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Where do you go to learn how to be successful in business?

So your life’s aim is to run your own business. You want to be an entrepreneur and a founder and create a hit corporation.

Where do you go to learn how to do this?

There are two main paths many people seem to follow.

The first is to study business or entrepreneurship as a subject. Try to land a place in a top institution, and then learn the gathered and curated lessons of the great businesses of history, as taught by seasoned professors and researchers. This way you get a flying start using some tried-and-tested frameworks and methodologies. Arm yourself with professional business credentials and knowledge before you begin.

The second is to learn from someone who’s done it well. The idea here is to become an apprentice attached to a top entrepreneur – someone who’s bootstrapped a demonstrably great firm from scratch. There’s no better teacher than someone who’s actually walked the talk, surely. So take a junior role shadowing the great one. Learn the tricks on the job. Get some earthy, practical wisdom in your toolkit.

Here’s what’s wrong with both those methods.

Using the first path, you will most likely be taught by people who have never themselves run a business. You will find business turned into complex charts and frameworks, depicting a make-believe world that doesn’t actually exist. When you land in the real world, you may find that actual business is an unteachable knot of instinct, emotion and backbreaking hardship. Most of the teachings stay on the blackboard; your degrees don’t give you any real advantage over the street-sharp hustlers you meet. In fact, trying to bend the world you encounter to fit with your irrelevant theories turns out to be a waste of time.

Is the second path better? Find someone who’s actually done the damn thing and make them your mentor? A father, an uncle or other benefactor, or a top entrepreneur willing to employ you and teach you the ropes from a young age?

Nope. This is what might happen to you now: rather than learn practices that have universal application, you pick up the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of one person. You gather a few great insights and homilies, sure, but will they work for you in your business? Are they the result of a particular personality applied to a particular time, or can you actually transfer them? And are they all worth learning? You may find yourself also gathering the nonsense, confidently held, of someone who mistakes character flaws for essential traits. And you may in the end never know whether your mentor succeeded because of the formula you are being taught, or some hidden tax evasion or patronage.

So, what to do?

It’s a real dilemma, faced by many. Join dad’s business or that of some other willing mentor, or get a formal business education first?

The answer, of course, is to do both. There is real merit in learning things straight from real people who have been there before you and shown results; and there is also genuine benefit from learning from those who can sum up the lessons of business history and provide wider exposure than any one business can.

Do both if you can, in whatever form or order they come to you – but be circumspect. A good deal of business education is hocus pocus, an attempt to impose forced simplifications onto a complex world. And a good deal of apprenticeship is just gaining exposure to egomaniacs whose success actually had a great deal of good fortune attached.

There are great gems of genuine insight and practical knowledge hidden in the haystacks of business education – but you’ll have to find them. There are also great wisdoms to be gained directly from those who have been bold enough to start great businesses – but you’ll have to sift through them, not swallow them whole.

Having gathered a few powerful lessons from both paths – from formal and informal education – you may then discover that the only path that teaches you the real “secrets” is a completely different one altogether: trying to start and run a business for yourself.

Business success does not actually have success formulas attached; it is mostly particular and specific to the circumstances. Neither your professor nor your role model will teach you how to walk the path of experience. You will have to do that one alone. You will try some stuff out, and some of it will fail. You will face reversals and upheavals. But all the while you will develop your own peculiar learning – and that’s where the real gold lies. 

(Sunday Nation, 12 July 2020)

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