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One reason I started my own business in my early 20s is that I believed it would help me grow faster as a human being. I figured I’d learn more valuable skills, tackle more challenges, and enjoy a richer life as an entrepreneur than I would as someone else’s employee. That turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.
The happiest and most successful business owners I know are almost invariably more motivated by the personal growth aspects of business than the financial aspects. Many of them love the challenge, and nothing motivates them so much as turning an idea into reality. The money they earn in business helps to fuel their personal growth interests.
In the years I’ve been blogging, hundreds of readers (possibly thousands by now) have told me they quit their jobs and started their own businesses. That doesn’t surprise me because entrepreneurship can provide many growth lessons and opportunities that are difficult to experience any other way. When you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll often feel like you’re learning and growing at warp speed.
Let me share some of the many ways that starting and running your own business can help drive your personal growth forward.
Ground your growth in the real world
Many personal growth concepts sound intriguing, but do they work in the real world? Without actual testing, it’s impossible to know which ideas have merit. Try applying those ideas to a real business, and see how they perform. This cuts through the B.S. and helps you identify the gems.
You’ll discover that some ideas which sound a bit airy fairy actually work well in business, while other ideas that seem smart and logical are too inflexible to be useful in the uncontrolled chaos of the real world.
Sometimes you’ll observe results that evade a clear conclusion but which help you discover more subtleties. This will polish your thinking, such as by helping you recognize when the time is right to race ahead with optimism vs. when to put on your skeptics cap and think twice about a so-called opportunity.
You may respect promising theories and ideas in the sanctuary of your own mind, but in business you’ll learn to respect what works. You’ll receive meaningful feedback to see how your ideas pan out. You always have numbers to look at, such as your sales and profits… or your losses and debts.
In the pure space of ideas, there are no time limits. In business you’ll learn to favor ideas that can be applied efficiently because time is your scarcest resource. That sense of time pressure to get things done faster helps you learn to balance the time vs. quality tradeoff in other parts of your life. You may love your daily 90-minute hot yoga classes (perhaps 2.5 hours including driving time and showering), but when you see opportunities passing you by while you’re sweating it out at the studio, you’ll surely feel some pressure to find a more efficient way to exercise.
Testing ideas in the crucible of business can seem merciless and unforgiving at times, but it keeps us honest regarding what works. Some things that may have worked okay in your sheltered upbringing, such as complaining or whining to get what you want, are mostly useless in the business world. On the other hand, ideas that your friends and family thought were foolish may actually prove to have huge market potential, and you could prove all the naysayers wrong.
Doing business in the chaotic real world can chip away childish facets of your personality and beliefs and replace them with practical creativity. If you want to get things done efficiently and make your business successful, you’ll need to take your personal growth to a new level. Knowing that your business will push you to grow in this way is a major reason to consider starting a business. How much longer do you want to keep swimming in the kiddie pool?
Running a business can make you smarter.
A business throws many interesting and novel problems at you. Thinking about and solving those problems keeps your brain active. You’ll have an endless stream of fresh challenges for your neural net to chew on, which will keep your mind strong and fit even when you aren’t working.
The tradeoff is that when your mind is churning on business problems, you may be less present to what’s happening right in front of you. So another skill is learning to center yourself when you want to take time off. For many entrepreneurs this is difficult. But then again you may not care. Many people enjoy the obsessive nature of business.
Do you relish the opportunity to apply your whole being to a problem, challenge, or exploration? The mental and emotional stimulation of facing tricky decisions can be immensely rewarding. If you like solving puzzles, business is full of them.
Being active in business is a great way to keep your mind sharp well into your 70s, 80s, and beyond.
I never want to retire, regardless of how much money I have. Retirement is mental death.
Upgrade your habits
Many businesses have a repetitive side. To handle recurring tasks efficiently, you need good processes for the business, which usually includes good habits for yourself.
You’ll need one set of habits to get the repetitive work done consistently. If you fail to handle the routine aspects of business, your business will suffer. The world of business punishes you for being sloppy and disorganized. The worst punishment is missing a golden opportunity because you were too disorganized to act.
You’ll need another set of habits to avoid getting beaten down by the routine. Too much routine can become boring and tedious. A big part of business involves reducing the amount of time and energy you invest in routine work, so you can invest more time and energy in new opportunities.
