Gregg Fairbrothers is an adjunct professor of Business Administration at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and founding director of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network. Catalina Gorla is a Dartmouth graduate and the founder of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network chapter in Ohio.
Surveys consistently show that as many as half to three quarters of Americans have thought at least once about starting their own businesses. Half a percent actually do it in any given year. Of those who never do, more say there were critical things they didn't know than said they were worried about the risk. What is it these people don't know?
It can seem daunting to go in one leap from a near-clueless state of having an idea and no notion where to start, to running a successful enterprise with all the skills and experience that entails. But that's why it's so important to think about adjectives, characteristics. Verbs and nouns—like "starting a new company" or "risk-tolerant person" are all-or-nothing. They reinforce the idea that either you are or you aren't, you do or you don't. But thinking in adjectives frees you from binary, either-or thinking because characteristics can exist in degrees. And more importantly, characteristics can be learned.
Imagine you are at the base of a tall cliff, and all the mindset and know-how of the successful entrepreneur is at the top. If you are at the base and success is at the top, no wonder it seems daunting. But what if there was a set of stairs leading up the cliff? On this staircase, each riser is one of those adjectives that adds something; each step up makes you a little more entrepreneurial. Cultivating more of these characteristics and behaviors moves you up the steps, so that you don't have to make the climb all at once, straight up. Looking at it this way, everyone starts out at least a little bit entrepreneurial! And almost anyone can climb a set of stairs, just as almost anyone can learn new habits and ways of thinking, one step at a time. You just need a little guidance on how to get started and what to look for.
Entrepreneurs first and foremost have to become self-starting, learning machines. Actually learning is fun. Everybody loves learning new things. Learning new associations between ideas and concepts generates dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, and brains love dopamine. Learning to be more entrepreneurial, then, positions you to execute successfully on things that are meaningful to you, and it gets you high on dopamine at the same time. How good a deal is that?
So how do you learn to be more entrepreneurial? Entrepreneurial learning starts with a little self reprogramming. Most of our lives we're socialized to follow procedures, memorize curricula of structured knowledge, "study to the test." But in the real world in which we all have to function, that kind of thinking isn't ideal. A kindergarten poster put it succinctly: "Learning is 5 percent hearing, 10 percent seeing, and 85 percent doing."
Five percent of what you learn on any given topic you learn by hearing, listening to someone talk about it, and reading about it. They're all great sources of information. But it's only information and there's only so much good information you can possibly internalize, much less recall and apply when you need it.
Ten percent of what you learn, you learn by seeing. If you watch someone else do something, you internalize that action on all sorts of subliminal levels. Psychologists call this imitative or social learning. It's almost automatic, hard-wired learning, and it happens beneath our conscious awareness. We just sort of absorb or internalize things we see someone do. Even animals learn this way. To learn, observe people who do this effectively and successfully. The more you do, the more you'll find you can't help absorbing their behaviors and ways of thinking—literally becoming more like them. Just be careful what you wish for. You want to become more like the right kind of people!
And then there's the 85 percent—learning by doing. This means executing first and continuously, learning what works, and building plans and strategies later. Books, podcasts, classes, imitating people—all that may help you learn, but it can only take you so far, and it will never get you started. You will never learn how to swim standing by the side of a pool; you have to get in the pool.
Remember, success really isn't a good end goal. Success is a "second thing," and you can't get second things by putting them first. You can only get second things by putting first things first. Most successful entrepreneurs we have met aimed to do something they felt was worthwhile. It always boils down to this: What do you want to achieve, and how will you achieve it? If you care enough about going after something, there will always be a way to learn what you need to learn, and find the resources you need to make it happen. That's entrepreneurial, and it can add value anywhere.