A Return to Blogging

It’s taken a while but I’ve decided to return to more frequent blogging. I’ve held back often, going several months without writing anything due to fear of not having much insight to offer. I also deleted a bunch of blog posts I published many years ago, since I felt I had outgrown the thinking I had back then (some older content felt embarrassing!)

But recently, I’ve come to appreciate how much the craft of writing can do in clarifying thought. This, to me, is an immensely powerful benefit and most of the people whose work I admire invested a lot in their writing for this reason too. As for the older, some what more embarrassing posts I previously wrote, I’ve come to appreciate that some reader might still find them worthwhile. Failing that, leaving these posts online is one way of me being more honest with myself and others about the growth in my thinking.

So as 2018 takes off, I’m going to try and write a bit more publicly. And though my day job in venture capital keeps me exceptionally busy—delightfully so, if I may add, since I really do love the work—I’m going to make more of an effort to blog again.

The Seven Myths of Entrepreneurship

This is a sample chapter taken from my career skills book Graduate Entrepreneurship. You can purchase a copy on Amazon or Book Depository. Please refer to the book for references and sources of key statistics and data.

Myth 1: You need a great idea

Everyone has a business idea in them but they never think it’s good enough. This is because people often judge early ideas against already established businesses. However, no venture ever starts fully formed. Every successful idea starts small and over time can mature into greatness. Did you know, for example, that Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group started as a small mail-ordering business? The company would take orders through the post and mail music records to customers. In those early days it is doubtful Branson knew how big his venture would become.

The reality of entrepreneurship is that an idea does not have to be perfect from the get go; nor does it have to be extraordinary. For instance, in a survey that involved 100 highly revered start-ups only 12 percent of the founders attributed their success to an extraordinary or unusual idea. The other 88 percent attributed most of their success to the extraordinary execution of an ordinary idea.

In light of the above, the pressure we place on ourselves to come up with a revolutionary idea is unjustified. Few successful businesses ever start that way and many great entrepreneurs simply execute an existing idea better than everyone else has done. In other words, you don’t need a great idea to start a business. You just need a reasonable concept to build upon.

Myth 2: Entrepreneurs are born not made

The founder of Nike, Phil Knight, did not realise he wanted to be an entrepreneur until he got into business school for his master’s. It was during a class when a lecturer asked students to invent a new business that Phil realised that’s exactly what he wanted to do as a profession. Was Phil Knight born an entrepreneur? No. He didn’t pursue the craft until his later years. Moreover, this is just one example among many where someone becomes an entrepreneur but it wasn’t always something they had a natural inclination towards. And yet the myth that entrepreneurs are born lives on.

The truth is there’s no evidence that some people are natural-born entrepreneurs while others are not. Research indicates that entrepreneurs come from both entrepreneurial and non-entrepreneurial families. In one survey, which involved more than 500 company founders, more than half of the people surveyed (52 percent) were the first in their families to launch a business. If entrepreneurship is genetic you would not expect this percentage to be so high. And so the conclusion is clear: you aren’t born an entrepreneur; you become one.

Myth 3: Age matter

Web entrepreneur and YouTube personality Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg was in her early twenties when she started to earn a reported £20,000 a month from her social media ventures. Fraser Doherty set up his jam-making business when he was just 14 and, by the time he was 18, he was supplying jam to the supermarket chain Waitrose. There’s no shortage of media coverage on young entrepreneurs because the younger they are, the more sensational the story. But these reports warp our view on the relationship between age and entrepreneurship. The reality is far more diverse.

Doris Fisher co-founded Gap when she was 37 years old. Ruth Handler launched the Barbie dolls business aged 42. Giorgio Armani didn’t start his company until he was 41. And a 55-year-old pharmacist invented Coca-Cola. Most entrepreneurs actually start a business in their late thirties to mid-forties. In fact, the average age for a first-time founder is 45. The media, however, finds younger entrepreneurs more newsworthy so you’ll always hear more about the twenty-something millionaire and less about the mature businessperson.

