Feb 122009

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

Sometimes it is better to decide not to do something. Starting a business is one of those times. It is easy to get into that swamp and very hard to extricate yourself. Thinking carefully before you jump in can pay big dividends.


At times, I lecture to a class of undergraduates or MBA students. Mostly the courses center on entrepreneurial activities or some other aspect of business. A professor who is helping his students come to terms with what being in business really means generally invites me. I am able to speak from experience – having started and built six businesses – and I have learned that much of what I have learned as an entrepreneur was not well covered during my time in business school. Here are some examples of what I tell the students:

Why go into business? My lectures bring back memories of my own early misunderstandings. I remember thinking that going into business was a way to create wealth and retire early. I also thought that I should go into business because my father suggested it. It took me more years that I would like to admit to disabuse myself of those ridiculous fictions. Going into business is a way to get paid for doing what you love – and only if doing what you love requires that you go into business.

There is a passionlessness among the young that does not serve them well at all in this matter. For them, business is a process that you engage in to make money – that is the mantra – the rallying cry. It does not make any difference what business – business is a vehicle that will help you get rich! Many students – particularly those in the graduate classes – are well on their way to demonstrate how hollow this logic is.

Part of the fault lies in the structure of the business school curriculum. Even in the entrepreneurial courses, there is a focus on the tools and techniques of business. Students are not taught how to look inside themselves and discover 1) if they should enter the business field at all, 2) what they bring to that field in terms of insight of passion or 3) whether entering that field will give them the kind of life they want or are suited to live.

Half a dozen times during my coaching practice, I have helped ‘entrepreneurs’ extract themselves from the businesses they had founded and head off on careers that are distinctly non-entrepreneurial. The lesson they learned is that not everything in life is business – life is finding your passion and following it – passionless living may be profitable but it is not edifying.

How do you make money? Shakespeare wrote “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. One of the biggest mistakes that young people make is to assume that the world is as they understand it to be – or worse – as they wish it to be. This is particularly true for students who have little life experience and a head crammed with the tools and concepts that pass for a business education these days. The truth is that the world pays little attention and cares even less about what you want it to be. It just is.

Self-knowledge is the path to a fulfilling life – and self-knowledge only comes from living. An old friend was fond of saying, “look Chief, people will pay you for doing all sorts of silly things, find the thing that makes you giggle with glee and then do it with gusto! The money you need to live the life you need will follow.” A bit more Zen and a little less accounting will clear the way.

What is the point of living? My greatest criticism of business schools is that they fail to realize that there is a single question that must be answered before any of their curriculum matters at all. My work with CEOs has shown me that this blind spot continues well after graduation and, at least in my humble opinion, is the number one reason why people’s businesses fail. It has nothing to do with financing or resourcing – neither technical training nor technology is nearly as important. So what is the single most potent limiter of potential? I often put it this way: “You have got to find a non-instrumental reason why there are other people on the planet”.

I am sure that statement sounds strange – particularly given the period that we have been through – when people were divided into predator and prey – seller and buyer – producer and consumer. However, this is precisely the time when that lesson is the most important. We have lived through a time where the only reason for other people living on the planet was that they could buy the product or service that a company was offering – and that has had terribly anti-humanistic consequences.

One of the questions I put to students during these lectures is, “what are your interests outside of business?” The first offerings are expected – sports, video games, reading, movies, etc. Most often, none of these are monetized in any manner other than cost – in other words, they are not considered ways to make money and build wealth. My point in suggesting this focus is that there are parts of your life you pursue simply for the joy of engagement. Compared to that, your business life is a desert.

The most successful entrepreneurs that I have know love people – not just as a theoretical idea; such as people as customers or clients – but as others who are different from them and from whom they can learn and grow. These distinctly un-Machiavellian types have a love of those differences and a wonder at the diversity of the human experience that borders on childlike awe.

I generally end my lecture by asking students who their mentors are. Most talk about their parents or a member of the faculty. The most fawning of the class tend to point to the professor. Then I tell them about something that Richard Rorty – the great American neo-pragmatist philosopher – was fond of saying, there are writers who teach you how to be the best person you can be and others who teach you how to be a productive member of society. You need both to become the person you were born to become. That is a greater lesson than any you will learn in any business class.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons