Someone on the Internet recently asked me how one could develop good entrepreneurial skills. Since it was a rather busy day for me, my first urge was to spurt out that while you can learn how to run a business, you need to be born an entrepreneur. But then, as I lingered a while longer over the question, I started to ponder the very definition of entrepreneurship.
Why would I call myself “an entrepreneur” in the first place?
The term is of French origin, and as such it sounds quite fancy to our ears. Visual association of “entrepreneur” versus “business owner” roughly compares to “butterfly” versus “flying insect”. Well, just close your eyes and try for yourself.
And while we may agree that what makes butterflies distinct from other arthropods is the charming flutter of their colorful wings, it’s not always obvious what makes entrepreneurs so keen to embrace their popular label.
Can you be an entrepreneur even if it’s practically impossible for you to recall the last time someone actually paid you for your work? Do you dare to use this title of honor in front of your mom?
As I recollected all the bad and good times of running a startup, and what made me fight or fail, it all came clear to me. Being an entrepreneur is not about what you do, or what you’ve achieved, it’s about how you think.
Entrepreneurs are born imperfect like anyone else: they struggle and cry, flog themselves with doubts, and experience rejection considerably more often than they do praise. Yet, they don’t give in to shame. They are survivors who manage to strike a fire in a wasteland. They keep the candle of dream burning in the middle of a shitstorm.
I’ve always believed that happiness is hard work, not something that arrives knocking at your door one random day. In the same way, I’m convinced that we can nourish our personal ability to grow, lead, and create.
There is no right way. You will always be simultaneously your own best teacher and worst enemy. Still, there are a few practices that can help you along the way. They’ve worked for me, alongside my habit of seeking mentorship in books, and a dash of craziness.
1. Learn to listen
Above all, you should become a really good listener. Be mindful and present when talking to others. And ask specific questions.
Even though the art of thoughtful nodding while your mind has wandered off may prove useful at times, learn to focus on problems and needs of those around you.
Posing detailed questions will help you “open people up”. There’s a big difference between “How was your day?” and “Have you received a good feedback for the presentation you prepared yesterday?”
Ability to listen helps a lot with making the right business decisions at the right time.
2. Look for solutions
Be the problem-solver. If you come across a problem, ideally one shared by a group of individuals, develop a practice of creating solutions for them (in your head, for the starters), however seemingly unattainable they might be.
This way, in combination with point number one, you shall maintain a constructive habit of generating ideas that stem from people’s genuine needs.
However, unless you’re sure that the person you’re talking to honestly cares about your opinion, don’t become the annoying “know-it-all”. Often, we simply want to share our tales of woe without having to face a barrage of unsolicited advice.
3. Get serious now
Start passion projects outside of your current work commitments, and treat them like a real business. It means that even if you only run a basic blog, for example, make sure you aim at increasing the number of its visitors at a competitive pace, build a reputable online presence, and find a way to monetize it.
There will never be a perfect day for bringing your dreams to life. Start small but start today.
Internet and software tools offer broad possibilities of prototyping and launching many concepts at minimum cost and risk. You can build an international community without leaving your village. You can sell your craftwork to your first eager customers while your baby is napping. You can self-publish your own book without being backed by a big publishing house.
Don’t aspire to get it right the first time around. As Samuel Beckett famously said:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
You will inevitably fail. Probably many times. But you will never lose, as every failure equals at least one semester of a top-tier university.
4. Control your fears
Entrepreneurship is scary. But then, what is not? Comfort doesn’t go hand in hand with making a difference. Get used to the fact that living a good life can be terrifying, every so often.
I see fear as flames that can cook your meal on one hand, or burn your skin on the other. Fear can motivate you. Fear can help you avoid being reckless. Fear can burn you to ashes.
When you feel yourself starting to get overcome by fear, don’t try ignoring it. Visualize a nice small fireplace and keep it contained there.
Don’t mistake fear for a weakness. Don’t mistake indifference for bravery. Being afraid is okay.
5. Embrace uncertainty
If fear is a small fire burning in the corner of your head, uncertainty is a basic element of the air you breathe. As an entrepreneur, you need to draw plans and build strategies. But these are delicate houses of cards, which tend to leave you transfixed as you watch them crumble.
Being flexible is the key.
For those who see insecurity as their mortal enemy, entrepreneurship may not be the way to go. Those who tend to view acts of unpredictability as challenging adventures are warriors worth our admiration.
They blunder. They get beaten. They often fall to their knees, on the verge of giving in. But they never do. Because they know it takes countless battles to win a war.
