It's getting to be graduation season again. Every year I'm asked to speak and the temptation to save time by repurposing my prior talks is substantial -- especially because I'm personally convinced that those prior words of wisdom were not only invaluable, but timeless as well. But being consistent (or lazy) requires you to be just as ignorant today as you were a year ago and I'd like to think that -- even at my advanced age -- I've learned, re-learned and unlearned a few new and important things.
In addition, the world is moving much too rapidly-- and not necessarily forward-- for anyone to look back as little as a year and not feel that so many radical changes have taken place. We need to take a fresh look at what's really going to matter and make a difference in the lives of this year's graduates. And given that so many of them want to be entrepreneurs and start their own businesses, I feel uniquely qualified to give them a bit of advice.
I'm not talking about philosophy or politics. I'm just trying to make sure that there's at least one contrarian and maybe one voice of realism among this season's many purveyors of touching truisms, pious platitudes, and bumper sticker BS --all of which feels like it was written by either Hallmark or hacks whose prior Republican clients and "candidates" are now sitting on the sidelines sucking their thumbs and watching The Donald drive the bus off the bridge.
The costly privilege of getting a Master's, an MBA or a JD these days changes the way you look at the world mostly, I would argue, in a good way. The rigor, the arguments, the grit and the perseverance that it takes to survive the process prepares, distinguishes, and sets new graduates apart from the less fortunate folks in whatever endeavors they choose to pursue. Their first and most important job is to choose an initial path wisely so they can put all their new abilities to good use.
They possess powerful skills not to be wasted, not to be withheld for fear of failing and, mostly importantly, not to be frittered away. In my world, failure is an everyday occurrence and an accepted part of the landscape. The best entrepreneurs aren't afraid of failing -- their greatest fear is spending a significant part of their lives doing something insignificant. Today's graduates don't have to and they shouldn't settle for a day job or anything less than doing something important and making a difference.
So here are a few things that I've learned, which I hope will help on the journey.
(1) Not Everything Worth Doing is Worth Doing to Perfection
Even if you're not a Marine, it's still great to try to be the best that you can be. Striving every day for excellence is stimulating and rewarding. It's a good goal and a worthy objective. On the other hand, shooting for perfection is neurotic and will simply drive you crazy. No one, and no business, can afford to be perfect even if it were possible; it's a waste of time to even try.
In most things today, good enough is enough to get started, then you can start to grow. You want to concentrate on doing a few things really well and saying "No" to a million others. Focus is everything: you can do anything you want, but not everything. Pick your spots and take your best shot.
(2) Successive Approximation Beats Postponed Perfection
Iteration in our world is everything and it's an unending process whereby you keep getting better by getting a little better every day. Any professional knows this. The minute you stop going, you stop growing. It's like ironing (I think)-- you keep going over and over again until it's done. Of course it's never done because there's no summit today - only the next mountain.
(3) The Name of the Game is to Win, Not to be Right All the Time
Growth is inherently embarrassing. Mistakes are inevitable, skinned knees and bruises are part of every business. Going in, it helps to know that you'll never have all the data you need for certain decisions so you'll learn to draw sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises and try to make the best decisions you can. There may be better answers out there, but there's rarely only one right answer and any reasonable answer is better than waiting while the world passes you by.
(4) No One Does Anything Important Today All by Themselves
Technologies quickly become commodities while dedicated, motivated and passionate people who can work together effectively are the only long term, sustainable competitive advantage any organization can really have. Today is the slowest rate of technological change that you will experience for the rest of your life, but human nature never changes. You need to make room for all kinds of people.
Teambuilding, collaboration and listening skills trump pure talent, and remember that it doesn't help to be creative if no one cares what you have to say. The only thing more important than teamwork is a willingness and a desire to do the hard work that it takes to build a real business.
(5) Life's Too Short to Be a Bore or a Chore
We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life when all that we really need to make us happy is something to put our mind to, put our heart and soul into, to be enthusiastic about, and to be proud of. Maybe that sounds like a plateful (and it is), but it's within our reach.
At 1871, we're lucky enough to go to work each morning joined by excited, energetic and enthusiastic people who are setting out to change the world in important ways. They will face plenty of obstacles, but we've learned that when you're surrounded by other people on the same path as you, it improves your own game.
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