In the last two years of working with small businesses, I’d say that I learn more in a typical day than I learned in a month of college.
College is great for fun, but bad for learning.
I would say all schooling is bad for learning. At least for learning things that matter. It’s great for learning stuff you can look up on Google like what years Kennedy was president of who was involved in the Battle of Agincourt.
I love history and I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. I don’t care either because I have a smart phone and wifi. Everyone has a limited amount of mental bandwidth so spending any time learning information that’s a Google search away seems like a real waste.
I’m much more interested in understanding things that schools do a very poor job of teaching – frameworks, systems, mental models, heuristics.
The reason school is bad for learning is that learning is something that happens as a result of something very simple – doing the work, day in and day out, and then setting some time to aside to think about it.
Schooling is about spending lots of time thinking about stuff and not so much time doing it.
‘Should I Get An MBA’ ?
– Why Business Education is an Oxymoron
What I’ve said isn’t just true of traditional education, it’s true of a lot of online business guru products too.
How many successful entrepreneurs have you ever met that said – “Yea, I got started on my way to success with a $1997 e-course!”
I’ve never met one and yet people keep selling tons of that crap.
The kinds of systems and models that lead to successful business are unearthed by practitioners on the front lines.
The system is so complex that you can’t intellectually package and teach it.
The Failure of the Niche Selection Algorithm
One of the bottlenecks with my main client over the past 2 years was product creation.
When we looked back, it was apparent that all the major growth increases in the business were the result of putting out new products and new product lines.
We tried to solve this by putting together a niche selection algorithm – a defined process. It started out with scraping websites for products then filtering them through certain criteria – how many people were searching for them on Google, Price point, manufacturing material, etc.
What I realized recently after reading Ready, Fire Aim was the futility of this process.
The reason new product ideas don’t come out of algorithms is that it’s too complex of a system.
What Masterson advocates in Ready, Fire, Aim is that you perform a simple exercise. Have the person with the most industry knowledge sit down and come up with a bunch of product ideas. Forecast the cost and timelines to produce them and the expected sales.
Now halve the sales numbers and double the cost and timelines.
What do you feel fuck yeah about?
Go make that.
Don’t Fuck Up the Culture
Another is company culture. It’s hard to measure company culture or even define it effectively, but you generally “know it when you see it” and improving it can create dramatically different outcomes.
The advice Peter Thiel gave AirBnB after investing 150 million wasn’t “know your financials,” It was “don’t fuck up the culture.”
That’s not something you can teach, it’s something you have to experience.
Implicit Relationship Criteria
Business is perhaps the best example, but there are others –
Everyone has criteria for relationships even if most people aren’t conscious of them.
Do you ever meet that person that consistently has bad relationships? If someone is consistently producing the same outcomes then there is a system there whether they realize it or not.
I had a friend in college that always used to end up dating crazy girls. I used to think he was just unlucky. I never thought they were psycho when I first met them either, but they always ended up being psycho.
It’s still not clear to me what the system was there, but I’ve no doubt that there was some implicit system that defined the girls he was attracted to.
Tales from Biology, Psychology and Neuroscience
The human brain is a complex system that’s not clearly defined yet.
A lot of entrepreneurs are into psychology because they want to control the implicit systems in themselves explicit to achieve their desired outcomes.
Look at the Quantified Self Movement. There’s tons of stuff these guys are figuring out that science still can’t explain the mechanisms behind.
Guys on the ground like Robb Wolf with the Paleo Diet, Dave Asprey with Bulletproof coffee or Martin Berhkan with fasting all figured out how to get desired outcomes without being able to explain the mechanisms.
There’s a danger of falling into the traditional schooling paradigm and call these guys “smart.”
While I don’t think that’s wrong, I think it’s misleading. They are smart. But that’s the price of entry.
What they are is practitioners. They went out and tinkered and did the work for years and years, and figured out how to create results even if they didn’t understand all the mechanisms.
Most people want to wait around until they understand everything to get started. These guys just figured out the next step and took it.
Learn from Practitioners not Academicians
If you look at any industry or field, the practitioners are always ahead of the academics. The practitioners can’t quite define the systems at play or the mechanisms. It’s like a black box. They understand the inputs and they just keep maing educated guesses at them until they achieve the outputs they’re looking for.
I wish more practitioners were also publishers. Most of them aren’t because they’re too busy working – (yours truly, not included). The same phenomenon is true of networking events. There’s rarely anyone interesting at networking events because all the interesting people are at home doing the work.