Does this mean that you should wait until you are 35–45 years old to start a business? Not necessarily. Starting a business when you are young has advantages. You have fewer responsibilities and can be more flexible. On the other hand, when you’re older you may have a mortgage and family to think about and that restricts the sort of risks you can take. The upside, of course, is that you will have more experience, a better network of contacts, and perhaps even more cash to invest. Each age group has its pros and cons but a major advantage to starting now is the flexibility and energy that comes with youth.

Myth 4: Entrepreneurs love risk

Another common misconception is that entrepreneurs love risk and that you have to be a big risk-taker to become an entrepreneur. However, when it comes to risk preferences business owners aren’t that much different from the general public. If you asked an entrepreneur to leave their car unlocked while shopping they would view the risk of theft to be just as high as anyone else’s assessment. There’s a possible key difference, however: entrepreneurs are generally more confident and optimistic. When reviewing a business opportunity they have a strong belief in their ability to profit from a venture. In contrast, other people are likely to see threats where entrepreneurs see opportunity. On that account, entrepreneurs are not risk-taking enthusiasts. They simply believe that if they work effectively they can turn risk into reward.

Myth 5: Nine out of ten businesses fail

One of the most common myths in entrepreneurship is that nine out of ten businesses fail. Fortunately, the statistic is an exaggeration. It’s too simplistic and ignores a component that, if removed, leads us to forget an even more bizarre reality: over a long enough timeline all businesses come to an end. A vivid example of this phenomenon is that of the world’s oldest business, the Japanese company Kongō Gumi. After running for an impressive 1,400 years the company ended in 2006 – an impressive run, no doubt, since the average life span of a company is 40–50 years.

The ultimate end of all businesses, which by the way should not worry you, given the timespans involved, highlights an important point: when we talk about business failure rates we also have to consider a time component. A more telling statistic should tell us how many businesses fail over a specified period of time. Fortunately, this data is available and it is more encouraging than the usual nine-out-of-ten- businesses-fail mantra (see Figure 1.1).

failurerates

According to a study by researchers from the University of Sussex and Barclays Bank, only one in six businesses (16.98 percent) fail in the first year. Over time this proportion increases, but even after six years, 30 percent of the original companies are still running. So next time someone tells you that nine out of ten businesses fail, ask them, ‘after how many years?’

With that said, it’s worth acknowledging that statistics are informative but not always instructive. Taken alone, the above numbers tell you nothing about the kind of things you can do to enhance your chances of success (more on this in Part 3 of the book). The numbers reflect a select group of businesses that might be completely different from your venture. As such, don’t assume that your fate has already been sealed. Your chances are better than you think!

Myth 6: Starting a business is straightforward

Few people believe that starting a business is easy but many underestimate the effort it takes. Entrepreneurs generally work longer hours and at the early stage of a venture don’t get paid much. According to research from the UK, entrepreneurs work an average of 52 hours a week. That’s 63 percent longer than traditional employees. In America the renowned investor David Rose says he has never met an entrepreneur who works fewer than 60 hours a week. He believes that starting a business is an ‘all-in sport’. You can’t do things half-heartedly. Once the engine gets going you have to commit fully (more on this in Chapter 15).

In addition to the long hours there’s usually little to no salary in the early stages of a venture. The founders of Innocent Drinks, for example, didn’t have any income for 12 months. It took them four years before they could earn a salary of £40,000, which was the same amount they had left at their corporate jobs.

Paradoxically, entrepreneurs are happier than most people are. In a global survey of over 197,000 individuals, authors of the 2013 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report found that entrepreneurs score higher on ratings of happiness and life satisfaction when compared to non-entrepreneurs. So while it’s harder to start a business it’s also often more satisfying than regular employment. You enjoy more creative freedom and the hours fly by when you’re working on something you really care about.

Myth 7: You need lots of money

You don’t always need a lot of money to start. The amount of cash you will need depends on the type of business you hope to start. For instance, there are many examples of people who started an online business for less than £100 but went on to make six-figure incomes. On the other hand, a small coffee shop that seats about 20 people might cost you between £15,000 and £20,000 to set up.

The general pattern is that service companies have lower costs while product-based businesses (restaurants, manufacturers, retailers) tend to have higher costs. Regardless, in Chapter 15 we will look at some of the ways you can start with a minimal amount of resources.

