8 Fascinating Ways Genes Affect Our Careers

We like to think of ourselves as in charge of our own destinies.  The American Dream is all about being able to achieve what you are capable of — regardless of who your parents are or what they do for a living.

But a new book by Professor Scott Shane argues and establishes that our genes do indeed affect our work lives.  In Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders, he posits that genes have an impact on the occupations we choose, our success in those occupations, and whether we start a business.

The most obvious way genes affect us is our physical abilities.  Scott Shane starts the book off by noting that:

“At the most basic level, you probably believe that being tall is important to becoming a professional basketball player, and you might even blame your height for the fact that you don’t currently play for the New York Knicks.  …[Y]ou probably have a gut sense that your DNA is at least partially responsible for your failure to get drafted into the NBA.”

But what about the rest of us?  What if we never aspired to get drafted into the NBA?  Do genes still matter?

Research Links Genetics and Human Activity

It turns out there’s a huge body of research about genetics and human activity.  Study after study, conducted over a period of decades, suggest the effects of your DNA on how you act.  (The bibliography and footnotes alone take up 50 pages in this book.)

But as Scott points out, in the world of business, the effects of heredity are mostly ignored.

I suspect it’s because it seems at odds with the American Dream.  At first blush genetics seems to go against the romantic notion of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.  But it doesn’t really.

Take, for example, the issue of entrepreneurship.  As Scott points out, genes influence the odds that you will become an entrepreneur.  But there’s nothing  in your DNA that prevents becoming an entrepreneur.  Nor do your genes pre-ordain you will become an entrepreneur.   Genes may only make it more likely that you choose entrepreneurship, depending on other circumstances in your life.

Genes Are One Factor, Not the Only Factor

Thus, genes are just one factor — not the only factor — in our careers.  Our fate is not predetermined by our heredity.  It’s not as if we are destined from birth to be limited to one career over another, or to start a business or not. But we’re more likely to be successful in certain fields or certain roles than in others — due to our genes.  We’re more likely to feel comfortable in certain careers than others.  We’re more likely to choose certain career paths than others — due to our genes.

That’s partly due to our personality traits, physical attributes, intelligence levels, and outlook on life — some of which are inherited through our genes.

8 Fascinating Ways that Genes Impact our Careers

I’ve collected 8 ways that our genes affect us an entrepreneurs and in our careers, so you can get a flavor of what’s in this book:

  • Are you a “glass half full or half empty” person? Whether we have a positive or negative outlook is affected by our genes.  More positive people tend to have higher incomes.
  • Were you born to be rich? 45% of the variation between adults in their annual income is the result of genetics, in a variety of indirect ways.
  • Do you choose jobs with high status and prestige (doctor versus trash collector)? 60% of the difference between people in occupational status is genetic.
  • How much risk can you stomach? Genes account for 55% of the difference in willingness to take chances. Willingness to take chances increases the odds you will start a business (since startups are a risky business).
  • Are you sociable, talkative and outgoing?  Or are you introverted?  Entrepreneurs are more likely to be “extraverted”.
  • Are you persistent, thorough and dependable?  Entrepreneurs tend to rate higher on these factors (you need to be persistent, organized and deliberate to start a business).  Genetics may account for up to 61% of this personality trait.
  • Do you hate to sell?  Our penchant for liking sales is impacted 19% by genetics.
  • Do you like finance, investment and numbers? Genetics accounts for about 36% of the difference in whether we are attracted to finance.

As An Entrepreneur, Why Should I Care About Genes?

Now, if you’re like me, you want to know:  what does this mean for me as an entrepreneur, an aspiring entrepreneur or a small businessperson?

Here’s what is in this book for you.  Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders has fascinating tidbits of information throughout that will help you understand yourself, why you’ve chosen certain career roles, and why you’ve been successful in some but perhaps not as successful in others.  Don’t get me wrong.  The book is not presented as a self-assessment.  It’s actually a collection of points backed up by decades worth of established research.  In many cases you reach the conclusions indirectly, rather than directly.

As you are reading, you can’t help but draw on the tidbits of data and think about them in your own situation.  And they may just help you understand yourself better.  And help you make better decisions.

For those of us who are entrepreneurs, we want to know:  do we have what it takes to successfully start a business? Do our genes determine whether we will be  successful in our own business?  Should we buy an existing business or a franchise rather than starting our own, because we prefer to operate within existing structure rather than create our own from scratch?  Is it time to bring in a general manager or COO because we ourselves are not good with the day-to-day running of the business?  Should we drive our strategy in a different direction more conducive to our personalities and natural talents?

This book can help answer these and many other career questions.