Seeing how your habits affect your business can be hard to take, but this feedback benefits us in the long run. It wakes us up and helps us graduate to more intelligent behaviors.
If you approach business with a poor work ethic and a low commitment to learn and grow, you’ll be sent home. I’ve seen many optimistic new entrepreneurs fail in business because they approached their business with a sloppy mindset, as if it were a cutesy little hobby to squeeze between social media and YouTube videos.
I’ve also seen an amazing transition happen with many entrepreneurs. Something finally clicks in their minds, and virtually overnight they go from amateur to professional. It usually takes years to reach that night, however. After that point there’s no stopping them. They approach their business with a dedication and commitment unlike anything they’ve previously mustered. They step up, take charge, make good long-term decisions, and work their plans for months on end.
If you want to think up some better habits, ask yourself, What would a real pro do? Pay special attention to how you believe a professional in your field would behave. What would a consummate professional do different than an amateur?
Do your best to behave as you believe the pro would behave. This is only a starting point though. Eventually you’ll come up with habits that are uniquely your own. Just keep in mind that pros often have a lot of fun doing what they do. They work hard because they love their work so incredibly much. Many pros can be eccentric, and one reason is that eccentricity makes work more fun and engaging. For many pros the biggest risk is that their work becomes too routine and too easy, which would kill their motivation and drive.
Stop working with (or for) idiots
When you’re in school, you’ll have to deal with some idiot teachers now and then. If you work for someone else, you may have to deal with an idiot boss or idiot co-workers. If you run your own business, you’ll still have to deal with idiots in government sometimes, but at least you’ll have some say about who works in your company and who doesn’t.
When I used to work at a computer game store during my early 20s, the high-strung owner would overreact to every little problem. If the shipping guy ever shipped the wrong order by mistake, the owner would fire him immediately, so the supervisor was always having to hire and train new shippers. Sometimes I’d wonder how long each new guy would last till he got fired. I think one of them only lasted four days. In my opinion it was stupid to fire someone for a $20 mistake because it cost the owner much more to hire and train someone new.
When a rare or minor problem occurred, the owner would solve it by creating a new rule that all employees were supposed to follow. These rules were often counter-productive. One time a customer wanted to return a game that an employee had supposedly recommended. The customer didn’t like the game. So our new rule was: No employees can recommend games to customers anymore. Henceforth whenever a hopeful customer came into the store looking for a game and asked for help picking a good one, the employees like me — all of us were heavy gamers — had to act like we had no opinion as to which games were better than any others.
In practice though — and because we cared about the customers — the other employees and I just skirted the owner’s ridiculous rules, such as by saying, “This game allegedly got great reviews,” and “This game has been very popular lately.” So we still recommended games without technically recommending them.
One of the best aspects of running your own business is that you’re finally free to pick and choose the people you work with. If you’re new to business, that will probably take a few years to really sink in. Initially you may find yourself chasing any opportunity that presents itself without giving more thought to the lifestyle consequences of your business decisions.
I made the mistake of working with some dishonest and incompetent people my first few years in business and suffered a lot of unnecessary stress as a result. When I finally realized that I didn’t actually have to work with people I didn’t like or respect and that I’d been making some dumb and overly desperate decisions in this area, I swore off that kind of nonsense for good and resolved to stop. My business back then, which was failing at the time, quickly turned around. That was one of the most important business lessons I learned.
It might sound obvious to have a “No Bozo” policy for your business as well, but oh how rarely this is actually practiced! I hate to say it, but you’re probably going to be tripped up more than once when you catch yourself violating this simple rule until you finally internalize it.
The social atmosphere you create within and around your business can be a blessing or a curse, but remember that you’re in charge. If you don’t like it, change it. This is true for everyone, but employees so often have a tendency to act powerless and accept their lot in life. If you do that as a business owner though, it just makes you look foolish since you’re the boss.
On the flip side, it will probably start to annoy you when you finally begin applying this rule consistently and see how wonderful life is on the other side, and you hear other people complain about their co-workers as if they have no power whatsoever to choose the people they work with. Before you blurt out, “You’re the one choosing to working with those bozos. If you don’t like working with them, then go work somewhere else. Duh!” just remember that you got snared by that trap as well. Then go ahead and say it anyway. It feels good to be righteous now and then, doesn’t it? It works especially well if you can say it with a Forrest Gump accent.
