By Annie Murphy Paul
Author and Journalist
Entrepreneurs may be the world’s best learners. They figure out on the fly how to make their businesses succeed, discovering as they go what works and what doesn’t.
While most of them learned how to do what they do through experience, not in a classroom, lately the academy has come to them, making “entrepreneurial learning” the focus of empirical investigation.
Researchers show us the way.
Researchers at the Ningbo, China, campus of the University of Nottingham, for example, recently studied a group of successful Hong Kong entrepreneurs to find out how these individuals acquire new knowledge and skills.
Such independent businesspeople, the academics report, are voracious consumers of information: about the daily details of their companies, about the views of their employees and customers, about the practices of their competitors.
The entrepreneurs spend a lot of time thinking about the reasons for their successes and for their failures, always looking for ways to do better. Thomas Wing Yan Man, associate professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the university and the leader of the study, concludes that successful entrepreneurs “are continually working on improving their entrepreneurial prowess through an active process of learning and reflection.”
In another study published earlier this year in the journal Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice, Michael Morris of Oklahoma State University and his coauthors point out that for entrepreneurs, “learning is more than simply grasping and interpreting objective knowledge.”
By virtue of their close involvement and hands-on contact with their companies, entrepreneurs filter their professional experiences through their own feelings and values.
“Learning is not limited to what works and what does not” from a commercial point of view, notes Morris. “The entrepreneur is learning from his or her emotions, and about himself or herself,” even as he or she absorbs knowledge about the business.
This intensity can make for particularly powerful learning experiences, but it also means that entrepreneurs must take steps to maintain perspective and equilibrium.
What are successful entrepreneurs best at?
In a 2011 article in the journal Marketing Management, Karl Hellman and Robert S. Siegel write that the key is to identify and learn from the “anomaly”—the unexpected occurrence that can open into opportunity.
Whether you are an entrepreneur, or just want to innovate like one, here are five things these enterprising businesspeople have learned about learning:
1. Failure is information. Entrepreneurs tolerate and even welcome failure because it tells them something important: what doesn’t work. Trial and error—lots of error—is the only way to find out what’s effective.
2. Data is decisive. Entrepreneurs are obsessive about tracking and analyzing data because they know that the numbers hold insight: unexpected discoveries that can’t be made any other way.
3. People are resources. Entrepreneurs know that the information most vital to their businesses’ success isn’t written down in books or even on websites: it’s in people’s heads. So they’re always meeting, talking, and asking questions.
4. Change is the constant. Entrepreneurs don’t learn things once and then store it away. They are constantly updating and refining their knowledge, and when necessary, tossing aside the whole lot to adopt a new paradigm.
5. Work is play. Entrepreneurs are able to work superhuman hours with Herculean energy because, simply, it’s what they love to do. Dutiful competitors don’t stand a chance against the entrepreneur’s voracious appetite for information about the subject she considers the most interesting thing in the world: her business.
About Annie Murphy Paul
Annie Murphy Paul is a book author, magazine journalist, consultant, and speaker who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. A contributing writer for TIME magazine, she writes a weekly column about learning for Time.com, and also blogs about learning at CNN.com, Forbes.com, MindShift.com, PsychologyToday.com, and HuffingtonPost.com.
Paul also contributes to The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among many other publications.