Who Should Read This Book

This is a good book for academics and policy makers interested in entrepreneurship.  It’s also good for those companies that sell to startups and the small business market, as you will glean important insights into entrepreneurial behaviors and attitudes that you can translate into product development, product positioning, and marketing messages.

It’s also a fascinating read for entrepreneurs.  If you are unsure of whether you should take a leap into business ownership, or you are struggling to determine how to structure your own role and where to hire outside talent to fill in the gaps, this book can help you make those kinds of decisions.  Also, it may help you understand your employees and the differences between what drives them and what drives you.

Published by Oxford University Press, you can find Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders at fine booksellers or online at Amazon.com.  (One final note, Scott Shane has been a long-time writer here at Small Business Trends.)


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

15 Reactions
  1. Anita,

    I have to “chew” on this thesis for some time. I guess that this book will present some thought provoking ideas. I recall that I got several aha moments during the reading and reviewing of Scott Shane’s book, The Illusions of Entrepreneurship: The Costly Myths That Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Policy Makers Live By.

  2. Genes may help predispose you, but everyone still has the ability to choose their path and succeed. Don’t let your genes discourage you!

  3. Hi Martin,

    At first blush, it feels somehow “wrong” to think of genetics shaping our financial future. At least it does for me. As someone with a strong “free markets” approach and who values independence, I have always marched to a different drummer. I never did what others around me were doing — I always followed an inner voice. I can’t imagine feeling as if everything was already laid out in a nice neat path for me.

    But after you think about it, it becomes clear that genetics doesn’t force you into anything. You always have free will. You really can decide your destiny.


  4. Great article Anita, thanks for sharing!


  5. In the old days they may have segmented the entrepreneur as a “hunter” and the career person as a “gatherer” (farmer). And certainly that is an ancient distinction between human types.

    As a SCORE counselor, I give new clients a 10 question inventory so they can judge whether being in business is right for them. Many of the questions revolve around those 8 genetic traits. But all is not lost. Even if a person does not like to sell, or perform any of the other genetic entrepreneur behaviors,they can certainly overcome their weaknesses and succeed.

    BTW, this “hunter” just went back into business at the age of 62 (call myself a Boomeranger). We send people to Panama to save on expensive dental work (www.panamdentaltours.com). Guess I have most of those 8 genes, and one that likes to help others.

  6. Scottish Enterprise carried out a huge study to identify industry leaders and entrepreneurs early on. The only common factors they found was that they usually left school early and had a paper round. Not something they could shout about. What they did notice was that personality plays an important part in entrepreneurship. In fact the 8 bullet points listed are all personality issues, there is a free personality test on entrepreneurship over at careerpsychometrics.com which you may want to try. So genetics plays a part in forming our personality type but ultimately it is our personality type that will determine what kind of entrepreneur we will be.

  7. This is a fascinating book. It confirms what I have known for a long time and told many people – entrepreneurship is something you are either born with or not. Of course, some people succeed at being an entrepreneur even if the genes aren’t right. But for some of us, there is no other possible choice.

    I particularly love this comment: Are you a

  8. Hi Gina,

    Yes, it’s a fascinating book. As you read it, you begin to understand better what drives you and why you do certain things.

    As intelligent entrepreneurs, we SHOULD know our personalities and what we do well and don’t do so well, but often we don’t stop to reflect long enough to consciously think about those things. Reading a book like this forces you to stop and think about yourself — what you are good at and not — and how to best leverage your strengths and minimize the impact of your weaknesses.

    – Anita

  9. It’s been long accepted that individuals can be genetically predisposed to certain conditions which can then be triggered under the right environment circumstances. With that said I really agree with a lot of this book and in particular that there is a tendency for people to want to downplay the importance of genetics while overestimating environmental factors in areas such a career success and entrepreneurship. We love to hear about successful entrepreneurs that have seemingly succeeded from humble beginnings (the “American dream” as the book puts it), but we have to also accept that although our futures aren’t predetermined we don’t all start with a blank slate and genetics play an important factor. Definitely worth the read!!

  10. Ok OK OK – this article is full of fascinating insights as to aspects of personality which have a direct impact on areas of human performance including entrepreneurship (The French dont have a word for that you know!) There is a huge range of once recognising these personal traits that we then label and confine people to these personal preferences for life.

    The more we learn about ourselves the more choice we have over our personal preferences. Once we realise for example that we have a towards motivation – glass half full for example we then have choice and greater personal insight and thorough this freedom. Genetics or Choice – you decide!

  11. Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

Win $100 for Vendor Selection Insights

Tell us!
No, Thank You