As a side note it’s worth pointing out that there is a danger to having too much money at the start of a venture. You may be tempted to spend money on every problem. For example, if you aren’t generating enough sales you might be inclined to spend more money on marketing even if the product is not satisfying customers. In contrast, being short on resources instils a stricter discipline. You are forced to consider the underlying issues as to why something isn’t working, instead of using the brute force of cash to attack every problem.

The truth about entrepreneurship

You may have never considered entrepreneurship until now. You may still be at university, or you may be a graduate. Regardless of your current position it’s never too late to start a business. The odds of success – especially if you are educated – are better than most people think; you don’t need a million dollar idea; your age hardly matters; and it’s possible to attain the business skills necessary to become an effective entrepreneur.

This is a sample chapter taken from my career skills book Graduate Entrepreneurship. You can purchase a copy on Amazon or Book Depository. Please refer to the book for references and sources of key statistics and data.

Post-MBA Thoughts on Purpose

This post originally appeared at the MBA Blog of Said Business School.

In Trinity Term one of my favourite MBA electives was the Nature of the Corporation. In this course we asked, “what’s the purpose of a corporation?”, “do companies need to have a clear purpose?”, “how many corporations adhere to a healthy reason for their being?”, “is this reason good for shareholders alone or does it have a wider positive impact?”, and “which of these two approaches is more sustainable?” Though such questions risk coming across as grandiose, self-important, and overly philosophical, thinking about them can be instructive.

Purposeful Companies

On the course, we came to learn that corporations which lack a clear and systemic purpose tend to drift towards ill-conceived aims such as the singular pursuit of maximising profit for shareholders. But this tendency is problematic. This is because purpose informs values, strategy, and day-to-day decision-making. And so, if the sole purpose of a business is to maximise profits for its owners what’s to stop it from engaging in dubious practices that produce gains for a few at the expense of many? One example of this is Volkswagen. The car manufacturer cheated emissions tests so it could save millions of dollars but in doing so, it knowingly violated the Clean Air Act by putting cars on the road that emitted up to 40 times more pollution than was allowed. (The company was subsequently fined billions of dollars.)

In contrast, companies that adhere to the systemic purpose of acting to the benefit of not just shareholders, but also other stakeholders (customers, employees, suppliers, the community and environment within which the business operates), tend to perform better in the long run. Research shows that these companies are more innovative and resilient; they have more motivated employees; they have a lower cost of capital, and are less exposed to regulatory scandals. All in all, companies that pursue a clear, multi-dimensional, and healthy purpose outperform those do not.

Purposeful Lives

While thinking about corporate purpose I was also reflecting on a personal question: “what’s my purpose in life?” For a long time, I have struggled to articulate a coherent response to the question and this is not uncommon. Many of us find purpose vague, impractical, and too preachy to honestly consider. Moreover, on the MBA programme we are so busy with classes, assignments, socials, and career anxiety to think about a seemingly unproductive question. But think about it we must. Because as the American scholar Clayton Christensen once wrote, “the type of person you want to become—what the purpose of your life is—is too important to leave to chance.”

Why is purpose in our personal lives so important? Research shows that people who are clear about their purpose—people who are able to craft and make sense of their being—are more satisfied with life. They enjoy their work more. They have higher self-esteem. And, they are less prone to depression and anxiety symptoms. Most of us already know this intuitively. Think about your own life and the decisions you’ve had to make the in past. Were things more or less clear when you knew your values and what you stood for? Alternatively, were you more or less engaged with life (i.e. living vs. existing) when you had a vivid sense of direction?

Purposeful MBAs

As our MBA programme concludes we are faced with the question, “what next?” In answering this question we can choose to go wherever the wind blows or we can be more proactive and seek answers informed by a greater question, “what’s your purpose?” Albert Wenger, a prominent venture capitalist who gave a talk at Saïd Business School earlier this year, writes that “this is the single most useful question to ask anyone who is taking time out to think about what to do next.” I agree. Without purpose we risk drifting toward singular aims—money and status for example—that may provide gains in the short term but great losses in the long term. Fortunately, it’s possible for all of us craft a purposeful life if we spend some time thinking about it.

As freshly minted MBAs, how can we achieve this? The New York Times columnist David Brooks put it elegantly in his book ‘The Road to Character’ when he wrote, “…you don’t ask, ‘what do I want from life?’ You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?” This is how you find purpose. This is how you craft meaning. You find a way contribute to the world and in doing so it contributes to your well-being.

In recognition that we all have different interests and experiences, Brooks adds: “…all of us are given gifts, aptitudes, capacities, talents, and traits that we did not strictly earn. And all of us are put in circumstances that call out for action, whether they involve poverty, suffering, the needs of a family, or the opportunity to communicate some message.” In other words, to craft a purposeful life, you start with who are and what you’ve been through, and then you leverage those elements to make some personally meaningful contribution to the world.

None of this needs to be dreary by the way. Your purpose (or purposes, should you have more than one) could be crafted simply—to be a good friend, parent, spouse, or member of your community. It could also be crafted ambitiously—to fight climate change, empower the disadvantaged, or end poverty. Whatever the purpose, if it leads to a life that resembles an ideal once described by the psychologist Alfred Adler—“to be interested in my fellow man, to be part of the whole, [and] to contribute my share to the welfare of mankind”—then such a life will be one that’s truly worth living.

P.S. Many thanks to my classmates Armand, Candice, and Dana, who read an early draft of this essay.

The Problem With Advice

screen-shot-2011-11-13-at-11-25-50-pmWe give advice all the time. And when we’re not busy dishing out our very own seemingly sweet words of wisdom, we search for it in gurus, friends, family, books, and religion. Advice-giving is not just a multi-billion dollar business either. It’s impact permeates everything from simple day-to-day choices to life-altering decisions. Yet, advice–especially the informal kind–is easy to give or consume dangerously, which is to say, little care is given as to whether the advice on offer is of a high quality.

Ever since I enrolled at Oxford to pursue an MBA I’ve thought about this topic a whole bunch and after a year of seeking advice in lots of places I now have a few concepts–quick rules of thumb if you will–that can help filter and refine advice before you give it or take it. These “sniff tests” are based on quotes for ease of memory and are as follows:

First, remember that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus of Ephesus

Advice that worked for someone in a specific context and at a particular time will not necessarily work for you. The world moves fast. Times change and people change. Good advice should be malleable enough to adapt to new situations. If not, it becomes useless pretty quickly. Here’s an example:

Bad advice: Get a university degree.

Good advice: Get an education.

Second, notice that often “we see the world, not as it is, but as we are.” 1Stephen R. Covey

Our experiences shape how we make decisions and ultimately, how we consider advice. Had a bad experience at a not-so-bad restaurant? You probably won’t recommend it even if the chef simply had a bad day. In other words, all advice we give and receive is coloured by our unique histories. So before you give or receive advice, consider if there’s any baggage it’s coming with.2

Third, “if you give advice, you need to be exposed to losses from it.”Nassim Taleb

This last concept sounds extreme, but if you imagine that you will be exposed to losses related to poor advice, you are likely to take greater care. Likewise, if you are on the receiving end of advice, consider whether the person giving it really cares about you.

A Note on Good Advice

In sum, good advice should consider:

  • context (what’s different this time?)
  • bias (what personal history is colouring perceptions?)
  • skin in the game (what’s the responsibility and how invested is the advisor?)

Keeping these three ideas in mind should help us all deal with advice a bit better, including the advice in this blog post.3



Notes

[1] Thanks for helping me find the quote Vicky!

[2] My baggage for the advice in this article is that I’ve spent many years seeking advice on a range of subjects and also writing lots of advice. Some of it has worked really well and some of it hasn’t.

[3] I considered all three sniff tests while writing this post.

The Most Potent Lesson of 2016

Here’s a message I sent to my private mailing list today. I haven’t blogged in a while so I thought I’d share something. If you like it, you can join over 100 other people (or 144 to be exact) who receive an email from me once a month. The sign up link is here. Enjoy.


Happy 2017 folks!

Hope your new year celebrations go well. It’s only 6pm in the UK so we have another six hours to go, and I figured I could squeeze in one more email before the year ends.

