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The Critical 50 Percent: Doing Your Genetic Inventory
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THE SCIENCE BEHIND INHERITING AN ENTREPRENEURIAL PERSONALITY
To understand how the entrepreneurial spirit might get inherited, let’s step back and look at how genes affect us generally. Genes contain the recipe for how every cell in our bodies develops. Every cell has a copy of all the information necessary to produce an entire human being; that’s why Dolly the sheep could be cloned from a single cell. Genes don’t just affect hair color, height, and whether we go bald. The role of genes in increasing the risk of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease is becoming clearer every day.
It’s easy to see that genes influence physical problems and traits. However, scientists are now discovering that our genes affect how we behave, too. The success of the Human Genome Project has enabled scientists to begin to connect what happens in our cells and what happens in our brains. They have found links between genes and increased risk of alcoholism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obesity, depression—even smoking.
We’ve only begun to explore just how our genes create a predisposition to such behaviors. Some scientists believe it’s because genes direct how our brains develop, before and after we’re born. Genes may program some of us to develop more circuitry in certain parts of our brains than others. For example, women have been found to have more connections between the right and left sides of their brains than men do. Others believe mechanical processes are more important than developmental ones. Genes guide our brains in producing and processing the chemicals, such as dopamine, that affect our moods. Some believe it’s a combination.
Whatever the process, the most important point is this: Our understanding of just how important our genes are and how they shape our day-to-day behavior is in the infant stages. With the decoding of the human genome, we’ve just started to unlock these secrets. Companies are already marketing genetic tests to consumers who want to know how vulnerable they are to illness, or how well their bodies process nutrients, drugs, or environmental stresses. I believe by the time my yet-unborn grandchildren are my age, we’ll all know parts of our genetic code and what they mean for our lives in the same way we now know our cholesterol levels.
GENES AND PERSONALITY
I heard a story a while back that reminded me of the mystery of genetics. A man was watching his four-year-old son do what kids do: show off. As the father watched, something seemed strangely familiar about the dance the little boy was doing. Suddenly he realized that the boy’s movements were exactly the same as the dance the man had watched his own father do as an elderly man. Since the boy’s grandfather had died thirty years before the child was born, he couldn’t have somehow learned the steps.
As I said earlier, scientists have found that roughly 50 percent of the differences in our personalities are linked to our genes. Any parent knows that some children are born with a sunny disposition, physical gracefulness, or a thirst for learning—and others, even in the same family, simply weren’t. Children display a personality early on that can’t necessarily be explained by their upbringing. (I can hear every parent out there heaving a huge sigh of relief.)
Researchers in the emerging field of behavioral genetics have begun to turn up some fascinating examples of just how strongly inheritable our personalities are. Countless studies have demonstrated striking similarities between twins separated at birth. Here’s a brief sample of the kinds of discoveries scientists have made in recent years:
* In one famous example, identical twins who were reared separately tended to have similar occupations, senses of humor, habits, and opinions.3
* A person’s overall level of happiness and well-being seems to be largely genetically determined. Researchers found that they could predict a twin’s happiness better by looking at the other twin’s happiness than by looking at educational achievement, income, or status.4
* Genes seem to affect the tendency to start and to continue smoking.5
* Differences in how one specific gene gets copied seem to affect anxiety levels. One variation of that gene has been linked to self-confidence and cheerfulness; a different variation seems to promote chronic anxiety.6
* One switched letter on yet another gene seems to affect whether someone tends to be chronically depressed. That is even more remarkable when you consider that we have an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 genes, and roughly half of those are considered “junk DNA.”7
* In one study of men in New Zealand who were treated badly as children, the activity level of a specific gene seemed to affect whether the men later became criminals. Those in whom the gene was very active turned out okay; those with less activity were four times as likely to become criminals.8
* Scientists have been able to make mice more aggressive by knocking out entirely the functioning of one gene. Replacing it calms the mice down.9 (And before you say “I’m a human, not a mouse,” remember that we share roughly 98 percent of our genes with mice.)10
* One study of 700 teenagers and their parents found that genetics accounted for anywhere from 71 to 89 percent of a teen’s score on antisocial behavior, depression, school performance, and social responsibility. (Ironically, the study had intended to show the impact of friends and other influences, not genes, on teen behavior.)11
Some scientists are even beginning to go beyond saying that our personalities are influenced by our genes. They’ve started linking certain aspects of our personalities to specific genes. For example, a craving for novelty has been linked to the long version of the D4DR gene, although this finding has not yet been fully confirmed.
One recent study is particularly interesting. Comparing leadership behavior and personality characteristics in twins, researchers have found that genes account for roughly 30 percent of the differences between people in terms of having a track record of leadership. Almost all of the rest was accounted for by what’s called “non-shared environmental influences”—in other words, life lessons, events, and the impact of other people outside the family. In fact, family seemed to have very little statistical connection.12
My days in the lab are long behind me, so I’m not in a position to validate scientifically any individual research project. But they demonstrate that we have only begun to understand just how strong that influence is. Collectively they make a case for genetic influence on our personalities and behavior.
And they certainly support my own observations over the years that some people naturally have an innovative bent, work habits, risk-taking tolerance, and problem-solving talents that contribute to business success. These people may have learned skills that enhance those tendencies. They may also have had an environment that encouraged those tendencies through either positive or negative reinforcement. But like ivy climbing a wall, those learned skills and that environment also had something on which to build. Having that foundation doesn’t mean those lucky people are predestined to become successful. It simply means they probably started out with an extra helping of certain qualities that tend to promote success.
“My mom has told me, ‘The older you get, the more you’re like your dad,’” says Herman Cain, former chairman of Godfather’s Pizza. “Both my mom and dad were people persons. I inherited that orientation toward people. My dad was more of an extrovert than my mother; he was like a magnet. He would walk into a room and people would be attracted to him. Quite frankly, I inherited that.”
Richard Branson is known for outrageous behavior to promote the Virgin Group. As a young adult, Richard Branson’s mother demonstrated similar daring. She became a chorus girl—“My parents were shocked”—and persuaded a flight instructor to let her pilot a glider (“He said I could do it as long as I dressed like a man.”). To make money to help support her family, she made and sold objets d’art.13
“Arthur had that tenacity,” says Molly Blank, mother of Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank. So did she. After her husband died, she took over the pharmaceutical supply company he had started and ran it successfully before eventually selling it.14
“[Tom] was a catalyst; he was the ringleader,” says Jane Scott of her son Tom, co-founder of Nantucket Nectars.15
“It’s something genetic,” says Robert Crandall. The former chairman of American Airlines was referring to the indomitable spirit of a seventeen-year-old girl who was the subject of a story in the New York Times. The story depicted her struggle to keep up her good grades at school despite having been born into poverty. “Maybe she’s a descendant of Attila the Hun, who was a very determined person.”
Let me make clear that all of this has nothing to do with intelligence—at least not in my view. For one thing, intelligence is even more highly affected by learning and environmental influences than personality is. And intelligence isn’t the same thing as the “success genes.” Take it from me. I worked like a dog all through school, but if I had had to rely solely on grades for success—well, let’s just say I’m a lot happier tackling business problems instead of written exams. What I’m talking about here is the personality traits that give someone a leg up in achieving what they want to achieve.
Continue to Page 3 - WHAT’S YOUR STARTING POINT?
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Copyright © 2005 by Thomas L. Harrison