Why There’s no Syllabus for Entrepreneurship

This was originally published in my newsletter How It Actually works

Say you’ve decided you want to start your own business. Maybe you hate your boss or you think you have a great idea, whatever.

The next thought that enters your mind is “where do I start?” Where is the roadmap on how to do this the right way?

Our entire lives in school, at work, and with our families we’re explicitly told what we need to do to “succeed”. We’re given step-by-step instructions on what’s expected of us.

But it turns out there’s no syllabus for entrepreneurship.

Sure, other entrepreneurs can tell you what’s worked for them. We can talk about best practices to implement & landmines to avoid. But no one knows for sure exactly what will work for you in your specific business.

Which means you’re going to make mistakes.

You’re going to try new things and most of the time they aren’t going to work out.

But mistakes are normal.

Do you think someone told Steve Jobs or Reed Hastings the step-by-step instructions on how to make Apple or Netflix?

Heck no. They had to screw up a ton to build their companies. I just learned the other day that Netflix tried and failed at producing its own movies when it was still only doing DVD rentals.

And they also had that Qwikster “spin off” of their rental business that they announced, and then changed their mind on.

Big mistakes!

But to compare to the normal world: stop and think about how blasphemous the sentence ‘mistakes are normal’ is in many work and social circles.

In fact, what makes the Netflix failures newsworthy in the first place is the implicit idea that mistakes are always bad.

Learning a language = making mistakes

I lived in Oaxaca, Mexico for 2 years starting when I turned 19. I knew a few Spanish words but otherwise arrived knowing none of the language and had to learn it when I got there.

Learning Spanish was incredibly hard. I studied and practiced 2-3 hours every day. I went out and I talked to people all day long, trying to force myself to learn.

People were nice but they’d often treat me like a child because they couldn’t understand me. And because I spoke so slowly I often couldn’t say most of my thoughts before I was interrupted.

What made it so weird was that in any given day of frustration I couldn’t tell whether I was better than the previous week or month. Progress felt impossible to measure.

But then sometimes I’d run into a friend I hadn’t seen in a few months and they’d immediately react “Wow your Spanish is so much better now!”

That was always a surprise.

Even though we assume we know ourselves best, sometimes it takes someone else to tell us how far we’ve come.

Learning anything = making mistakes

If you went up to a stranger and asked “do you think you can learn a new language without making mistakes?” they’d tell you “Of course not.”

It’s so obvious I hesitate to even write the words.

But in other parts of our lives – work, fitness, learning to play an instrument, meeting new people, dating – we so often avoid mistakes at all costs. We’ll research for 7 hours online to avoid “buying the wrong shoes” or trying to figure out the “perfect” way to socialize at a party.

These things, as in life generally, demand mistakes in order to make progress.

You don’t learn Spanish just by opening your mouth after buying a Rosetta Stone course.

You learn Spanish by saying the wrong Spanish words every day for 2 years.

The mistakes themselves are what teach you. To avoid mistakes is to avoid learning.

This was originally published in my newsletter How It Actually Works.