What you know about high sensation seeking highly sensitive people is probably wrong. Have you read that highly sensitive people are crybabies? That we are closet introverts preferring to spend our time hidden away? Do you think highly sensitive people are weak, fragile, or unpredictably emotional? Moreover, do you think that high sensation seeking highly sensitive people are just about skydiving, bungee-jumping, and insane, extreme thrills? Boy, do you have it wrong!
There may be a germ of truth in all of the above statements but there is much more to the traits known as Sensation Seeking and Sensory Processing Sensitivity. There seems to be a very conscious effort on the part of many people to narrow our ability to branch out and challenge ourselves in the workplace. How do they do this? By misunderstanding (or not understanding as the case may be) the well-researched, peer-reviewed scientific information, well-researched books, and other materials that may inhabit the market at any given time. Worse, some people then choose to pick a kernel of truth and latch onto it while extending it to incredible levels in their search for an identity that makes them feel special or unique. It’s not enough to embody a marginally rare personality trait that is quite beautiful in its own way (Sensory Processing Sensitivity) we instead feel the need to tack on half a dozen other pseudo-traits or blow them out of proportion often moving beyond the realm of scientific knowledge into New Age platitudes (empaths, Indigo children, etc).
What does it matter that we stick to scientific accuracy regarding personality traits? Because the really good information has been well-researched utilizing strict protocols where data are collected, analyzed, and interpreted according to a systematic method minimizing personal bias. This method is further enhanced by the peer-review process which serves to weed out inaccurate information and ensure the work meets rigorous standards for accuracy and completeness. When we stick to the actual constructs of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Sensation Seeking we see that these individuals may possess an extraordinary propensity for one of the most empowering endeavors available to us in the modern age: entrepreneurship.
It has been suggested many times that working for ourselves may be the best compromise that allows us to create our own working conditions, choose who we deal with (customers or clients), and self-create the types of meaningful lives we seem to require. In my book, Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career I covered a broad range of possible vocations and careers, even covering what is now becoming a hot topic: the trades. I minimized any emphasis on entrepreneurship for a very specific reason: I did not want to make working for ourselves a panacea to our workplace woes that may entail more risk and anxiety than many people are prepared to face or endure. There is no doubt, entrepreneurship is hard! Don’t like having too much to do at work? Try entrepreneurship where everything is your responsibility, where failure will be all on you to interpret, and where uncertainty is a fact of life. That being said, entrepreneurship may be one of the most interesting, most meaningful tracks a high sensation seeking highly sensitive person may hop on to. Why is this so? Because entrepreneurship offers us the opportunity to engage three main capacities: creativity, personal control, and resilience.
Creativity has been done to death! There are scores of articles, books, and websites purporting to teach us to how to become more creative, unleash our creativity, or otherwise unlock a “secret” capacity all humans innately possess. Creativity is nothing more than looking at a problem in a new way and findings ways to solve that problem. You are as creative as the next person; you just don’t know it or have had it squashed by your culture so you don’t think you are creative. In a former life as a fine artist, I used to hear non-art people say quite often, “I can’t even draw a stick figure!” I always replied, “Well, how could you be expected to draw anything if you have not practiced?” Drawing, painting, wheel-throwing pots on a wheel are all skills that can be learned through instruction and plenty of practice. Once you understand this, creativity becomes an open resource you can cultivate within yourself in service to your needs at any given time.
Creativity is also much more than the fine or performing arts. Creativity is a way of being that is exemplified by an openness of mind, a sense of curiosity (what if I did this?), and a willingness to enter the ambiguity of seriously addressing a problem. All humans are creative but many are not able or willing to be open-minded, are far too busy (or tired) to be curious, and hate ambiguity (uncertainty of outcomes). This leaves those people who are able to cultivate a rich, inner life where openness, curiosity, and ambiguity may find a working space (our inner studios). Who are these people and how does this apply to entrepreneurship? As I stated, all humans are creative (capable of looking at and solving problems in new ways, in fact, we are very good at that as a species) but many have been conditioned to not be creative in service to efficiency, productivity, and the profit motive. Those three items may be fine in and of themselves but too much focus on them and we get narrow-mindedness, tunnel vision, and groupthink where nothing that is original or interesting can happen. I argue that many highly sensitive people and high sensation seeking highly sensitive people are innately creative to a degree those without the traits are not. I say this not to be elitist but to emphasize the potential gifts we may offer to ourselves and to the world. High sensation seeking highly sensitive people are unique individuals in that we must stay ahead of boredom, have a deep need for the new and novel experience, may be more willing to throw caution to the wind and do something outside the norm, and, yet, are served by the pause to think instinct that so exemplifies Sensory Processing Sensitivity, have rich, deep, inner lives, may be deeply empathic, and may be more comfortable working on our own stuff, our way.
Highly sensitive people, by contrast, may be somewhat less interested in throwing caution to the wind. They may be as excited by the new and novel and may feel a need to keep ahead of boredom but may prefer an environment that exactly meets their needs for stimulation (which can vary a great deal at any given time from person to person). These descriptions being rooted in the research literature there is also an underlying need inherent within these two traits: a need for personal control over our environments (interpersonal and physical).