This year, I’ve read so many interesting books (37 in total but I was aiming for 50), and it’s hard to recommend one must-read, but out of the all the books, I think the most relevant — given what happened politically in 2016 — has to be “Lessons from the Top: the Three Universal Stories that all Successful Leaders Tell.” In a nutshell, the book’s key message is this (emphasis mine):

cover“…every leader begins with a personal story, a way of answering the question ‘Who am I?’ Lady Gaga tells us repeatedly that she was the weird kid at school, though she also turned out to be highly driven and creative. She describes herself as ‘a freak, a maverick, a lost soul looking for peers’. Secondly, every leader’s story involves a group narrative, a way of explaining ‘Who are we?’ In Lady Gaga’s case ‘we’ are the outsiders. She calls her fans ‘my little monsters’, and in her leadership story she is ‘Mama Monster’ who keeps in touch with her offspring on Facebook and Twitter. Thirdly, all leaders offer a collective mission, the answer to the question ‘Where are we going?’ or ‘What is our common purpose?’ Lady Gaga tells her followers that together they can change the world. She promotes a positive message about gay rights. This ‘leadership projection’ is what most of us would call storytelling.”

Notice how Lady Gaga can be replaced with any influential leader, regardless of whether they are deemed ‘good’ or ‘evil’.

For example, Trump’s leadership projection was this:

  • Who I’m I? A pragmatic and successful business man. I’m a winner. In fact I’m so good at winning that despite several bankruptcies I made a comeback. (Notice Hillary’s team lost her “who I’m I” narrative to scandalous and oftentimes unfounded accusations.)
  • Who are we? Patriotic Americans. And you know what, “I’m with you!” (Notice Hillary’s message was “I’m with her”, making it more about her and not the people.)
  • Where are we going? We will return America to its former glory. (Notice Hillary’s destination narrative was unclear.)

We saw something similar with Brexit and history has more examples yet it’s easy to forget a potent lesson: you can’t win with facts alone. We’re moved by a compelling narrative. We’re moved by stories. We’re moved by emotion. Credibility or facts come last.

Masters of persuasion know how to weild powerful stories to advance their agenda. My signoff message for 2016 (and my biggest lesson for the year) is that you should watch out for these tactics in the coming year. There will be important facts and issues that lose ground due to ineffective storytelling. And likewise, there will be trivial and oftentimes straight-out lies that pick up momentum thanks to powerful storytelling. Don’t get caught out if you’re a follower. And if you’re a leader, remember the tool you have at your disposal. Use it wisely.

Best wishes,
Michael

How to Have Impact: Operating at the Margin and Beyond

In 1942 Howard Hughes set out to build the world’s largest aircraft, the Hughes H-4 Hercules. With a wingspan close to 100 meters and a weight of 180,000 kilograms, it was questionable whether the gigantic bird would ever take off.

The Hughes H-4 Hercules – 2 Nov 1947

The Hughes H-4 Hercules – 2 Nov 1947

What’s just as uncanny is that most of  the aircraft’s structure had to be constructed using wood, since a world war had restricted the supply of steel. A few years later, when Hughes had to testify before the US government (the aircraft was partially funded by the tax payer), he remarked:

“The Hercules was a monumental undertaking. It is the largest aircraft ever built. It is over five stories tall with a wingspan longer than a football field. That’s more than a city block. Now, I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.”

Hughes operated at the margin: When he wasn’t wooing beautiful actresses or breaking air speed records, he was busy developing the world’s first communication satellite and designing a moon lander that contributed to the success of the Apollo mission.1 The billionaire loved reaching for the edges. However, these attempts also came at a cost.

For example, legend has it that when qualified pilots refused to perform a dangerous aircraft stunt for a movie Hughes was directing, the stubborn billionaire decided to pilot the manoeuvre himself. He pulled off the feat but also crashed violently shortly after. Hughes almost died in the accident. And though some say he kept bits of the wreckage to remind him just how close to death he had come, the event did not diminish his appetite for risk.2 Indeed Hughes went on to have more brushes with death, and in less threatening scenarios, brushes with bankruptcy (he lost $90 million – no less than $400 million in today’s money – in a failed helicopter venture.)3

Operating at the Margin

Whenever I come across stories like those of Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, I’m reminded of a quote by the poet T. S. Eliot:

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

That’s what operating at the margin is about. It involves reaching for the edges, pushing the limits, and breaking new ground. Marketer Seth Godin calls it edgecrafting, or to it put more plainly, finding an edge. Here’s an entrepreneurship example offered by Godin:4

“You must go all the way to the edge . . . accepting compromise doesn’t make sense. Running a restaurant where the free prize is your slightly attractive waitstaff won’t work—they’ve got to be supermodels or weightlifters or identical twins. You only create a free prize when you go all the way to the edge and create something remarkable.

