‘Business’ Advice for Young Adults (and Their Parents & Teachers)

findingyourplaceAt the conference I attended last week, the author of a new, unfinished book tentatively entitled Spike’s Guide to Success made a 10-minute pitch in which he presented the entire thesis of the book: That according to his research, interviewing 500 of the world’s most successful people, the factors we usually think are necessary for success (high intelligence, good looks, and good fortune) don’t correlate at all with success, while eight other factors correlate strongly with success:

  • Passion and hard work (loving what you do, and persevering at it)
  • Focus and skill (doing one or two things really well, through practice)
  • Overcoming internal and external obstacles (pushing through personal barriers and persisting through failure, mistakes, criticism, rejection, obnoxious people and pressure)
  • Creativity and meeting needs (solving problems, creating opportunities, and serving people what they need and want)

He handed out copies of the book’s promotional website in the form of a small pocket-sized brochure. His charming, modest, well-rehearsed pitch really grabbed the audience’s attention, and was masterful marketing — I predict the book will be a best-seller. What was more astonishing to me is that it came one day after I wrote my Finding Your Place essay which included the graphic above and this paragraph:

What … determines [our] role… is a product of four things:

  • our passion — the desire and focus and dedication to excel at doing this one thing
  • our natural talents — things we inherently find easy to do well,
  • our learnings and experience — which come from study, but more importantly from practice, and
  • our audience — the degree to which this role is needed, appreciated, respected and encouraged.

The groupings are a little different (I think of creativity as a talent or learning, and overcoming obstacles as an extension of passion) but the message is the same: Love it, get good at it, make sure it meets a need, and persevere and you’ll succeed, and find your place.

Spike’s Guide will include profiles of Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Martha Stewart and Albert Einstein, among its 500. My essay wasn’t that ambitious, and I confess I’m a bit skeptical whether we can reasonably aspire to that level of ‘success’. I’ve worked with a lot of entrepreneurs who have leveraged passion, talent, practice and audience into profitable, comfortable, joyous, low-stress businesses, but none of them will be, or expects to be, a billionaire. In fact there is a lot of evidence that at that stratospheric level of financial success, heredity is more important than any of the factors in my essay or Spike’s book — look through any list of billionaires and you’ll find many who have inherited their wealth. And inherited wealth and influence is conspicuously absent from Spike’s high- or low-correlation success factors.

I can see a danger of Spike over-reaching in his celebrity profiles, and undermining the value of his research in the process, and believe that the humbler (but consistent) lessons of my book Natural Enterprise are more useful to entrepreneurs than Spike’s rules. But Spike’s Guide has perhaps another audience that is at least as important as aspiring entrepreneurs: adolescents and teenagers.

Business Skills Scorecard
Green: exemplary; Yellow: satisfactory; Red: marginal
First column: Successful entrepreneurs’ scores; Second column: New graduates’ scores (author’s assessment)

In my opinion, our young adults are  not well equipped to decide what to do with their lives — how and with whom to make a living. Our education system, and we as parents, are both to blame for this. How could we tweak Spike’s Rules to make it into a guide for young adults and their parents?

What is most conspicuously absent, I think, are (i) the importance of imbuing in our young people self-confidence, a belief in and love of themselves, (ii) the importance of collaboration, of not trying to do everything by yourself (our Western cult of the individual, at its worst), and (iii) the importance of learning how to do good research, both primary (through face-to-face interviews) and secondary (online) — what I call “information skills”. The ‘scorecard’ above integrates these with the qualities in Spike’s Guide and my Finding Your Place essay.

If you’re a parent or a teacher, your task is to cultivate in the young people in your care the eight qualities they will need to succeed, no matter what they want to do: Self-confidence, common sense (critical thinking), creativity, research skills, communication skills (oral, written, and ‘body’ language), collaborative skills, focus, and persistence through obstacles. Most of these qualities are better learned by doing than by listening, and better taught by showing than by telling — by setting an example. Once they have these qualities all they need to do is apply them to find the right partner(s) — those whose strengths and weaknesses complement their own — and the right application, at the intersection of passion, customer need, talent and practice.

When I showed this to an artist friend, he said the only things that mattered were self-confidence and passion. I would agree that these are probably the most important, but I don’t believe they are enough. In the first column of the scorecard above, I’ve filled in what I think are typical ‘scores’ for the 50 or so successful entrepreneurs I know. These successful entrepreneurs are extremely self-confident and have good common sense, creativity and research skills, and they have both talent and acquired technical skill for what they’re doing. Most of them are weaker in either written or oral communication skills, most of them are ‘drivers’ who could benefit from better listening skills, and most of them try to do too much and give up on bold new ideas too quickly. Most of them like, but don’t love, what they’re doing, and meet their customers’ needs competently but not brilliantly — they’re vulnerable to competitive innovation.