There are some situations that are hard to bear for creative people; the worst being a repetitive, mundane environment that lacks adequate stimulation to engage our often significant capacities to create and develop. As much as creativity is directed at the external world of things it is also an internal world that may be best managed when we are able to exercise a good degree of personal autonomy. By autonomy I mean self-choice of activities we engage in. For the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person having a sense of personal control over one’s life (or autonomy) may be key to well-functioning. Entrepreneurship may allow us to exercise the level of autonomy we may need in our lives to manage our sensitivities while simultaneously allowing us to ensure we receive the level of stimulation that is most appropriate for us. Cultivating a sense of personal control may be quite essential for many of us who have tried to fit ourselves into the working world and found it lacking on many levels. Dissonance may lead us to consider self-employment, especially considering that we may gain the ultimate sense of personal control over our lives we wish we had (and that may be an absolute requirement for highly sensitive people and high sensation seeking highly sensitive people).
As with any new endeavor we must be ready for failure and the many personal slings and arrows we will inevitably torture ourselves with. Beating ourselves up over a business failure may be all too tempting as we replay what we should have done in our minds but the opportunity that lies in defeat is to learn from it how to create and run our next business. That’s right, you will probably not do so well at your first business: be prepared for it, do your best to make it work, and, most of all, do not put all of your eggs in one basket. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur you will face failure, you will face negative results, and you will endure the marathon that is running a small business. The upside is you will have ultimate personal control over every business decision you need to make and you will be able to build a business that has meaning to you. To prepare for this, we need to discuss resilience.
You may think of resilience as that old notion of “bouncing back” from adversity. Kind of like a rubber band hurling you at a wall again and again but the real benefit of resilience is our ability to grow and learn from the experience. After all, we do not wish to repeat a painful experience. Resilience, then in the context of starting and operating a business means we have to be prepared for the “hell or high waters” that may come our way and, rest assured, running a business will, at some point, entail both scenarios. Being resilient means we learn from difficult experiences, adapt our methods, and grow as a result. Resilience for the entrepreneur is essential and cultivating resilience means we must be willing to ‘hit the wall” more than once. Luckily, and the reason I am now stating boldly that high sensation seeking highly sensitive people may do very well as entrepreneurs, is we have the unique combination of daring-do combined with reflective thought that allows us to effectively learn from mistakes, grow from the experience, and become resilient in our small businesses. How so you might ask? Won’t the sensitive side of us crumble to pieces at the first whiff of failure? Aren’t we too fragile to take a risk? Again, many people have it mostly wrong! Here’s why: high sensation seeking highly sensitive people spend their lives bouncing back from adversity and learning from experience as a matter of being alive! We may be some of the most resilient people alive. Certainly, a business failure or challenge may frustrate us but we’ve seen it all before and probably far worse at the broad range of employers we’ve worked for.
Resilience for many of us who are high sensation seeking highly sensitive people is built into us, it’s a capability we have cultivated and, many times, perfected long ago as we weathered the storms of personal doubt, career difficulties, and the sideways looks from those who are unable to see the world and its many possibilities through other than a societal lens. It is probably not a stretch, given the data I have gathered through the past few years of interactions with high sensation seeking highly sensitive people, to say that many of us never fit the box that culture had prepared for us. We never were interested in their game but may have felt compelled to play it out of duty, responsibility, or simply not being ready to jump out on our own. Now, as entrepreneurs, we have a unique opportunity that many of us should take a serious look at because it offers us the chance to live the kind of lives we know will work for us. We may have done quite well in the workplace even but ultimately felt a deep, soul-based need to move beyond a predictable path to something auto-poetic and meaningful.
We’ve been quite broad to this point with painting a wide swath of territory from establishing how high sensation seeking highly sensitive people may be well-suited to entrepreneurship; how creativity may be reVisioned to become something we may all develop within ourselves; how working for ourselves may finally give us the autonomy we so desire to finally discussing the tough, gritty reality of failure and the absolute need for resilience in the face of the many challenges that will undoubtedly come our way as people striking out on our own into often unknown and unpredictable waters. Now, let’s be more specific:
- Do your research for any new business idea. This means you will probably not jump right into something immediately. Rather, you will engage your ample capacities to learn everything there is to know about your proposed business field, especially noting where the gaps exist (these become your opportunities to provide a new service or product).
- Trust your intuition but not too much. Gut instincts may tell you something seems like a good idea but bear in mind if the facts don’t support it you are ignoring reality. Intuition may be especially strong in those with Sensory Processing Sensitivity. Thus, understanding and being aware that we are given to leaping over everything between A-Z (the starting and ending points we intuitively feel) may help ground us in the necessary details (curse those details!).
- Talk to other people about your proposed idea and be willing to hear a hard truth. Your friend who is very knowledgeable may be saving you from a business failure and potentially years of hard work. In these instances, put your ego aside and go back to step one with researching your idea. Adapt, modify, and change as needed: repeat. This is where creativity comes in as you engage that capacity!
