‘Give a man a fish…’ why successful entrepreneurs are lifelong learners (and how to become one)

Give a man a fish, and he is hungry again in an hour. Teach him to catch a fish and you’ve given him, as Nelson Mandela once said, ‘the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world’.

Whether or not you’re planning on catching any fish in the near future, Mandela still had a point that can be applied to entrepreneurship: education and growth in your personal life are the secrets to long-term success in your professional life. And committing to the concept of lifelong learning is, to my mind, the most effective way of succeeding as an entrepreneur.

In this article, I’m going to show you why it’s worth becoming a lifelong learner, the barriers that trip us up on the journey (and how to overcome them) and a list of resources to get you started. If you’re an entrepreneur, this is essential reading. Even if you’re not, you’ll find resources that will help you in ways you never imagined.

So here goes — the five reasons to bother, the five common stumbling blocks (and of course 10 killer resources to give you a head start).

Why bother being a lifelong learner?

Let’s start our journey toward lifelong learning with our motivation for doing it.

1. It makes commercial sense

Stop feeling guilty about spending time on anything but the here and now; to be a truly innovative entrepreneur is to keep dreaming, exploring and seeking out new ideas. These practices keep everything from your ideas to your management style fresh, blessing you with an open mind, and — most importantly — separating you from the crowd.

As Charlie Munger said of Warren Buffett: “The other big secret [to our success] is that we’re good at lifelong learning. Warren is better in his 70s and 80s, in many ways, that he was when he was younger. If you keep learning all the time, you have a wonderful advantage.”

Taking inspiration from successful people in other disciplines is just as important; after all, how can you stay ahead of your competitors if you’re all reading the same books and watching the same TED talks? If you want to learn how to make better videos to sell your product, take inspiration from how novelists get people hooked on a story. If you’re in mechanical engineering, take leadership advice from a sports coach.

2. The robots are coming to take your business (and your job)

“Sixty-five percent of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet,” Cathy Davidson writes in her 2012 book Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century.

And the World Economic Forum agrees: in 2016’s Future of Work report, it predicted that, by 2018–2020, the emergence of new technology such as advanced robotics, autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning will start to have a drastic impact on industries and business models of the future. In their executive summary, the WEF state:

“On average, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today, according to our respondents. Overall, social skills — such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others — will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control.”

In short, we’re just a couple of years away from a business world in which social and collaboration skills are considered as important (or more important) than the technical skills that have got us this far. If relying solely on traditional education for entrepreneurial skills is a mistake now, then it’s about to become career sabotage.

The only way to survive is to become a true knowledge worker: an adaptable and creative problem-solver with an enviable breadth of knowledge and an insatiable hunger for a challenge. To see solutions where others see only stumbling blocks; to see a forest where others see one tree.

And besides, isn’t that what entrepreneurship is all about?

3. It brings you fulfilment

Not all learning is done in the classroom. There are no rules since lifelong learning isn’t limited to academic knowledge. Something hands-on like mechanics, cookery or dressmaking could bring just as many benefits as the intricacies of philosophy, if that’s how you learn best.

And, ultimately, learning from someone else may inspire you to share your own expertise with others, whether that’s through mentoring, blogging, a new side career as an author or speaking for big crowds. As the saying goes, there’s a TED talk in all of us…

Taking it one step further, volunteering to either teach or learn informs you about other cultures, lifestyles and issues that you’ll never see behind your desk. Take yourself out of your comfort zone and give yourself a healthy dose of perspective: your (newly-fulfilled) future self might thank you for it.

4. It makes you a better person

Lifelong learning can make you a more rounded person with a more open mind. It can challenge your perceptions, and allow you to think critically. It’s also incredibly humbling — you are the pupil, not the teacher; the beginner, not the expert with all the answers. Some of us might like to believe that we know everything that’s worth knowing, but there’s no harm in a polite reminder of the bigger picture outside of our own achievements.

It can also reduce stress; taking yourself out of the entrepreneur’s headspace allows you guilt-free space to think while still doing something productive for your business. As Henry Ford once said: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80… the greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

Not forgetting the direct benefits of being a more interesting person, since more subjects to talk about means better networking and (whisper it…) more interesting opportunities.

5. It’s free!

There are so many amazing resources available that can offer opportunities for learning, without the need for so much as a penny to be spent. Free resources including podcasts, TED talks, YouTube, and free course sites such as Coursera or Khan Academy. See this list of 25 free online education sites from LifeHack for more ideas plus I include 10 killer resources at the bottom of this blog as well to give you a head start.

The stumbling blocks to lifelong learning, and how to overcome them

So now we’re pretty clear on why we should do this, let’s move on to how. Here are some of the problems that many would-be lifelong learners find with starting — and how you can get past them.

1. It’s hard — the ideas you read about never stick

You need to find out the way you learn best. Learning sessions, whether long or short, are more enjoyable and more productive when done in a way that suits your learning style; you’re more likely to stick with lifelong learning if you work to your strengths. I use the popular VARK theory (Flemming and Mills) to help you understand the four learning styles / modalities and which ones suit you best;

  • Visual learners work best with space, videos, infographics, graphs, charts, diagrams, maps and plans.
  • Audio learners find it easier to absorb podcasts, radio, audiobooks, discussions and stories.
  • Reading/writing might be more comfortable for some people: embrace lists, notes and text in all its formats and whether in print or online.
  • Kinesthetic learning involves senses, practical exercises, examples, cases, trial and error.

