Following a panel on entrepreneurship at an event with students, I had the chance to network with some of the attendees. I was approached by a few of them, who wanted to hear my opinion on various ideas they had and how to pursue them. I particularly liked the conversation I had with one of them, who is currently pursuing a business degree, and wanted to know from me what specific subject to focus on, in his pursuit of successful business opportunities.
What “subject”, he asked. Perhaps not the perfect word, but initially the question slanted towards it – it appeared to me that he was interested in knowing what kind of trends in business, or technology, were the ones he should devote more time learning about, to build a successful business around them. After a couple more probing questions, I had to stop and think. I wanted to make sure I gave him a response to what it appeared to me he was truly asking – what skill should he nurture and develop that will move him in a positive direction if his goal is to build a business by becoming an entrepreneur?
He threw around a couple of examples, such as coding and other technology areas and career paths that are experiencing growth. He was, in some ways, asking himself the right question. Or at least he was looking for an answer in the realm in which current students his age, or the younger generations just starting out professionally, turn to for answers. If I were to draw a metaphor, he essentially was looking at eye level out to the horizon from the bow of his ship, with land still visible from the stern, and asking me what to look for. My frame of mind was different, as I am already mid ocean, with no land in sight front or backwards, but a map, and a what I believe to be a good compass, and a lot of annotations I’ve made on the map as I’ve traveled through calm and rough seas. My perspective forced me to think of my domain of answers to his question very differently. This was my opportunity to point his thinking into skills that, based on my experience, are more fundamental. Following is what I had to say, or at least made the best effort to communicate.
If you want to have a shot at building a company, you need to be able to nurture your ability to build trusting relationships. I believe that is the skill that will take you the farthest. People voluntarily follow people they can trust. You will find out, as you start to build on your idea, that getting a team of people around you that share your values and are like minded, will propel you further. These teams need to be built on trust.
Find yourself a mentor. Find someone who is further down the path, who you look up to because of what he or she has accomplished professionally, and with whom you share the same values, and – importantly – whose company you enjoy to the point that you are willing to take on brutal criticism for your betterment. You will practice trusting and becoming a trustworthy person with him or her. This, I admit, is not an easy thing to do. I also admit I have been blessed to find people like that, and one big reason I think I was able to is because (back to square one), even recognizing my shortcomings, I have made an effort to be trustworthy. This means you have to learn to say no sometimes – a hard thing to learn for most of us. It does not mean I’ve always succeeded, but I try hard. Trust is a two-way street.
And there is one more thing I think about a lot, that in my view, summarizes the advice I wanted to give this student. Yes, some people may think this comes from The Karate Kid movies, and it sounds like it, but it doesn’t. I haven’t really watched them. If I had to give you advice on the skills that you need to nurture early on, I don’t know all the answers, but one thing I know is that practicing introspection helps. It helps you become what investors in the startup world call “coachable”. It means that you know what you know and what you don’t know. If you project this to the outside world, it feels to me it both builds confidence within yourself and trustworthiness towards others. And I believe that gives you an advantage.
It is the advantage of longing for what Peter Senge calls personal mastery. He’s a professor at MIT, and I came across his work two years ago, and this concept stuck with me. Paraphrasing him, people with a high level of personal mastery are continually in a learning mode. They are acutely aware of their incompetence, ignorance, and the areas where they could grow. At the same time, they are deeply self-confident. Personal mastery is about the journey, it is a lifelong discipline, you do not possess it, it does not become definite.
Think about that for a minute. Try cultivating that for a change: being acutely aware of your incompetence while at the same time deeply self-confident – massive tug-of-war self-therapy for the mind. Know yourself better, fine tune yourself, and everything around you will get adjusted, fine-tuned. A great part of your success in business and in life depends on your relationships, your interactions within your networks. There’s all sorts of Kauffmann surveys that point to that. The quality of those relationships is what will drive it, and it depends on your ability to trust others and inspire their trust. But ultimately that quality will depend on your ability to look internally, allow the right mentors to help you, connect with the right people, and embark on a lifelong journey practicing personal mastery. The best thing is that it’s never too late to start, but the earlier, the better.