It’s even true of my favorite practitioner/publishers (a 4th economy version of the businessman/scholar or philosopher/king) – Jason Cohen, Joel Gascoigne, David Heinemeier Hansson, and Steven Pressfield.
Listening to what they’re whispering points you in the right direction, but you still have to experience it because it’s a highly complex, implicit system.
Start with Why
It’s the complexity of these systems that gives power to starting with Why, a clearly defined purpose. It gives you a heuristic for making decisions in systems where you can’t possible understand all the 2nd and 3rd order consequences.
Because you have that heuristic it results in changes to the implicit system that you aren’t ever conscious of.
I just finished Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Abraham Lincoln (highly recommended by the way – Kearns is a masterful storyteller as is Lincoln, so it’s a double win, an amazing narrative within an amazing narrative.)
The systems Lincoln shaped and created were motivated by one very clear and ultimate goal – preservation of the Union. He did things that didn’t make sense or seemed wrong in other contexts. Despite being a lawyer and generally just person, he suspended the writ of Habeus Corpus for much of the war.
The most interesting example though is in how he managed his Secretary of the Treasury – Salmon P Chase.
Chase, a hyper-ambitious politician with a lifelong dream of becoming president, was one of Lincoln’s key rivals in the 1860 Republican National Convention. Despite this, Lincoln realized his talent and potential and made him Secretary of the Treasury during his first term.
Chase reciprocated by spending Lincoln’s first term in office scheming for ways to position himself to take over in 1864 when Lincoln’s term was up.
When Chase was raising war bonds to fund the war, he was simultaneously stumping in all the speeches about how he would have done a better job of being president than Lincoln.
And Lincoln knew this. And he didn’t care, because Chase was a damn good Treasury Secretary, he sold a lot of war bonds, and he had a coalition that let Lincoln get things done. Things that helped to preserve the Union.
So starting with Why in this sense is sort of a hack. You don’t have to be able to make the system totally explicit, you just have to be very clear on the outcome and purpose and then make decisions and take actions based on that.
After that, it’s pretty simple.
Last Updated on July 30, 2019 by Taylor Pearson
Dan Andrews says
Nice timing was just diving into this thinking specifically of practitioners vs. preachers (and their occasional and lovely intersection):
“It’s no wonder if this seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we’re now three steps removed from real work”
Taylor Pearson says
Sometime I think the preacher in me keeps the practitioner honest. I can’t stand be 100% full of bullshit so I better do some real work before I start writing again.
There’s hidden gold in those archives…
“Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.”
Fantastic – 100% my experience as well.
Alex Goodall says
Thanks for the link to Paul Graham – another interesting find.
Alex Goodall says
I can’t recall how I stumbled across your blog, but I bookmarked it to look at later soley based on your tag line. I figured someone with a tagline like that must be self-reflective and probably has some interesting things to say.
I think I was right, but I HAD to respond to your staring comment that
“I would say all schooling is bad for learning. At least for learning things that matter. It’s great for learning stuff you can look up on Google”
I hope you’re being extreme for the sake of emphasis.
Where to start?
How about this….
” It’s great for learning stuff you can look up on Google”: for me, that’s linguistically nonsensical. “Learning” and “look up” are two very different ways of acquiring different types knowledge.
On Google, you can look up the valence of a potassium atom (1) and on Wikipedia you can get a definition of “dead weight welfare loss” (In economics, a deadweight loss (also known as excess burden or allocative inefficiency) is a loss of economic efficiency that can occur when equilibrium for a good or service is not Pareto optimal.)
But acquiring those facts is only a tiny (and not very helpful) step along the way of “learning” chemistry or economics. Those topics (and many others) require the slow build-up of concepts and interplay between concepts – and the best way to do that is to have an insightful teacher who understands both the topic and the learning process.
The academic environment is almost certainly the best place to get that learning (which isn’t to stay there’s no room for improvement).
The development of western civilization is the result of several thousand years of intricate interplay between individual thinking, group thinking (including 100 years of universities), individual doing and group doing.
ALL are of equal importance, and each is essential.
And as an aside, the mental riguour associated with a 3-year dose of an academic degree is one of the few known systematic ways of helping adults go through one “developmental stage” (assuming you subscribe to any of the models of adult developmental psychology).
I’ll stop – I only meant to have a quick look to decide whether or not to subscribe (I will).
And BTW – I too am very fond of models and systems and frameworks and methods.
Dan Ofer says
Great post (here and the boyd page)!