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Life Lessons

life and business lessons learned

When I started my first business, I remember feeling like I was under constant siege. I was a new parent just learning to be a dad. I felt overwhelmed by the onslaught of challenges. It was physically and emotionally exhausting trying to keep up, stay calm, collected and productive.

I kept telling myself the learning curve was an opportunity for growth and development. I kept thinking, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The coaches, mentors and clients I worked with, together with all the books I read and the courses I took, helped me survive, shaped my thinking and taught me the skills and ways of being I strived to practice today.

I’m now approaching 40 years into my working life, and 30 years into my entrepreneurial experience. I’m into my fourth business, and my kids are grown. I’ve overcome a stroke, relearned to walk, and how to deal with the depression so common to stroke survivors. I’ve written a book and helped nearly 150 small business owners through their entrepreneurial learning curves.

What Did You Learn Too Late In Life?

Seven months ago, I bumped into this question on Quora.com. [1] It got me thinking; what have I learned? I started working on and refining my answer. I’ve been adding to my list of life lessons whenever an important idea surfaced ever since. It’s been a powerful reminder for me and an access point for feelings of gratitude towards all the people who taught and challenged me.

I’ve found it useful to reflect on the lessons, as the practice has brought greater focus and intention to my ways of being and acting [2].

My answer, at last count, has received over 19,500 views on Quora.com, which inspired me to keep refining it and to create this article. Why? Because I’ve sworn in frustration many times over the years, ranting and questioning why some brilliant information was not taught in school. For you fellow entrepreneurs and small business owners in the trenches; I hope I can flatten your learning curve a little.

These are some of the most potent lessons I’ve learned. They’ve made a real difference in my life throughout my business, personal and parenting experience.

Fundamental Learning

  1. There are all kinds of intelligence; damn few of them get taught in school. Never stop learning. Read Emotional Intelligence [3] by Danielle Goleman for a window into this conversation.
  2. Change is constant; learn to see it as an opportunity. Read Who Moved My Cheese [4] by Spencer Johnson and see if you can recognise yourself and everyone around you.
  3. Some of the best learning comes from some of the oldest sources. Think Socrates, Aristotle, Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, and many mid-20th century experts such as Edward de Bono, W. Edwards Deming, Carl Jung, Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, Claude Hopkins and so many others. Don’t fixate on all the new literature. Much of it is recycled from more comprehensive works.
  4. Never accept authority or doctrine as absolute. The intent of the law is more important than the letter of the law. Use your head, always question authority.
  5. Money is not the root of all evil; ignorance is. Learn about money and how it works. It will change your understanding of what’s possible and impossible. The Wealthy Barber [5] by David Chilton and Rich Dad Poor Dad [6] by Robert Kiyosaki are good starting points.
  6. Don’t just learn deeper and deeper into one subject. Understand that the real world is complex; networks and systems are the norm. Often the solution is behind you or beside you in another discipline. Discover Edward de Bono [7]’s work for exposure to lateral and systems thinking.
  7. Networks are one of the universal constants of life, the universe and everything. Almost everything works according to the rules of networking. To learn more read Linked [8] by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi.
  8. I grew up believing that being in service to others was noble and selfishness was bad. What I learned is; Being selfish is necessary. The challenge is to find a workable balance between being in service and self-interest.
  9. Beware of black and white thinking by anyone, but most of all by people in a position of power. Damn few things are that simple. Don’t be tempted by the desire for binary thinking. Almost nothing in life is that simple. Learn to embrace complexity and diversity.

