I have always been intrigued by the nature of entrepreneurship and so I regard myself as extremely fortunate to have worked with such highly creative and successful people.
But given the determination and effort required of any entrepreneurial venture in an era of such intense competition, I must also admit to slight bemusement by a stream of self-help books promising to transform almost anyone with a goal into a world-class entrepreneur. This usually takes just five easy lessons and a wad of cash. Apparently all one has to do in order to become significant overnight is to follow a few rules which, the author will invariably insist, are infallible and simple to understand. Common sense in fact….
According to these experts it matters little whether you are the founder of a business looking to amaze the world with a mind-boggling new gizmo that everyone will want, or an individual searching for your next job – you are bound to find a text that speaks directly to your craving to be more entrepreneurial. Given that literally thousands of such books are published each year you can be sure that the answer to your prayers is there, wedged somewhere between From Good to Great and How to Change Things When Change is Hard.
More often than not these catchingly illustrated tomes also hold out the promise of instant fame, enduring fortune, a magnificent career, or a parenting paradise. Beware. Highly successful people almost always gloss over their failures. They do not like to admit mistakes were made as this could weaken their credibility with an audience demanding perfection. Nor will they readily concede their method might not be the universal panacea they claim it to be.
But facts speak for themselves. To become ‘successful’ at anything at all one usually has to fail – often many times. Ask Elon Musk or Richard Branson. The really critical thing about failure is to treat it as part of a journey rather than a wall into which one has crashed – to learn from it so as to do better next time around. By doing that we stay in the game – and that is the real prize.
What I do not find in the least bit puzzling is that each one of these afore-mentioned books offer their own proven formula for success. And they are all different. So the only thing we can conclude with any certainty, assuming that what we are reading is somewhere near the truth, is that the method has worked for one individual, the author, on at least one occasion. And that is the point! There is no single prescription to guarantees success. Life is never that straightforward. We are all exceptions. Luck can be involved of course. Each situation is different, demanding a unique response.
So I have always found it wiser to ignore the advice of experts selling me ‘proven’ methods, or at least to remain sceptical and alert to such assertive guidance.
This also extends to personal and financial advice. Generally speaking wise questions formulated from a position of inquiry are far more helpful than directives based upon explicit personal experiences or even tried and tested schemes. Beware the confident friend, executive, adviser or business coach who gives you guidance based upon their own interpretation of a situation. They may be very successful people. But it is also possible the critical ingredient that brought them their own success is something they did not plan for or of which they are not even aware. Was Henry Ford’s invention of the production line a carefully considered plan or merely a ploy to attract women? Was Albert Einstein’s fondness for an afternoon snooze crucial to his vision of space-time relativity? Nobody really knows. A fleeting thought effortlessly morphs into a creative impulse. Astonishing ideas can arise from totally unstructured play. In truth the genesis of innovation often remains latent – uncoded and seemingly non-replicable, even to the originator of the idea.
Another equally dangerous state of affairs is where an admonition to think or behave a certain way becomes entrenched dogma. This habit is preached by many business schools and practised by those of their alumni who need to reduce life’s complexity to a few down-to-earth recommendations. The most prevalent doctrine among today’s young entrepreneurs is the counsel to follow your passion. It sounds so perfect and so reasonable. Yet it can be sheer folly. It is only human nature to get excited about a new project of course. But if the project is not viable and buckles under rigorous scrutiny, no amount of passion is going to make it work. This is a condition of which canny investors are acutely aware.
I have always urged caution too about goals and targets. Being successful in life or in business is a matter of exploration and development – a continuing journey of seeking something worthier, and improving one’s chances of finding something better. Targets are almost always time-wasting delusions. Though goals, it must be said, are equally perilous.
As Scott Adams, the inventor of cartoon character Dilbert, submitted: Success is not about passion or goals but optimising your luck. People preoccupied with goals tend to be in a state of near-continuous disappointment which, they always hope, is merely temporary. When a goal is not reached, as is often the case in business because of the dynamic variety of factors impacting every outcome, or with dieting and exercise, for example, our self-esteem takes a knock. But when the constant effort to reach a goal is finally achieved, celebrations end, and the initial euphoria fades, a recognition that only further rounds of goals can effectively restore the purpose that brought success can be just as soul-destroying.
High achievers find targets and goals unnecessary. Especially as they can easily turn into unanticipated impediments. A string of low-risk, entrepreneurial ventures and subsequent failures, on the other hand, is vital. Why? Because that is how we learn. By evolving a system that allows us to fail, to learn from those failures, and to adapt, we become more resilient. Resilience builds the self-assurance that entrepreneurs find invaluable. But it also grows the capability to increase skills and expertise, discover better options, and see opportunities that others may have overlooked. As we become stronger, more alert, energised and better networked we are able to stay in the game. And staying in the game is what entrepreneurship is really all about.
This piece is written in admiration of those entrepreneurs who plough an individual furrow through life in a journey from self-regard to success to significance. In part I have also written it for young people who are known to me, particularly those close to me, many of whom are confused by messages urging them to be one thing or another and equating failure with being a loser. There is no such thing. We all do the best we can. The trick is to discover one’s own unique strengths before they are beaten out of us.