“Give me the boy until the age of seven, and I will give you the man,” the Jesuits say. The biographies of America’s business heroes inevitably yield up examples of how their drive and acumen revealed itself in early life: Bill Gates scheduling classes for his whole prep school on its newfangled computer, Warren Buffett claiming his first tax deduction at 13 (for his bicycle). A recent study suggests, however, that parents looking for signs of incipient entrepreneurialism don’t have to wait for their kid to open a lemonade stand or design their first hit app. They simply need to see how much trouble the kid gets in. Today’s juvenile delinquents, a team of psychologists argues, are tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.
The study, in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, isn’t the first to find a link between adolescent rule-breaking and entrepreneurial spirit. Long before psychologists were studying this sort of thing, Mark Twain created, in Tom Sawyer, an embodiment of just this combination of traits. But the new study is bigger and more reliable than past ones. Rather than relying on retrospective self-reporting—adults telling researchers what they were like as kids—it draws its data from a Swedish research program that followed 1,000 schoolchildren from the age of 10 into adulthood. The Swedish researchers tracked, among many other things, how often the kids in the study were arrested, got traffic tickets, cheated at school, skipped school, smoked hash, stayed out late in defiance of their parents, got drunk, and shoplifted.
The authors of the recent entrepreneurship study plotted those activities against the likelihood that the kids would, as adults, start their own businesses. The result: More than factors like intelligence, creativity, and the parents’ socio-economic status, delinquent behavior predicted adult entrepreneurship. The authors argue that the findings support something called the “unruliness hypothesis,” the idea that the same restlessness, impatience, and allergy to authority that leads a kid to cut school and get high also leads him to start a photo-sharing network.
The effect showed up only for men, not women. The study’s authors were careful to consider “rule-breaking behavior” and “teenage crime” as separate factors—the former was based on what kids reported doing, whether it was cutting school or stealing, and the latter came from police records. Only one of the two proved statistically significant: Breaking rules correlated with entrepreneurship while having a criminal record (as an adolescent or as an adult) did not. The key, the authors wrote, may be “modest misconduct,” not full-blown criminal tendencies. Or it could be that part of entrepreneurship is knowing what you can get away with, both as a young troublemaker and a startup founder.
How successful were all these grown-up Tom Sawyers at their businesses? That’s beyond the scope of the study.