[Remarkable things are] the cheapest, easiest, best designed, funniest, most expensive, most productive, most respected, cleanest, loudest [and so forth.]”

That’s what operating at the margin in business can look like. More generally, operating at the margin is when you move past a cushy status quo to pursue something extra—ordinary. Of course, you might fail spectacularly – in fact you will probably fail more than you succeed – but unsuccessful grand efforts often leave a trail of stepping stones that enable other forms of achievement in the future. The giant airplane that Howard Hughes built, for instance, ended up flying just once, and for a mere 50 seconds.5 But without his ambitious contribution to aircraft history, efforts in the sector could arguably have been more timid in the years that followed.

A Hypothesis on How to Have Impact

These observations bring me to paraphrase Theodore Levitt: the world is driven by what happens at the margin.6 Put more precisely:

“. . . what’s important is not the average . . .  but the marginal . . .; what happens not in the usual case but at the interface of newly erupting conditions.”

Indeed, it is the ‘stubborn courage’ of a few, as Nassim Taleb puts it, that “disproportionately moves the needle” when it comes to change and progress.7

So here’s some practical advice. If you want to have impact in the world, operate at the margin. Pursue a ridiculously ambitious project or two in your lifetime. Stand for something you deeply care about. Have the courage to go against the grain. You will polarise people (some will love what you’re doing and others will hate it) but what you won’t have is indifference. You will have impact.8


Thanks to NatalieGiftedDino, and Renee for reading an early draft of this essay.

Notes

[1] http://www.inc.com/articles/2004/12/jamessteele.html

[2] https://selvedgeyard.com/2009/03/10/howard-hughes-odd-behavior/

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/1977/11/13/archives/hughes-documents-disclose-big-losses-in-last-decade-two-court.html

[4] http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/09/edgecraft-instead-of-brainstorming.html

[5] https://acesflyinghigh.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/the-hughes-h-4-hercules-aka-the-spruce-goose/

[6] https://hbr.org/1983/05/the-globalization-of-markets

[7] http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/minority.pdf

[8] Operating at the margin can be used for both good and bad.

How I became a writer

I fell into writing accidentally. In fact I never really started reading books seriously until age 20 or so (though I ordered my first non-fiction on book on Amazon aged 18 – it was Plato).

From age 20, I started reading books on a range of non-fiction on topics. Here’s what a selection of my Amazon book orders looks like for the last 8 years.

bookorders

See the big jump in year 4? That’s the year I wrote my first book. Ever since then I aim to read about 50 books a year (or one book a week).

Today, I read mainly on my Kindle but here’s what a fraction (about 20 %) of my book collection looks like:

bookshelf

So how did I get into writing? I think two factors played a pertinent role.

First, I was reading so much that I felt a strong urge to share all the cool stuff I was coming across. For example, did you know that happier people have stronger immune systems? How about willpower, did you know that it’s like a muscle and that while it can be strengthened via training, it can also be depleted a exertion? These are all things I shared in both my first and second book.

The second reason why I started writing was because it was a way of self-prescribing solutions to personal challenges in the past, present, or future. By pulling together ideas from a range of sources and writing about them, I cemented what I had learned during the ’research’ process.
These two reasons are also why I rarely write material that is overly personal, instead choosing to be more informative and prescriptive. But perhaps that will change. After all, writing with personality can be more fun for both the reader and author.
In sum, I write because I enjoy sharing insightful material. I also write because it helps me condense knowledge and ideas I have accumulated from all the reading that I do. As I grow older and experience more of the ups and downs that life has to offer, perhaps I will also start to write so people can relate.

