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More Thoughts on Educating Yourself in Business

June 2, 2011


Back in March I wrote a post entitled Entrepreneurism and Self-Education. In that article, I discussed ways that entrepreneurs (or anyone for that matter) can take advantage of online resources and available books to get smarter about doing business. Fellow blogger Jill Tidholm recently directed me to one of her posts that adds to the list of resources you can use to get smarter about running your business. Her post, entitled Top 50 Management Gurus Worth Following on Twitter [Dr. Management, PhD, 18 May 2011], provides a list of individual gurus, organizations, institutions, tools, and publications that you can use to keep up with the latest management techniques or get smarter about running your business. The list is comprehensive and worth checking out.


Some entrepreneurs consider the fact that they don’t have an MBA a badge of honor. They take pride in their native intelligence and good sense. Unfortunately, they could be basking in a false light. It was probably a self-made entrepreneur who came up with the adage “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.” The fact of the matter is that all of us can learn something from listening to other smart people — whether they are teachers or not. On Tidholm’s list of gurus are well-known professors like Michael Porter, the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School and director, Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, and Daniel Ariely, a psychology professor who focuses on behavioral economics at Duke University and a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight (MIT). Most of the names on the list, however, are not professors. If you want to take pride in something, take pride in the fact that you are smart enough to listen to other smart people.


The best academics readily admit that they draw on the ideas of others to help them focus their thinking and advance their concepts. It was Sir Isaac Newton who wrote, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” More and more often we see professors and graduate students sticking their toes into the business world — testing the water to see if their ideas have merit. Some of those academics are learning from the “doers.” [“Academics given lessons on getting into a business mind,” by Jonathan Moules, Financial Times, 17 January 2011] Moules reports:

“A former panellist on television’s Dragons’ Den is to re-educate academics to think more commercially, in the latest government-backed attempt to make UK universities more entrepreneurial. Doug Richard, a serial entrepreneur, is running a series of one-day workshops to challenge professors and researchers to open their minds to the ways of making money from their ideas. The idea is not just to push university spin-outs but to open academics to the possibilities of licensing their discoveries to large companies, collaborating with the business community, or framing research so that it has a practical use. ‘What I’d like to see is a substantial change in these academics’ behaviour,’ he said. ‘In the long term, I hope it would produce an uptick in start-ups but also increase the amount of funding to universities from new sources.'”

Not everyone has an academic mind. By that I mean that not everyone has a hunger for all kinds of knowledge. Some people are more focused in their educational pursuits. They want specific information that can help them meet a specific challenge. Scott Adams, developer of the popular business cartoon Dilbert, writes, “I understand why the top students in America study physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature. The kids in this brainy group are the future professors, scientists, thinkers and engineers who will propel civilization forward. But why do we make B students sit through these same classes? That’s like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money. Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach B students something useful, like entrepreneurship?” [“How to Get a Real Education,” The Wall Street Journal, 9 April 2011]. In his typically irreverent manner, Adams explains how he obtained his “real education” serving beer and snacks at The Coffee House on the campus of Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY. Despite the wonderful lessons he learned serving drinks to inebriated college students, Adams did go on to earn an MBA at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. The principal focus of Adams’ op-ed piece is helping aspiring entrepreneurs imagine “what an education in entrepreneurship should include.” To do that, he offers seven lessons he has “learned along the way.” He begins:

Combine Skills. The first thing you should learn in a course on entrepreneurship is how to make yourself valuable. It’s unlikely that any average student can develop a world-class skill in one particular area. But it’s easy to learn how to do several different things fairly well. I succeeded as a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world. The ‘Dilbert’ comic is a combination of all four skills. The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person. That’s how value is created.”

Adams’ point is right on target. In past posts about innovation, I have noted that the most important innovations often synergistically combine existing ideas. Adams is simply saying that you can innovate yourself into something greater than the sum of your parts. Since all innovators inevitably face failure, Adams’ next lesson is about failing the right way. He writes:

Fail Forward. If you’re taking risks, and you probably should, you can find yourself failing 90% of the time. The trick is to get paid while you’re doing the failing and to use the experience to gain skills that will be useful later. I failed at my first career in banking. I failed at my second career with the phone company. But you’d be surprised at how many of the skills I learned in those careers can be applied to almost any field, including cartooning. Students should be taught that failure is a process, not an obstacle.”

A 90% failure rate may be a bit high if you want to remain sane; but, Adams’ point is nevertheless well made. To read more on this topic, see my posts entitled Dealing with Failure often Precedes Achieving Success and Learning from Failure. Adams continues:

Find the Action. In my senior year of college I asked my adviser how I should pursue my goal of being a banker. He told me to figure out where the most innovation in banking was happening and to move there. And so I did. Banking didn’t work out for me, but the advice still holds: Move to where the action is. Distance is your enemy.”