In the second column, I’ve filled in what I think are the typical ‘scores’ for most of the young people I have met over the past two years at graduate seminars or conferences for aspiring entrepreneurs. They differ from the scores for successful entrepreneurs in only four areas: They are less self-confident and less creative, have much weaker research skills, and are discontent with their current job and/or its prospects. I blame the lack of self-confidence on our brutal society, which turns everything into a competition and never misses the chance to knock us down. Successful entrepreneurs have greater self-confidence either because their parents and peers gave it to them from childhood, or because they’re learned from failure what works and what doesn’t. The lack of creativity is also largely due to our Western society’s over-emphasis on exercising the left brain — though I think creativity can be (re-)learned, and will be by ambitious young people in spite of the educational system.

I’ve written before about how good we are at searching but how poor we are at researching — posing intelligent questions, conducting interviews, drawing out customer needs and wants iteratively, and engaging in what I’ve called ‘knowledge conversations’. Very little of this can be done online (and even online, true research skills are in short supply). The irony is that this is not a difficult skill to learn. We are all conversationalists at heart, and all we need is practice ‘conversing with a purpose’ to get good at it.

As for hating what you’re doing, there is only one cure for that — having the courage (which comes back to self-confidence) to quit and do something else.

I believe that poor information skills, and dislike of what they’re doing now are show-stoppers for young people — they will never be successful entrepreneurs until they learn to do good research (or at least partner with people who do), and until they find something they love doing.

I’ve left the third column in the scorecard blank for you to fill in with your own scores, or those of your children or students.

If I were a parent or teacher today I think I would tend to be generous (but not dishonest) in praising my children or students, because I think self-confidence is so important. I would introduce games and visits which exercised and strengthened their creative, communication, collaboration and research skills. I would try to set an example of focus (‘do one or two things really well’) and perseverance (‘fighting past’ personal and external obstacles, as Spike’s Guide puts it).

These days I am acutely aware of my children’s (they’re age 32 and 29) intense interest in my current career transition, and how important it is for them, as much as for me, that I not compromise and end up doing more work that I don’t love. I won’t let them down.

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6 Responses to ‘Business’ Advice for Young Adults (and Their Parents & Teachers)

  1. Zach says:

    How about “Emotional Intelligence?” (book by Daniel Goleman). And he has research to back up his statements. Emotional literacy leads to self confidence. Those with low EQ often don’t know how to make friends, behave, etc, which could lead to low self esteem, and ultimately depression or worse. Teach kids this and society as a whole would probably be happier.

  2. Greg Burton says:

    Amplifying on what Zach commented, the ability to communicate and “be liked” is probably has a higher correlation than some of the others. This overlaps EQ, of course, but is somewhat different. Bottom line is that if people want to help you succeed,you’re more likely to succeed, and people will be more willing to help you if you’re friendly, know how to listen, and generally learn to get along well with others.

  3. I think that EQ feeds into several of the areas on the Scorecard: Self-confidence – emotional intelligence gives you the skills to be more aware of your own feelings and to cope with setbacks in a healthy way which builds self-confidence Creative skills – to be creative you must be able to express your emotional reponse to situations and to possible solutions to problems. Creativity without emotion is the smallest part of engineering, and may lead to solutions which don’t ‘satisfy’. Communication skills – high EQ is correlated with good communication skills Collaborative Skills – you need to know about your emotions and the emotions of others in order to collaborate well Perseverence – knowing that emotions, both positive and negative are ephemeral and transient, helps with continuing to move forward with a plan “Sure this hurts now, but it will feel different in a few minutes.”Have you thought about publishing your own interviews with ‘real’ successful people, Dave?

  4. I think you’ve got another “winner” here, Dave! :)

  5. Great article here Dave. Your Blog is outstanding. My experiences as an entrepreneur have taught me that even the most “sound” business plan can be a prison if you don’t love doing it. I definitely agree that, especially in Canada, we don’t do nearly enough education on the ideas of entrepreneurship and also understanding the importance of leveraging (and finding) your natural talents. Our teachers are really not equipped for this style of thinking.I have two daughters in elementary school and I can tell you that the school system teaches our kids to be “followers” instead of leaders. We raise them to “be something” when they grow up – a career or job. Society thinks of businesses as “magical” – they are just “there”. I have been teaching my 7 and 9 year old the basics of entrepreneurship – right down to the basics that wherever there is a problem – there is a good chance there is a business opportunity. Business exists to solve problems. Its amazing how quickly they can catch on to ideas as long as they are presented in a fun way.In Canada, what we need are “games/simulations/role-plays” that make it fun for kids to learn and understand entrepreneurship. Kind regards,Chris Meidell

  6. Patry says:

    Fascinating article. I’ve just printed it so I can read it again.But as far as EQ goes, how much can be taught? And how much is chemically determined by the brain? Frequently shy inhibited people find their EQ rising dramatically after a month or two on anti-depressants.

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