Becoming Productive

  1. “Why” is more important than “how”. Context is king. If you’re clear on why, you can figure out how. Read Start with Why [9] by Simon Sinek.
  2. Focus on and build upon your strengths. Don’t spend all your time trying to compensate for your weaknesses. Read a little book called StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Gallup and Tom Rath, now known as Clifton Strengths. [10]
  3. The Pareto Principle [11] or the 80/20 rule is one of the most useful things I’ve ever learned. It appears to be almost universally applicable. It states that you get 80% of the value from 20% of your efforts. Figure out which 20% creates 80% of the benefits and focus your efforts there. In many cases, sweating the last 80% is counterproductive.
  4. The Scope Triangle [12] illustrates the trade-offs you need to manage between time, money and quality in any project. Learn to apply this thinking in your project set up communication. It will significantly improve your experience of work and dealing with clients.
  5. Your focus does not always need to be narrow or ultra-specific to be effective. You can pull back and focus on the big picture as well. Not everyone needs to be a specialist. There is tremendous value in focusing on the performance of the whole system. Read The Fifth Discipline [13] by Peter Senge.
  6. The lesson I use most often is to define my objective before I start anything. Stephen Covey called it “Starting with the end in mind” in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. [14]
  7. Learning to organise yourself and stay on top of everything is a skill worth investing in. There’s no shortage of books on this topic, but the three I always recommend are First Things First [15] by Stephen Covey; Getting Things Done [16] by David Allen; and On Top Of Everything [17] by Lawrence Seton.
  8. “Perfection is the enemy of progress,” said Winston Churchill. Voltaire said “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” The lesson is if you don’t put anything out until it’s perfect, you’ll never put anything out at all. Accept that perfection is a relative thing and impossible to achieve. Continuous improvement is a more productive goal.
  9. Another of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to Sharpen the Saw (your brain). Ever since I read this in the early ’90s, I’ve spent an hour a day reading or learning something. It’s one of the best lessons. The cumulative effect of continuous learning over decades will shape and empower you.

Learning Emotional Mastery

  1. Uncover your core values, beliefs and your unconscious behavioural responses. It’s one of the most powerful tools for personal growth and self-mastery. I can’t recommend a specific comprehensive book on the subject. I’ve learned much of this from coaching, and from a book called Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures [18] by Raymond G. Miltenberger.
  2. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Emotional Mastery [19] is an essential skill to develop as a leader and business owner. I learned this lesson most from my sales training. If you let fear stop you in sales, you won’t last very long.
  3. We all have blind spots [20] routed in our core values and beliefs. Real growth comes from an awareness of and ownership over them. It takes opening up to a coach or mentor to see into and start addressing your blind spots.
  4. If someone does something that triggers a strong emotional reaction [21] in you, your response is coming from within, not them. The strength of your reaction is often related to something you dislike about yourself. I learned this lesson most powerfully through parenting.
  5. Your interpretation of the things that happen is not the truth. Facts get warped into stories that support your beliefs [22]. Don’t accept your thoughts as facts. Always stay objective and understand your thoughts are just stories you make up.
  6. Regardless of what others do to us, we still choose who we are and how to respond. Choosing to be the bigger person and not diminishing yourself in the process can be challenging, but ultimately a more constructive path.
  7. What we choose to see is less about where we’re looking, and more about what we elect to pay attention to and the meaning we assign it.
  8. My favourite lesson that I keep trying to learn is from Eric Idle of Monty Python. It’s from the movie The Life of Brian and it’s to “always look on the bright side of life [23]”. There is an accompanying song that always lifts my spirit.
  9. Don’t make any important decisions in anger. Say as little as possible until you calm down. Wait until you’re back in control of your rational decision-making mind. Don’t get impatient; sometimes, it can take a long time to overcome your pride and anger. The decisions can wait. Don’t compound the original problem by making decisions while angry.

Learning Communication Effectiveness

  1. Finding your voice and learning to communicate powerfully is available to anyone. You just need to be willing to accept the consequences of being known by others.
  2. Effective communication, negotiation and leadership skills are a must to learn as early in your life as possible. Start with a book called L.E.T. Leadership Effectiveness Training [24]by Thomas Gordon. Thank You, Dr. Peter Gregg [25], for recommending this little gem so many years ago.
  3. Slow down and think before you speak, and act. It will save you a heap of trouble and effort cleaning up after the fact.
  4. Deep listening and empathy are tremendous strengths and not a sign of weakness. Read Raising Cane: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys [26] by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson.
  5. Effective delegation requires an active two-way conversation, negotiation and agreement. Read If You Want It Done Right, You Don’t Have To Do It Yourself [27] by Donna M. Genett It will take you 90 minutes. Just do it.

Problem Solving

  1. Constructive conflict resolution is a skill we can learn and should teach very early on. It was described to me as a sequence of steps, with Step 1 being to negotiate a win/win. Step 2 involves getting an unbiased third party (mediator) to help negotiate a win/win. Step 3 is to assign authority to a 3rd party (the arbitrator) who will decide for you, and Step 4 is to go to the court system. The learning is that we tend to skip the first three steps and default to getting someone else to solve our problems with an adversarial win/lose agenda.
  2. Pattern recognition is not just for AI; it’s a skill we can develop and use to recognise opportunities and threats quickly with less data analysis. Look into the collective works of Russell L. Ackoff [28].
  3. Logic is your friend. Learn to follow a path to its natural conclusion before you start something. The higher the risk, the more you’ll benefit from planning and forecast modelling.
  4. Learn to use the Pugh Method [29] or a Weighted Decision Matrix to make good decisions. Stuart Pugh first created the model. Over the years, I’ve used the model over and over in my business, with my clients and with my kids. It’s one of the most universally useful, easily constructed and easy to understand tools I know of to help people make sound decisions.

