In Spanish, we use the phrase “sentido de la orientación” all the time. In English, you can speak about a sense of direction or my preferred, though rarely used term, “sense of orientation.” Being an entrepreneur, I think that what is most needed, is a sense of orientation…in business. It is interesting that now researchers are finding out how the sense of orientation works.

Here´s a summary:

To orient ourselves, we mainly need two pieces of information: where am I and in which direction am I heading? Experiments in the rat have shown that these types of information are directly accessible and independently coded in the brain. When the rat explores a new territory, so-called place cells and head direction cells form within only a few minutes. Place cells are active when the rat visits a particular area, no matter which direction it is facing. In contrast, head direction cells code the direction the rat is heading, independent of where it is. Also humans presumably have these and other types of cells which specifically instruct its sense of orientation. Scientists around Mathias Franzius and Laurenz Wiskott from the Humboldt-University and Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin (Germany) have now developed a theoretical model that can explain the emergence of all orientation-specific cells that are known in rats and primates to date.

Now my personal experience is that most successful entrepreneurs I know have a very good sense of orientation. Many are pilots, skippers, mountain bikers. When I have gone cycling in the mountains with top entrepreneurs like Sergey Brin, Niklas Zennstrom, Michael Dell and others, I have found that they are all very aware of the two key variables that manage orientation: knowing where you are and knowing where you are headed. Loic LeMeur, founder of Seesmic, is an amazing pilot. Needless to say that, in business, knowing where you are and knowing were you are headed is essential.

Moreover, I am convinced that the sense of orientation is not equally divided among men and women and, since I don´t run Harvard University, I can say so. The women entrepreneurs that I know, though, do seem to have a great sense of orientation. I know that there´s nothing scientific about commenting on my life experience and coming to conclusions but for whatever is worth it is what I observe. Emily Cinader, founder of J Crew for example, who was my girlfriend in the 80s when I was at Columbia University, is not only an outstanding entrepreneur, but she definitely knows her way around.

At the same time, there seems to be a genetic component to the sense of orientation. I have a good sense of orientation and so do my four children. The two boys and the two girls. Recently I have been observing the sense of orientation of Leo, my two year old son and it is uncanny. Leo can barely talk, but he can walk, find a water fountain that he saw in a park the previous week, which is out of sight and 200 meters away from him. He just says agua and goes for it. I follow.

I hope one day we understand much more about how we orient ourselves.

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