Don’t Believe the Hype. 30 is Not the New 20. (How to Make the Most of Your 20s)

Aged 25. His Team Spent $500,000 on the Thriller Video.

Aged 25. His Team Spent $500,000 on the Thriller Video.

This is an essay to myself as a reminder to make the most of the time I have.

You have a lot of energy now. Your body will begin to slow down when you are older, so work like crazy but always make time for play.

Build something. Write a book. Master a craft. Put in the hours in your career. Now is the time when you don’t have that many responsibilities and your body can take whatever you throw at it. Think of it as a period of acceleration because later, you will have to slow down.

Stevie Wonder produced four number one albums between the ages of 21 and 27 (he was lucky enough to repeat the feat in his 30s).  Michelangelo completed one of his greatest works, the statue of David, aged 26. Albert Einstein, while working as a patent clerk six days a week, managed to raise a family in his twenties, and introduced the world to e=MC^2 at the age of 26. Michael Jackson produced his greatest albums between the ages of 20 and 29 (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad).

Of course these people are freaks of nature. Not all of us have such talent. But who is to say we can’t have our own little victories in our twenties, before ambition dims and responsibility settles in? The twenties are the most vibrant period in which to pursue wild goals. And don’t give me your 9-to-5-too-busy-at-work, excuse. Didn’t I just mention that Einstein held down a full-time job as a patent clerk, raised a family, and in whatever time he had left over, worked on some of the greatest scientific theories ever, all in his twenties?

You are young. Use the energy you have in your twenties to do something you can look back on with pride.

Okay, maybe I am glorifying the twenties a bit. Much can be achieved at a more mature age. And there are many examples. For instance it is not unusual in the film industry for people to peak in their thirties and beyond. Quentin Tarantio’s career, for example, didn’t really take off until his 30s (although he wrote Resevoir Dogs in his late twenties). And in the business world, a good number of CEOs are in their late thirties/forties/fifties. With that being said, I bet you these people were “rising stars” in their twenties, working their butts off!

It’s not all about work though. You don’t want to look back and wish you socialised a bit more, attended a few more parties, or travelled more. I’d rather have my hangovers and jetlags before I’m a pensioner. And I’d most certainly rather have my junk food now before I need to worry about a diet. Your body will be more fragile in later years. So enjoy it now and make the most of your energy. It won’t last forever.

The Snowball Effect of Success

monkey_and_snowball

You’re more attractive if you’re already in a relationship. You’re more employable if you already got a job. In fact you’ll make a lot more money once you have lots of money. It seems to me that in life, all you have to do is make a name for yourself just a few times before you can take advantage of the snowball effect of success. You can then sit back and reel in opportunities that feed off of each other.

How to Get a First Class Degree

successfully-earning-online-bachelor-degree

In my final year of University, I managed to go out 2-4 times a month (in terms 1 and 2), co-founded and run an entrepreneur’s society where I acted as the Vice President and despite maintaining a fairly active social life and being involved with organizing numerous society events, I still managed to graduate with a first class degree in Accounting and Finance (2010), taking home the prize for the highest dissertation mark, as well as sharing a prize for the highest mark in a challenging Finance module.

Could it be that I am some kind of super-smart-naturally-talented-student? Not really. My IQ is only slightly above average and on numerous topics, I had to ask my classmates for help, whereas in other areas I resorted to 12 hour days in the library in the final term to really grasp the more difficult topics. To a number of friends, the fact that I got a first was surprising because in my first and second years (where I had a lot more non-academic pursuits), I actually averaged a mid-level 2.1.

Some people think that to get a first, you either have to be naturally very smart, or you need to spend every living hour in the library. I would argue that both of these premises do not need to hold and that a student of average intelligence can do extremely well without leading a boring student life where they spend every free moment studying.

Reflecting back on my time at University, I have identified a number of behaviours, ideas, and principles that helped me succeed, and I believe that if other students adopt them, their chances of achieving a first class would be greatly enhanced. These are as follows:

1. Choose the ‘Right’ Degree.

This is perhaps the most important of all the points but yet also the most ambiguous. The ‘right’ degree could be a subject area you enjoy, one where your strengths lie, or one you believe will help you enter a certain field of work. Either way, you should do a degree in which finding the motivation to work your ass off is not a problem. To me, this is a key factor in determining the ‘right degree’.