2. You can’t make it a big enough priority

Attitude is key here: there is no “good enough” when it comes to lifelong learning if you want to see the benefits, so prioritise learning like you would any other commitment. Don’t label it as a nice to have — it has to be a must have for you.

It’s simple Parkinson’s law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. But make a commitment to your new goal and you will achieve it. Set realistic goals based on your learning style (above) and stick to them.

3. We all have time, but we don’t use it well

We all have the same number of hours in the day, but it’s what you do with those hours that counts. In order to make a commitment to lifelong learning, you need to create time for it. Here’s how:

  • Use dead space: commutes, lunchtimes, queues, traffic jams and time spent in waiting rooms can all add up, giving you hours of extra time in a day.
  • Think short bursts of learning: watch one video, listen to one podcast or read three pages of a book per day. Pressure isn’t fun — learning should be fun. Find that space and use it well.
  • Remove distractions from your learning time to ensure that those minutes are well-spent. This could mean putting your phone on silent, escaping to a coffee shop, or just some noise-cancelling headphones.

4. You look for too much too soon

Do you believe your intelligence is fixed or that you can become smarter? It’s essential to feel comfortable with making small positive improvements and staying open to constructive self-evaluation.

The personal benefits of lifelong learning might come immediately, but the professional successes will come later. You will start seeing new ideas, be able to express yourself more clearly and be able to make better decisions immediately as you will have a breadth of situations to draw on in order to make those decisions. But there is no instant direct commercial gratification here: no immediate jump in sales or automatic inclusion in a Forbes list.

But just like the more patient participants in the marshmallow experiment, successful lifelong learners are able to wait for the long-term benefit: they understand that delayed gratification pays off. Successful entrepreneurs have this trait in spades.

5. You don’t track your progress

Have you ever walked up a steep hill and looked back to see how far you’ve come? If you have, then you’ll know how good that rush of achievement feels. If you’ve done all that, then surely you can find the energy to do the rest, right? It’s the same with learning: tracking your progress and “looking back down the hill” every so often will keep you going.

Keep an Evernote entry or a page in a notebook. Every time you listen to a podcast, watch a video, read a book or do a practical case study, make a note of your achievement and add one or two bullet points about what it made you think/feel. If you have time, you could even make notes on what you’ve learned; this will help you remember much more as well.

Looking back at the growing list will give you that rush of achievement and remind you of the key idea you took away, in turn keeping you motivated to do more.

Where to start: 11 super resources to get you started

By now you should be itching to get started; enthused by the idea of using your brain and ready to explore a whole world of new ideas. But where to go for your first fix? Here are some of my favourites…

1. Top 40 Blogs for Entrepreneurs

This list consists of the top 40 blogs/bloggers for entrepreneurs to follow in 2016. It’s updated each year which is super useful.

2. Startup Stash

All the resources you need to build a startup, in one place: Startup Stash has curated 400+ courses and guides and organised them in a user-friendly directory.

3. 25 of the best sites for online free education

From coding and string theory to playing the drums and languages: there are literally thousands of free courses available online: this LifeHack article lists the best course sites.

4. 10 videos every entrepreneur should watch

Want the best of the best videos — and only the stuff you need to watch. Inc.com have selected 10, including the surprising truth about motivation and Seth Godin’s advice on idea generation.

5. TED business

TED should need no introduction: here’s what it offers for a different business perspective.

6. Stanford

Why does Bitcoin make sense? Why should we celebrate failure? And what does Elon Musk predict for the future? Stanford’s exceptional speakers have much to offer the lifelong learning entrepreneur.

7. 20 books to read before you start your own business

In a crowded market of business books, these classics stick out. Tried, tested and essential for any startup team.

8. 15 online learning resources every entrepreneur should visit

Growth marketer extraordinaire Sujan Patel runs down his top resources on everything an entrepreneur needs, from SEO and social media to money management and niche business.

9. 15 best podcasts for entrepreneurs

The stellar rise of podcasts in the last few years means that there are too many to choose from. Here, Inc.com countdown the best 15.

10. 43 websites the world uses to learn

A hand-picked list of the best sites, tools and communities from Bibblio: learn everything from lock-picking to theoretical physics.

11. And if you really have no time…

Look at Blinkist: 15 minutes of great books, divided into two-minute bursts. And it’s offline — so no excuses!

And where next?

Once the journey to a life of learning has begun, it’s important to remember to use what you’ve learned, and I don’t mean on face value. In order to get the full benefits of your self-styled education, you’ll need to develop it into a skill that will benefit your attitude to your business, whether you’re learning the basics of art history or the art of changing a tyre. As Einstein once said:

“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that, he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

Keep learning, discovering, and getting inspiration from unlikely places. Be curious. Train your mind to absorb information and keep it there. The difference between a good entrepreneur and a great one is someone who thinks differently, listens actively and makes educated decisions quickly.

These are the skills that lifelong learning can help you develop. Learn to be a truly great entrepreneur.

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Thankyou for reading… I would hugely appreciate some claps 👏 and shares 🙌 so that others can find it!

so that others can find it!


Nic Newman