Positive feelings improve entrepreneurs

July 4, 2010 

Hoyle Koontz is having a blast. As the co-founder of Frogman Interactive, the Winston-Salem entrepreneur helps clients tell their stories through sophisticated websites heavy on videos, images and graphic design. His company is building a recruiting site for Appalachian State University's football team, developing an online tour of Brenner Children's Hospital in Winston-Salem and using video testimonials to immerse viewers in the benefits of retirement communities across the state.

"If you pursue what you really love doing, you're going to be successful," said Koontz, 36, a former photojournalist and photography director who started Frogman two years ago. "We love what we do and believe we can make a difference for our clients."

His positive nature likely fuels his entrepreneurial success, according to the pioneering work of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Fredrickson's book "Positivity," released last year by Crown, highlights 20 years of her research on positive emotions. The bottom line, according to her: People who think positively are more self-aware, innovative and strategic.

Her work has important implications for entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers everywhere. In fact, Fredrickson co-authored an article for the Journal of Business Venturing that explored the connections between positivity and entrepreneurship. She found that positive emotions build three crucial resources for entrepreneurs: social capital, resilience and big-picture thinking.

"It's not just one of those things that's going to matter more than the others," Fredrickson says. "All three are part of a larger web that creates an upward spiral."

It's hard for anyone to succeed without positive thinking. But it's especially vital for entrepreneurs, who often take more risks, face more setbacks and work longer hours than many of their salaried counterparts. And therein lies a problem, Fredrickson says. Negative emotions, like anger and worry, grab our attention easily. Just by the nature of their wiring, our brains are "like flypaper for negative thoughts." Positive emotions, though more plentiful in many cases, tend to be subtler and easier to overlook.

Based on her research, Frederickson recommends trying to experience positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones. That's the tipping point at which our overall ability to see new possibilities and overcome challenges starts to grow exponentially. But only about 20 percent of people actually achieve that ratio. (You can test your own ratio at

Getting there, Fredrickson says, shouldn't be that complicated. Rather than abstractly trying to "be positive," which she calls a recipe for "toxic insincerity," we should instead strive to "be open." That means recognizing the good things in our lives and spending more time doing the things we really like, whether it's painting, cooking or going for a run. "Most of us know our passions and hobbies, but we let them languish," she said. In a world of deadlines and distractions, these interests seem trivial and expendable. We sacrifice them at considerable cost to ourselves.

Wearing many hats

Entrepreneurs, in particular, benefit from the vision and creativity that positive thinking can provide. But, as Koontz of Frogman acknowledges, it can be a challenge to find the time for hobbies that feed positive thoughts. Making sales calls, handling personnel matters and keeping score of finances, not to mention actually doing the work, chews up gobs of time. "As an entrepreneur, you're going to put in more than just 9 to 5," he said. "You've got to wear a lot of hats. You have to be very focused."

In some cases, that intense focus can lead to exhaustion - and set in motion a cycle of negativity that drags entrepreneurs down into failure. Koontz guards against those dangers by taking time for his personal interests. He likes yard work and gardening and enjoys unwinding with his wife and two young children. He and his colleagues make a point of getting their families together socially outside the office. Remembering that they are growing their business for the benefit of their families, he said, "helps us from getting burned out."

Fredrickson's research suggests Koontz and entrepreneurs like him are on the right track. Many creative breakthroughs, she said, happen when people are relaxing in the shower or taking a walk. Business success absolutely calls for discipline and dedication. "But we need down times without that rigid focus on a problem." A broader, sharper outlook, she says, is often just the first of many dividends we receive in return.

Christopher Gergen is on the founding team of Bull City Forward and director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Initiative at Duke University. Stephen Martin, a former business and education journalist, is a speechwriter at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at

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