The opportunity to work with some really smart and creative people makes business so worthwhile. But in order for you to earn that privilege, you’ll need to begin doing your best work and put in the years it takes to hone your skills and habits. Otherwise you’ll be one of the bozos they’d rather avoid.
Make better decisions
In business smart decisions get rewarded. Dumb decisions get punished. Sometimes brutally.
I love those days when I made one good decision, and it put an extra $10K in my bank account. Other times I made one slightly suboptimal decision and ended up having to do many weeks of extra work to make up for it. And on the brutal side, there was a time when one bad decision made in a single week set me back a year or two financially. Ouch!
Risk is the nature of the business game. But in most cases, these risks have an imaginary element to them. You’re not actually risking your life. You’re mostly just risking getting a low score with some minor consequences.
For personal growth reasons, I like having a fault-tolerant business, whereby I can make lots of non-fatal mistakes and learn from them quickly. I can choose which opportunities to pursue and where to place my bets. I can make money and lose money, and it doesn’t really matter. The real gains are the personal growth benefits for me and the value I provide to other people along the way.
Some of the most important decisions involve prioritizing. In a real business you’ll have too many problems to fix and/or too many opportunities to pursue. You’ll never have enough time and resources to tackle all of them. Even the top companies in the world don’t have the ability to fix all their problems and pursue all their opportunities equally.
It’s difficult to decide not to do something that you’d really like to get done, especially when other people are complaining about it as if they’re informing you about it for the first time. It’s tough to say, “This problem will never make it to the top of my list, so I’m just going to have to accept its existence.” When your business starts doing well and you need to focus more tightly on the best opportunities, you’ll need to say no even more. It won’t be easy, but it’s an important skill to develop.
Learning to prioritize in your business will carry over into your personal life as well. You’ll get better at recognizing dross and dumping it. And there is a lot of dross in our personal lives.
One of my best decisions was to stop participating in holiday gift exchanges with friends and relatives. Several years ago I made the decision to opt out of this tradition, which added clutter to my life and chewed up precious time for little benefit to those involved. I’ve never been good at shopping for other people, and the experience was usually more stressful than fun anyway. Now the holiday season feels so much better to me. I enjoy the festive aspects without getting caught up in the commercialized gifting side. And I really don’t think anyone cares that I opted out.
As you make better decisions, you’re going to observe this sort of pattern again and again:
- You think it’s a big deal and that you’re gonna take a lot of flak for the decision.
- You finally accept that it’s the right decision and that you need to do it.
- You accept that you’re gonna get some serious flak when you tell people.
- You tell people, being overly cautious to explain and justify your decision.
- You do receive some flak from people who dislike your decision, but it only lasts 24-48 hours.
- After that, people accept your decision. Some people surprise you by being understanding and supportive.
- You experience the benefits of your decision, which are even more awesome than you expected.
- You wish you’d had the courage to make this decision years ago.
- You resolve not to be so timid in the future and to make these kinds of decisions sooner.
- You catch yourself being too timid in the future.
With your own business, you have more opportunities to run through this cycle, so you get more practice at it. And you get feedback from different angles, including family, friends, business associates, customers, etc. The more you run through this cycle of making difficult decisions, the easier it gets to stop overweighting the potential social opposition.
Handle setbacks without losing your cool
Setbacks are a normal part of life, and running a business will give you more experience handling setbacks. The personal growth challenge here is to get good at handling setbacks intelligently without losing your cool.
Through business you’ll learn that many of the setbacks you once feared are actually normal life experiences that you can handle.
Many would-be entrepreneurs avoid starting a business due to their irrational fears about setbacks. If you go ahead and start a business anyway, you’ll begin to realize just how ridiculous it is to fear these possibilities.
What happens if I lose money?
If you lose money, it means you’ll have less money. A number in a computer database table will be replaced with a different number. That new number will be smaller than the old one.
What happens if my business idea doesn’t work?
Then you’ll learn that the way you implemented the idea didn’t produce the results you expected. This is called making a mistake.