Even in the information age, being there makes a difference. As I’ve pointed out before, industry “clusters” develop for a reason. The clusters are where the action is. If you’re a really good entrepreneur, you can start your own cluster. Drive through Bentonville, AR, and look at all the big companies that have offices there. Why? They are there because Sam Walton was a really good entrepreneur. He created the action that those companies wanted to be a part of. You might say that Walton created his own luck — which is the next topic on Adams’ list.

Attract Luck. You can’t manage luck directly, but you can manage your career in a way that makes it easier for luck to find you. To succeed, first you must do something. And if that doesn’t work, which can be 90% of the time, do something else. Luck finds the doers. Readers of the Journal will find this point obvious. It’s not obvious to a teenager.”

Adams underscores the point I made about Sam Walton. Luck finds the doers and Walton was a doer. He was also a risk taker. Having a high tolerance for risk is a good thing for an entrepreneur. So is the ability to hold fear in check. Many would-be entrepreneurs fail to act because they fear failure. Adams says you must conquer that fear. He writes:

Conquer Fear. I took classes in public speaking in college and a few more during my corporate days. That training was marginally useful for learning how to mask nervousness in public. Then I took the Dale Carnegie course. It was life-changing. The Dale Carnegie method ignores speaking technique entirely and trains you instead to enjoy the experience of speaking to a crowd. Once you become relaxed in front of people, technique comes automatically. Over the years, I’ve given speeches to hundreds of audiences and enjoyed every minute on stage. But this isn’t a plug for Dale Carnegie. The point is that people can be trained to replace fear and shyness with enthusiasm. Every entrepreneur can use that skill.”

Along those same lines, Philip Delves Broughton insists that “one of the paradoxes of leadership is that the people who most want to lead are often the last people we would want given the responsibility.” [“Leadership is not just for the extroverts,” Financial Times, 29 November 2010] He explains:

“The pushy hack, the selfish careerist and the ruthless opportunist are just some of the unpleasant types who tend to force their way to the top. They thrive in hyper-competitive environments. Decent people, who might actually make better leaders, seem to have a harder time scrambling upwards. They may have exactly what it takes to lead, but lack what it takes to get the chance. … To get to be leaders, introverts must still prove themselves terrific individual contributors. Without the noise and flash of the extrovert, they will have to find subtler ways to show they can lead. But once in a leadership or managerial position, they no longer need to worry about loosening up at parties and becoming more extroverted. Instead, they can succeed by surrounding themselves with proactive employees, and giving them the autonomy and responsibility they require to perform at their best. They can focus on encouraging behavior that complements their existing style rather than trying to acquire an awkward new one.”

Adams continues:

Write Simply. I took a two-day class in business writing that taught me how to write direct sentences and to avoid extra words. Simplicity makes ideas powerful. Want examples? Read anything by Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett.”

You can imagine how helpful this advice is for a cartoonist. You have to fit a message inside a voice balloon and, at the same time, have it make sense and be funny. Adams is a master at this. He concludes his list with a lesson about persuasion:

Learn Persuasion. Students of entrepreneurship should learn the art of persuasion in all its forms, including psychology, sales, marketing, negotiating, statistics and even design. Usually those skills are sprinkled across several disciplines. For entrepreneurs, it makes sense to teach them as a package.”

Good entrepreneurs, like good sales people, understand human nature. Have you ever watched the television show Survivor? The last season of this reality show was probably its best. The eventual winner was Robert Carlo “Boston Rob” Mariano. Boston Rob has a natural talent for empathetic listening. As a result, he is a master influencer who serves up an emotional appetizer just when people need it most. He has a million dollars in his pocket to prove he has that talent. He’s a hard guy not to like even when he is manipulating outcomes.


Adams admits that his list is not exhaustive. He concludes, “Obviously an entrepreneur would benefit from classes in finance, management and more. Remember, children are our future, and the majority of them are B students. If that doesn’t scare you, it probably should.” Even if you are lacking in areas like finance and management, Tidholm’s list demonstrates that you can get some of this information in non-formal settings. There are also organizations like SCORE who offer workshops on important business topics [“Online workshops help small businesses find digital solutions,” by Dan Beyers, Washington Post, 27 March 2011] Dr. Richard A. Greenwald, dean of graduate studies and a professor at Drew University in Madison, NJ, reports, “Growing numbers of Americans are striking out on their own as solo entrepreneurs. And a whole industrial complex has sprung up to support them.” [“Solo Support,” The Wall Street Journal, 14 February 2011] If you are a solo entrepreneur looking for help, read his article. The point is that help is available if you want to get smarter about running your business. America needs entrepreneurs; but, the only entrepreneurs who are going to help the economy grow are successful entrepreneurs. Getting smarter about business will improve your chances of success.

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