2. Have the ‘Right’ Mindset.

When people ask, what are you aiming for, you may lie and say; “I am aiming for a first so that worst comes to worst, I will get a 2.1”. But when you talk to yourself, never beat around the bush. If you want a first, you must believe that by putting in the effort, you will get it. As corny as it sounds, positive self-talk works. Believe that by putting in the effort you can do it, and you will. Think otherwise, and you will probably not get a first.

3. Get Study Buddies.

What worked really well for me was that I had a core group of friends with whom I went to the library and study zones with on a regular basis; not necessarily to work and study together in a group (we only did this once or twice a month for 2 hours to discuss some topics), but to know that we were not at it alone. We would go into the library and sit in a quite zone to work solo, only getting up to ask each other questions when we were really really stuck. The main advantage of having such buddies is that they can motivate you to work harder and to focus again if you start to get lazy. For example in the final term, there were days when I would get up to leave the library early, only to sit back down after being mocked by a friend: “You only been here 6 hours and you are leaving already?!?! You are getting lazy man!”. Having study buddies also means you can moan about how hard things are and do a bit of venting about the struggle from time to time, which is healthy.

4. Don’t Study at Home; Study at University.

80%-90% of my studying was done at University in a quiet zone. You have to get yourself in a good environment to study effectively. It’s like going to the gym. You work harder there than you do at home because in a gym you see other people sweating it out on the bench and treadmills and automatically you are motivated to push harder. Therefore, stay at University as long as you can to cover all the work that needs to get done such that when you get home, you can relax and enjoy the rest of the night.

5. Attend All Lectures in the Final Year.

I will admit, I did not attend all of my lectures and missed quite a few in years 1 and 2. But in your final year, you should aim to attend all lectures and take as many notes as you can. When taking notes, it does not matter if understand them at the time or not, write them down anyway. As you return to revise, armed with more knowledge, those once illusive notes will begin to make sense. Also, by attending all lectures, you will pick up hints as to what could come up in the exams. The lecturers usually emphasize these topic areas, or say things like, “this would make a nice exam question”. If you have to miss a lecture, then ask a friend to record them for you on a usb recorder to listen to later, or at least copy some notes from a friend.

6. Have a Healthy Body.

Tony Buzan, a world leading expert on the brain and learning who has experience advising Olympic athletes suggests that having a healthy mind requires a healthy body. This means that you should aim to get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and minimize the amount of junk food in your diet. In terms 1 and 2, I would hit the gym 3-4 times a week and in term 3, I cut it down to 2-3 times a week. Spending time on the treadmill and lifting weights made the crucial revision period near the end of the year less monotonous and boring, and I felt much more energized after breaking a sweat.

7. Maintain an Active Social Life.

In the first and second terms of my final year, I went out on most Saturday nights and hardly ever said no to invites to parties, as long as they were on days that did not result in me missing lectures. Human beings are very social animals and it appears that the more we lock ourselves away to study all alone and isolated, the more we become miserable and this ends up affecting our work. If you are not the going out type, there are many other things you can do with friends and family on the weekends. Having a day, once a week, where you can simply relax and enjoy the company of friends and family can do wonders for your efforts in achieving a first.

8. Always Do More.

Do more than is expected in all the work that you do. For example, do more reading. This is particularly important in subjects that involve essays and a fair bit of writing. I recommend however that you first understand and learn all that is taught within the syllabus and then complement that information with additional knowledge that you may not be expected to know. For example, when I was revising certain topics in my final year, I would go the the eLibrary and search for all journals and articles related to the topic, pick out the interesting ones and with a pen in one hand, start to read them while taking notes. Lecturers are always impressed by a student who mentions relevant knowledge not taught directly in the lectures.

If you made it to the end of this rather long article and found it useful, perhaps you can help me assess whether it would be appealing to write a much more extensive purchasable guide as an eBook.  This would be over 100 pages long and consist of more detailed strategies, ideas and motivational tips to greatly increase your chances of getting a first class. By voting below, you can help me identify the level of interest.

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