So next time things aren’t working out, take a deep breath, learn from your mistakes, and start all over.
6. Don’t take it personally
Entrepreneurs often look all around and realize that they are the only ones who truly believe in their purpose. You will feel very lonely. Maybe even insane. And then when you decide to seek support, you will be rejected over and over again.
Your teammates will doubt your decisions. Your competitors will mock your steps. Those who you trust most will let you down. It will feel as if you were the easiest target for everyone’s frustrations.
So practice rejection. And I don’t mean that you should become a masochist. Instead make an effort to gradually fortify your belief that the others’ treatment of you doesn’t define who you are.
It’s probably the most difficult thing to do. At least for me, it has been. But every small progress on this front has a huge impact on your self-esteem, resolve, and inner harmony. It also helps you to take risks and get exposed. And it prevents you from closing up and feeling unworthy should your vulnerability be betrayed.
People have their own interests to follow. They have their own issues to deal with. Besides, paradoxically enough, the weaker a person’s character is, the less able he or she is to tolerate the weaknesses of others.
It’s always about them, not about you. Although they hurt you, judge you, or make you furious, they don’t really see you. Those that see us are usually called soul mates. We won’t meet many during our lifetimes. For the rest, we sometimes serve as a mere reflection of their own darkness.
7. Learn to breathe
Stress causes our breath to be quite shallow, which in turn brings less oxygen to our blood. As a result, we become even more tense and anxious. By forgetting to breathe we develop headaches, muscle pain and sleeping disorders.
Therefore, when someone tells you “Just take a deep breath!”, listen to them. In stressful situations, correct breathing can do more for our mental well-being than a pill or a drink.
Once in a while, there are moments when I feel the world is crushing my bones with its weight. Then I would usually stop for a few moments, keep breathing, and concentrate my eyes on the smallest details of the objects around me. This usually helps getting my mind back into the safe zone.
Download a meditation app, attend a yoga class, or find someone who will teach you the proper breathing techniques. Once I injured my foot while running, and my physiotherapist focused several sessions solely on my diaphragm. As a student, I thought that the “breathing lessons” were not worth the money. Today, I’m happy to know how to relieve back pain in seconds.
8. Prioritize and relax
I guess most of us have heard about the Pareto Principle, which says that 80% of our results proceed from 20% of our actions. And we constantly forget about it. We persistently put ourselves under pressure of doing million different things, believing that all that sweat and busyness will eventually pay off somehow.
We all dream about working fewer hours but for some reason we refuse to believe that we could do more with less. Remembering the 80/20 rule will help you envisage that roughly 80% of our time is unproductive. You will see that there’s plenty of space for either allocating more working hours to the high-yielding activities, or for using some of the extra time to relax.
Contrary to the popular belief that entrepreneurs should work 16 hours per day to succeed, I’m convinced that our brains need a variety of stimuli to avoid stagnation. For instance, if you’re a dedicated marketing expert, you probably regularly read all the relevant blogs and scour Amazon’s “Business & Money” category. That’s great, keep doing that, but throw in a good fiction book occasionally. Having fun is not evil.
9. Nurture your creativity
Chasing your 10,000 hours will certainly help you become a first-class professional. However, if you strive for innovative solutions and unconventional ideas, bear in mind that cultivating your creativity asks for some concerted effort as well.
Which brings us back to our ability to listen and see. The best observers are the best creators.
Inspiration is all around us and we’re masters in ignoring 99% of it. Engaging in diverse activities, including time with our family and friends, doing sports, learning new things, or travel, helps unblock our perceptiveness.
“The busiest people I have known in my life always have time enough to do everything. Those who do nothing are always tired and pay no attention to the little amount of work they are required to do. They complain constantly that the day is too short. The truth is, they are afraid to fight the good fight.” —The Pilgrimage, Paulo Coelho
10. Dream small
It’s the most precious gift of life to find your purpose, your big dream. The thing that gives sense to everything you’ve done so far in your life.
Yet, recommendations such as “follow your dreams” or “you can do anything in the world” are futile platitudes, sought-after by people who look for painless shortcuts to happiness.
You need to deserve your dreams. The journey is a tough, never-ending challenge. It’s not a marathon you can practice for, unfortunately. Just put your shoes on and start running — with slow baby steps.
Along the way, pay close attention to the things that make your heart vibrate with joy. I call them small dreams. They are worth building and creating stuff that matters only to you. Something that won’t bring you money, let alone admiration. Something that will make your lungs expand, and your muscles grow stronger.