Leadership and Personal Development

  1. Accountability is a deep, deep well and understanding what it means and owning everything is vital to your success and relationships. I think the Landmark Forum [30] is one of the most potent ways to appreciate the depth of the idea. Once you get it, you’ll develop a love/hate relationship with the concept of accountability.
  2. Integrity is one of the cornerstones of leadership and a core building block for making relationships workable. Integrity is not something you have; it’s something you actively move in and out of. It is something to work on and master. It is said that “Integrity is a mountain with no top”.
  3. Being gracious and compassionate in all situations is challenging to live up to, but essential for your peace of mind, and the respect and trust of others. The people I’ve come to admire most in business are the leaders who consistently role model this way of being. It demonstrates tremendous emotional mastery and communication effectiveness. The practice can generate immense trust and loyalty.
  4. Being in service is important but taking care of yourself is vital if you want to be of any value to anyone. You can’t draw water from an empty well.
  5. I learned from a book called Whale Done! [31] by Ken Blanchard that when training a 6-tonne killer whale, punishment or negative reinforcement is going to get you eaten. Positive reinforcement and enrollment are far more effective when relationships or your life matter to you. This practice flies in the face of the role modelling many of us are accustomed to. It can be challenging to commit to enrollment when punishment and power struggling is all we’ve ever experienced.
  6. Trust readily [32] but know deep down that people will ultimately serve their best interests, and betrayal is to be expected. People are flawed, vain, selfish and cowardly. Don’t be blindsided by human nature.
  7. Being a Leader is not something you’re born into. It’s not reserved for the heirs of kings. It’s just you, stepping up, being authentic, being your word, standing for something bigger than yourself and enrolling others in a worthy possibility. Consider taking the Being a Leader and the Effective Exercise of Leadership workshop. [33]

Sales

  1. If you don’t have sales, you don’t have a company. Don’t diminish the importance of sales or shrink from it. It’s an essential skill to develop. My two favourite sales resources are Sandler Sales Training [34] and the book SPIN Selling [35] by Neil Rackham. The two systems complement each other very nicely.
  2. Professional selling is not about pitching; it’s where you facilitate someone through a thoughtful decision process that results in them taking a beneficial action.
  3. The sales funnel, and the buyer’s journey are two sides of the same coin. Create a system that aligns the two agendas.

Marketing

  1. Marketing is not a promotional tactic; it’s the system you build to reach, engage, enroll, convert and develop long-term profitable relationships. Read Mastering Marketing [36] by John H. Watson for an accessible introduction to the systems view of marketing and business development.
  2. Positioning comes before branding. Your competitive positioning is one of the first things to focus on in business. Its purpose is to help people categorise you into a mental pigeonhole. If people don’t know where you fit, you’ll be mentally discarded almost immediately.
  3. Branding and Identity [37] are two entirely different things. Your brand is the experience you create for people over time (your reputation). Identity is what people see; your name, logo, colours, etc. Many people confuse the two. Your identity reflects the values of your brand, whereas people come to associate their brand experience with your logo.
  4. One of the most powerful tools in your marketing arsenal is your story. What’s confusing about story and critical to understanding, is whose story you’re telling. It’s not your story that matters; it’s the story of your customer that matters. They are the hero of your story. You are the means by which they achieve their goals and realise their potential. Go watch Disney’s Hercules and imagine yourself as Philoctetes “Phil”, the satyr. The trainer of heros. Also consider reading Building A Story Brand [38] by Donald Miller.

You’ll learn so many valuable lessons over the course of your career. After almost 40 years into my working life, the most important lesson I’ve learned is to never stop learning. I don’t think I would have survived in business or pushed through life’s challenges constructively, without embracing reading and putting the learnings into practice.

I hope this list inspires you to crack open a couple of books and try some new learning on for size. If you’ve learned a powerful business or life lesson, please consider sharing it here in a comment.