What happens if my spouse leaves me because I failed in business?
Then you’ll learn that you picked a spouse who wasn’t fault tolerant. You now have the opportunity to pick a different spouse. You may want to test for fault tolerance sooner this time.
What happens if my family makes fun of me?
Just say, “Yeah… I really fucked that up.” Then ask them to share some of their failure stories as well. Revel in being human.
You will fail in business. Probably a lot. Stop thinking that failure is a problem. Sometimes failure is the only way to learn important lessons.
Business is full of setbacks, and you won’t be able to avoid all of them. Of course we’d love to avoid setbacks. No one wants to go broke… or bankrupt… or have to sell off all their office furniture… or have to break a lease… or get kicked out of their home because they’re behind on rent. I’ve experienced all of those things by the way. They only made me stronger.
Does anyone want to lose their home? Of course not. Could you cope with it if it happened? Yes, you could.
The game of business is long. Don’t get so stressed out about the ups and downs along the way. Learn to have fun each day. Learn to enjoy your work regardless of how your finances are doing. Serve customers that you like serving, even when there aren’t many of them.
One tip I’ll share for managing a crisis is to ask yourself, What’s the best I can do here? Your best effort may still mean failure in terms of external results, but you can’t expect to do any better than your best. In this case I mean your best under the circumstances, which may not equal your best under non-crisis circumstances.
Maybe it means doing an all-nighter. Maybe it means accepting a loss. Maybe it means having a difficult conversation. Whatever your best looks like, go do it.
I have a great capacity to forgive myself when I do my best in a crisis. Figuring out what my best looks like and then committing to it has a calming effect and helps me stay centered. Failure is easier to take when you do your best and get beaten down anyway. It’s harder to take when you know you didn’t do your best and partially sabotaged yourself.
Learning to handle setbacks and to accept failure without losing your cool is valuable in business and in life. Your business training will serve you well when you have a relationship challenge, a family problem, or a health crisis to deal with.
Do your best work
Are you, right now, doing the best work of your life?
If not, why not? What’s the point of doing less than your best?
When you know you’re doing your best work, you feel alive. Life has more juiciness and flavor. There’s pep in your step.
When you slack off for too long, your self-esteem goes down the drain. It’s hard to get going each day.
If you’re an achiever, then doing your best work is important to you. I needn’t explain why it matters. You know it matters, and you won’t settle for less. You need and deserve an environment that supports you at your best.
Running your own business gives you the freedom to create your best working environment, assemble your best creative tools, and establish your best rhythms to do the best work of your life.
You won’t be held back by other people’s pointless rules, especially rules that were created to keep low performers from hurting themselves or the company.
You won’t be forced to work with plankton. If you only want to work with people you regard as top performers, you can do that.
If you do your best work solo, you can work solo — for years if you’d like. If you’d rather work with a team, you can build or join one. You can mix things up with solo and team projects for extra variety as well.
In your own business, you don’t have to pigeonhole your skills. You can use whatever skills you have to their fullest extent. You don’t have to limit yourself to using only those skills that fit some arbitrary job title. I especially like using my programming skills to automate tasks and solve problems in my business in ways that would be difficult for non-programmers to do. For instance, I wrote my own WordPress plugin to do some simple tasks that many people would delegate to a virtual assistant. I prefer my solution because it’s simpler (for me at least) and a lot more cost effective.
When you’re new to business, you’re going to be tempted to solve problems the way everyone else in your field does. Sometimes it’s wise to solve problems in industry standard ways. Many of those solutions are popular because they work, and it would be difficult or costly to improve upon them.
But you’re also going to find a lot of unnecessary foolishness in business. Many practices are outdated, inefficient, or ineffective, and there will be abundant opportunities to improve upon them.
In order to do your best work, you’ll need to adopt some combination of proven solutions created by others and your own innovative solutions. You don’t have the time to innovate everywhere, so you’ll need to look for leverage points where innovation is likely to be worth the effort.
Your best business practices will spill over into your personal life as well. When you see the immense payoffs from innovation in your business, you’ll want to tune your lifestyle to better support your unique strengths and your best working rhythms.
In the next part of this series, I’ll share more ideas about the relationship between business and personal growth.