- Form an advisory committee of trusted people who are knowledgeable, trustworthy (in a personal sense to supply you unbiased opinions), and who are interested in actually helping you. Avoid yes-men/women. Aim for three advisory members, no more than four. Select members based on complementary expertise.
- Don’t rush into it! Minimize your risks, know what you don’t know, and be prepared for the long haul. Remember resilience? It’s not for the faint of heart. Build your core business before you do anything else. Without that core stream of income there is no expansion or growth. That being said, be open to the clues that come your way regarding new opportunities and let those simmer on a side burner. They will likely come in handy at the right time.
- Don’t put all of your eggs in to one basket! If possible, build the business on the side and retain your job until your business is viable. If you are producing or selling a product this is especially true. A service business will require much less of you in terms of overhead (use a home office).
- Don’t suffer alone. Talk to other business people. Join the local chamber of commerce or other business organizations to build out your network and enjoy social support. Your just highly sensitive, not a hermit. You’re also likely a very good performer when you need to be, so do it! In time, you will become more at ease in your social interactions in this new capacity as a business owner. Networking will be a continual effort.
- Don’t let fear paralyze you. Anxiety is a natural state designed to alert us to the need to reconsider but when uncontrolled represents a limiting force. Be willing to break through your own walls of fear.
- Similarly, don’t let analysis paralysis stymy your new business idea. Yes, you have a deep, reflective capacity but know when to make a choice and swallow that fear. Entrepreneurship is definitely challenging but also rewarding in ways traditional employment can never be. Minimize your risks but do take them. No one gets out of life alive; all we have to lose is a bit of time attempting to do something we may be incredibly happy doing. Is that worth the risk?
On a personal level starting a business can be hard on a family as structured routines may be interrupted and incomes less stable (at least for a while). Similarly, your social life may take a beating as you devote yourself to building your business. All that will subside in time and you will likely either find more time or adjust to a new reality.
Is there one type of business that high sensation seeking highly sensitive people would be best suited to? No, that would be as endlessly variable as grains of sand because people differ so much in their interests and inclinations not to mention geographic area which may determine how viable a business idea is. As mentioned at the beginning of this post we should refrain from pigeon-holing HSPs and HSS/HSPs as “most suited” to one career or another. We are in all careers including self-employment but seem to statistically favor the helping professions. The helping professions is quite a broad category including healthcare, education, and advising fields but creative and high-tech fields are high on the list as well. Rather than attempting to fit yourself to what you think might be best for an HSP focus on crafting something that is workable for YOU! Your business does not have to be the most meaningful activity in your life but it does need to be profitable, viable, and sustainable.
Some very good businesses can be created doing very simple things. Today, I just observed an Amish man walking around our neighborhood offering his services to clean mildew and mold off of siding on houses. I said right then, “Now there is an entrepreneur!” That man has found a need (many houses with an obvious mildew issue) and had endeavored to fill the need. Plus, he is willing to do the work necessary to make it a viable business. You could very simply look at needs in your community and find a way to fill them. Your business may not be glamorous but it may be profitable and free you from the sort of soul-sucking wage slavery and predatory corporate culture too common today.
As a high sensation seeking highly sensitive person, I know you. You get bored easily and need to keep moving. You are creative and like to think about things very deeply. You are an odd mix of wanting to push forward with a “great” idea but simultaneously holding back to think it over. You have a dash of devil-may-care about you and will do something out of character at times, just for the sake of doing it. You are also an odd duck who needs to do things your own way in your own time, yet you may thrive on having a deadline or structure to force you to focus. You have a tremendous ability to study “fascinations” until you are a virtual expert, then you move on to the next thing. Your base of knowledge is deep and broad and it is likely you would make a great conversation partner if only people weren’t so irritating. You LOVE the idea of having your own business, making your own choices, and taking calculated risks (you get a little tingle with some risk). You also are excited by new situations and new people, yet you are drained energetically after a while and need to regroup in quiet. You would make a fantastic creative partner in a business, yet you are quirky and possibly eccentric. Working with you is to never quite know which person we are going to encounter: the quiet, studious hard worker or the impetuous one who wants to do something new and interesting like invent a new business model or toy with new ideas as if they were big puzzle pieces to be moved around and considered at length.
You, my friend, are a creator and you should be creating and thinking and pushing yourself to do and become more. You will never be happy with 9-5 but you will with 11-2, 6-10, and 12-3 as you stay up at those late hours unable to sleep because you are a night owl. You, fellow high sensation seeking highly sensitive person, are an interesting and unique individual and this world needs people like you to build the businesses of today and tomorrow, to bring new and innovative concepts to market, and chart the way forward for a humanity that lacks your vision and compassion. Let’s get to it…
Over the next few weeks, I will be guiding you through some of the pitfalls of entrepreneurship always brutally honest because I want you to succeed.
Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person. Dr. Cooper provides consulting services to high sensation seeking highly sensitive people at his website drtracycooper.com. Additionally, he appeared in the documentary movie Sensitive-The Untold Journey.