3 Under-Appreciated Lessons on Entrepreneurship
Recently I was giving a very, very brief speech at Lehigh University at an event with the Baker Institute honoring entrepreneurs and the teaching of entrepreneurship. It wasn’t originally meant to be a topic of any substance, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to speak to some students and offer some advice. I decided to touch on three traits of good entrepreneurs that aren’t as often celebrated and communicated as some of the others. I never would have thought of sharing this in a post, but I received so many comments such as “that’s exactly what I needed to hear” that I took the time to write down the thoughts. Here are three under-appreciated traits.
- Build curiosity and intellectual agility
If you’re going to do anything differently or better than others, then you must build the muscle of curiosity and intellectual agility. The market and customer expectations move, your competitors get better, and whatever you were capable of yesterday is not likely good enough tomorrow. You must hold many of your assumptions lightly, be curious about what you don’t know as well as what you think you know that you’re wrong about. Always seek to understand the “why” of what you observe.
Even if you establish a really good board of directors, or hire the best advisors, they are all just advisors and counselors. You must ultimately own your own mind, think through problems, explore extrapolations into the unpredictable future, and take action with conviction. The intellectual agility to sort through all of that on a continuous basis is vital for an entrepreneur.
Since I was speaking to undergraduate and graduate students, I also made clear that the knowledge that school is putting into your head is less important than learning how to think, have perspective, and solve problems, which is the real objective of most good education. I learned to program Fortran, which as a knowledge base is pretty useless today, but I understood how code works, which is useful in many pursuits. Learning history may appear be one of the more pointless pursuits of knowledge, unless you see it as insight into patterns of how things unfold over time.
- Courage – move forward through fear
So many leaders, throughout history and into modern entrepreneurship, are touted as “fearless” and moving forward with reckless abandon. If you are truly fearless, that may be a gift, but is quite rare and more often born of naivety than virtue. A more common attribute for an entrepreneur is being filled with fear – fear of failure, of customer rejection, of letting down your team or your investors or your family. Fear is well-founded and very rational.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but having those fears and moving forward anyway. Courage acknowledges the fear. Courage is not letting that fear control you and your decisions. Far more successful entrepreneurs demonstrate courage through fear than fearlessness. Don’t let your lack of fearlessness feel like an entrepreneur’s character flaw. It is not.
- Passion to serve – a vision, a customer, a cause
Very few entrepreneurs start out in the pursuit of financial success. When a business idea has the potential to scale and make a lot of money may be a decision-making filter on whether to go forward or not, or how much to risk in order to move forward. But the pursuit of wealth is rarely the foundation.
Instead, most entrepreneurs are driven by a passion to serve. That service may be for a vision of how the world (or a market) should work, or in service of a set of customers, or in service of a cause. Many entrepreneurs are driving by the pursuit of service. They give themselves to that cause, invest themselves in it, lose themselves in it. The fact that they may make money, or even become very wealthy, is simply a recognition that this service was welcomed, and in fact those outcomes are what ultimately allows this ecosystem to help change the world.
Of course entrepreneurs must ask themselves can they, will they, make money, but only as validation of the value and the viability of that pursuit. So, find your passion to serve, and lean into that service.