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Career Success
JAN 9, 2014

Does Family Background Determine Our Career Choices?

By Yoshito Hori
Shutterstock/marekuliasz

“What really motivates you?” one of my MBA students asked me recently. “Are there any issues in your background that drive you?”

The question made me think of Brad Stone’s recent book about Amazon, The Everything Store. In it, Stone points out that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was adopted—as were Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Apple’s Steve Jobs. Stone speculates that being adopted may have been a factor in motivating the three men to set up their businesses.

Closer to home, Japanese telecom giant Softbank recently became one of just six Asian companies with a market cap exceeding $100 billion. Masayoshi Son, the Softbank CEO, grew up in Japan in an “impoverished, ethnically Korean family,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Did belonging to this minority group also spur him on to success?

In my case, family-based psychological factors certainly play a part. I can trace my entrepreneurial motivations directly back to my two grandfathers. One was a politician, and the other was an engineering professor who also played a leading role in drafting Japan’s industrial and energy policies. The latter died in a plane crash when I was nine. After he died, his friends got together to create a memorial book in his honor. The book revealed that my grandfather, who was in his seventies at the time of his death, had lived his whole life in line with a personal mission statement he wrote at the age of twenty-seven.

This memorial book, entitled My Mission, set me wondering, what is my mission in life?

After flirting with the idea of becoming a politician, I chose to follow in my other grandfather’s footsteps and studied engineering at Kyoto University.

And I hated it!

I decided to go into business instead. My first job was at Sumitomo Corporation, one of Japan’s big trading houses. It was a great place to get a sense of what’s going in the world and how business works. I loved the job…but something was still missing.

After a few years, the company sponsored me to go to Harvard for an MBA. This was when I started to get a handle on what my own career should be.

Inspired by speeches I heard at the entrepreneurs’ club and encouraged by supportive classmates, I finally discovered my mission to become an entrepreneur. I was fascinated by the idea of building something from scratch. I suddenly started to believe in my own possibilities. Finding your personal mission unleashes tremendous resources of energy, and I began to feel I could achieve anything.

(As an aside, one trait successful entrepreneurs share is a wholehearted confidence in their own ideas over other people’s opinions. Remember, for example, Steve Jobs refusing to do market research because “consumers don’t know what they want.”)

I decided that my mission was to build an interlinked ecosystem of creation and innovation based on combining the three elements of people, capital, and knowledge. And I’ve been lucky enough to succeed. Now, I have a “people” business—Japan’s No. 1 business school; a “capital” business—a VC company; and a “knowledge” business—publishing, conference organizing, and so forth.

Looking back, I can see that I ended up taking the same mission-based approach to life as one of my grandparents, applied to a different field.

I found my personal mission through a process of trial and error, and it was seldom an easy process. Now, when people ask me how to find their own personal mission, I encourage them to look for something that meets the following 3 criteria:

1. Something you can do better than other people.
2. Something excites you.
3. Something that you feel helps make the world a better place.

Analyze what really motivates you. It may be something deep in your psychology, or based on a family member you look up to. You can find your personal mission at any age, so if you haven’t found it yet, keep looking!