Some of the most important things I’ve learned in life were absorbed outside of a classroom or traditional setting.
Most entrepreneur types I’ve met have said the same thing – while other people were following rules, they were making their own.
Of course, I’m more into building models than making absolute statements (“books are dead!” “social media is making us zombies!” “Instagram is making all food taste [better] [worse]”) so you won’t catch me raining fire and brimstone down on anyone.
But I do believe that curiosity, inspiration, and looking for less obvious connections can give us great value.
Here are three things that no one taught me directly, but that I’ve picked up in my travels and that have been immensely useful.
It’s all about scale, but not necessarily scaling up.
In the startup world one of the questions constantly in play is: “will it scale?”
Simplified, this just means that you always want to know if something you are doing now will work when you are much bigger.
It’s a great question, and it’s part of a bigger picture concept that is often overlooked:
To build a company (or life) of consequence you need to understand ecosystem connections, big and small.
This doesn’t mean that you’re stuck on a one-way street when it comes to scale…some things are meant to be small. And even if they aren’t, the building blocks are always worth knowing about.
In science, the relationship between neutrons, protons and electrons is just as important as the relationship between stars and galaxies. Brilliant minds like Einstein, Michio Kaku, and Richard Feynman all understood the importance of this, and in a more modern example you can see it at work in companies like Google, too.
It’s one of the reasons why being curious is such a valuable skill (one of my favorite thinkers, Lauren Bacon, does a great job of validating this on her blog and in her recent (and free) ebook Curious for a Living). When we ask questions about how things relate to each other and where they fit, we are actively shaping not just the connections between content but also our own internal system for understanding scale.
On a personal level, it can help you make decisions about about what passions to pursue, and how you relate with family, friends, and in love. In that context, regularly reading about and having conversations around cognition, philosophy, and art are crucial. You can’t know something is significant unless you understand it’s scale in relationship to other things.
Negotiating and re-negotiating your life, work, relationships, etc… is an overlooked skill with huge upside
Most people don’t feel confident in their negotiating skills in a business setting.
For a long time I didn’t either – but a couple of years ago I started reading research about gender and negotiation, and I had one of those “oh so that’s how it works moments.”
Research indicates that negotiation typically becomes about either winning/status (the traditional, male dominated approach, higher stress, clear win/loss) vs. problem solving (typically how women approach, lower stress, lots of room for shared success, more on that here and here).
What I realized was that I gravitated towards the problem solving approach (call it being in touch with my feminine side if you like =). I’m actually a pretty balanced dude so I can relate to football and tough guy stuff, but I’m not tied down by status and winning, the two traditional masculine validations. If I get to solve a problem, I’m psyched. To me value is about building things that make everyone better.
I can’t recall one conversation from family, friends, work, or educational setting where we explicitly talked about negotiation. I can’t speak for anyone else, but from conversations about this topic with other folks it seems like this is the common experience (chime in here?).
Being unable to consistently and calmly negotiate and renegotiate agreements can hurt you at work, but it’s also important in your personal life, too. For me it led to a toxic marriage/delayed decisions. It took 2-3 years of counseling with a great therapist to renegotiate where I stood with myself and others. This seems pretty typical, most people I know don’t have a good framework for negotiating decisions in their personal lives, and as a result they end up working harder and longer at things that aren’t fulfilling.
Once you start seeing negotiation as a problem solving exercise, the stakes immediately become lower. It switches from a validation of who’s better or worth more, to a framework that emphasizes that all sides can and should be fulfilled and have their needs met. That’s an extremely powerful place from which to build healthy structure in all areas of your life.
The most powerful thing you can do is become more human, not less
The dark side to the question of scale is that our information sources and technology at times make us forget about individual connection.
Last month I bought food and water for homeless people several times, gave away a couple of jackets and hats, an umbrella, and looked a lot of people in the eye and acknowledged them even when I didn’t feel I could help.
Of course there’s altruism involved, I lived out of my car for a few months once so I have a small window into what it means to be homeless and I’m helping because it’s as simple as, they are hungry and no one deserves to be hungry. But they’re doing something for me, too. Each time I help someone else I get closer to the ground, more able to acknowledge what it means to be human, and that is information that you can use to do and be better personally and professionally. Understanding how people connect to each other is hugely valuable, and humility gives us the chance to learn and achieve more.
If you’ve gotten this far, I hope you’ll take a moment to read this beautiful and moving editorial. It was written by a homeless man (someone I’ve met) almost a year ago, and I found it worth a second look. To me the below quote reaches to the heart of what it means to be human, and the rest of us are really just iterating on the same idea in different ways…
“We, the homeless, live in a constant state of humility….Men, women, and children of all ages and races come together every day in cooperation and silent support for mutual survival. We watch out for each other. We assist our disabled and our mentally challenged. We open the door for a stranger, guide him, then pick him up if he falls. We share our stories and our hopes and our dreams and in the end…we become honest. Honest with each other as well as ourselves. We admit our failures and our weaknesses aloud. We become in fact humble.”
What kinds of things have you learned that no one formally taught you?