The other day, I met someone who asked me, as expected, “What do you do?” Sometimes, I get hung up on this question, because I do so many things, but on this day, I confidently stated, “I’m an entrepreneur.” From the nodding head and look on his face, I knew he couldn’t really envision what this meant. “I’m a plumber” conjures up a vision of something concrete as do many other professions including programmer, teacher, salesperson (different than “I’m in sales”, however) and even, CEO. What people envision for any job may not truly represent what the person does, but I suspect most people don’t really know what to think when encountering “an entrepreneur”.

This is part of the entrepreneur’s dilemma. There are many dilemmas for an entrepreneur, but who we are, what we do and where our expertise lies is misunderstood by the general public and even by others within the entrepreneurial community. Why do other entrepreneurs misunderstand their fellow entrepreneurs? Because entrepreneurs don’t have just 1 job. We have many jobs, roles and modes of operation. Although we have similar attributes, we are all doing things differently. Most of us are:

  • action-oriented
  • self-confident
  • experimenters
  • thinkers
  • nonconformists
  • hands-on self-learners and DIYers
  • collaborative and generally open-minded
  • focused and yet easily distracted by wanting the big picture
  • adaptable

But we all apply these traits differently, depending on our role at the time (and these roles can change frequently).

My cousin came to town with his family a week ago, and he introduced me as “an inventor” to his wife. I thought that sounded pretty cool, but I had never thought of myself as an inventor. I don’t have any patents, and I don’t have a lab where I try to create things like the stereotypical inventor. I smiled and shook her hand while mumbling something about being an entrepreneur, actually. My mind drifted into thoughts about what I had done, and my cousin’s wife drifted on to talk to someone more responsive. In fact, I realized, perhaps I was an inventor. I had come up with new ideas and either created them or led teams to create them. At the same time, I was often part of the team that did not come up with the idea but just made it happen, and this is part of the dilemma.

Entrepreneurs are not all idea generators or inventors. Some of us are inventors some of the time, and some of us are never inventors, but I’m pretty sure most of us are not inventors all of the time.

Why is this a dilemma? Because those who invest in and support entrepreneurs are looking to us to create the next great thing. Hackathons, challenges and contests reward those with a new idea more than those who will take an old idea and apply it somewhere else, or grow it, or extend it. We might be the one to take a great existing idea and make it be more successful, rather than invent the idea. Growth hacking is part of our skillset. This is what we do: experiment and explore, then iterate on an idea and take it somewhere, sometimes to great heights, sometimes to the precipice and sometimes just on a slow and steady journey. Those navigation skills should be rewarded; the shiny new idea thing is not the only object of value and greatness.

The ability to take an idea on a journey somewhere using all the skills we currently have and all the skills we need to learn to make the journey happen is the primary skill of being an entrepreneur. The idea may be our own idea or someone else’s. It’s not about the idea but about the journey. Entrepreneurs are great drivers and navigators. We don’t keep the ship maintained in the harbor, because we cannot bear to see a ship that is not in motion.

So the next time someone tells you he or she is an entrepreneur, think of a ship’s captain, navigator or crew member. We play all these roles all the time. Sometimes, we generate an idea, but we are seldom the harbormaster.

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