrast, feelings of entitlement make it easy to slack off. A top human resources consultant told me that he contrasts the strong enthusiasm and excitement about work he observes in rapidly developing countries with the lack of engagement among at least half of American workers, according to surveys, that he attributes to expectations that life will hand them favors.

Restless dissatisfaction—that feeling that something isn't quite right—propels entrepreneurship and innovation. Sometimes the motivation is straightforward and doesn't require pop Freudian analysis. Get annoyed about a something that isn't working, and invent a gizmo to fix it. See your mother suffer from cancer, and become a scientist seeking a cure. Get angry about the sorry state of urban education, and start an organization to tackle it. Personal stories lie behind many successful social or business ventures.

Looking at psychic compensation has practical implications. Common advice to career-seekers is to focus on what they're good at, but perhaps they should also focus on a deficit they hope to overcome. To motivate employees, managers could look for what's missing in someone's life and steer him or her toward activities that help them fill the void. Budding entrepreneurs can be quizzed about the personal meaning of a proposed venture, to see how much its success matters to them.

Do feelings of deprivation drive entrepreneurs and economies? That's just speculation and requires further discussion. But because of Zuckerberg and Williams, we can carry the conversation fast to Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. Her strategic and practical insights have guided leaders of large and small organizations worldwide for over 25 years. The former Editor of Harvard Business Review (1989-1992), Professor Kanter has been named to The Times of Londonlist of the "50 most powerful women in the world".

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