I have written before about things entrepreneurs can learn from people who come from various walks of life. From athletes we can learn the value focus and training, from comics we learn about of risk-taking, from chefs we learn how to stay creativity under great stress, and from musicians we learn the importance of working in synch with the rest of the team.
Today I want to talk about what entrepreneurs can learn from another group of people. At this time of year, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors are making their way through the waning days of an important and critically developmental part of their lives: the last year of high school is marked by hard work, a growing emphasis on organizational skills, a bloom of self-awareness, and a maturation of personality over 10 short months.
My younger son is among the graduating horde who in a few short weeks will find themselves transitioning out of childhood, so I am fortunate (for the second – and last – time) to be intimate witness to the passage into the early stages of adult pursuits. On a daily basis I am inspired by Cody and his friends as they make their preparations to leave home, start careers, go to college, and grow into the adults they will become. These are people who are experiencing one of the most dynamic periods in their lives and I am in awe of their decisiveness, their focus, and their excitement about and faith in their futures.
1. Seniors get organized. College applications, coursework, social schedules, SAT tests, studying, studying, and more studying. The workload in the final year of high school gets intense and these kids must develop very high-level executive functioning skills to juggle it all. And don’t forget their social lives, now more important then ever before. Entrepreneurs can look to seniors when we wonder how we can possibly manage everything that’s on our own plates personally and professionally.
2. Seniors lean forward. The end of high school marks one of the most profound personal transitions we undertake in life. Seniors spend the entire year preparing for this leap and entrepreneurs can learn much from their example. Many entrepreneurs start their business having never worked for themselves, having never been responsible to so many stakeholders, and having never managed the kind of workload they are about to shoulder. It is critical that a new entrepreneur face the task with eyes open to the reality of what their new life will entail, the sacrifices that must be made, and the focus necessary to execute successfully.
3. Seniors leave things behind. The final year of high school is a time when students look around and realize that their own journey will take them away from the comfortable existence they have known for the past 4 years and prepare to plunge into the unknown.Entrepreneurs too take the plunge when they launch their business and must be prepared not just for the things gained, but for those that are lost as well. When we start our business we give up the financial security that our old jobs may have brought, we give up time to pursue things we may have valued, and we often leave behind people who have been with us along the way.
4. Seniors evolve. Part of the transition from high school to work or college is gaining the understanding that you will never ever be the same person again that you were in high school. Same with entrepreneurship – once a person has undertaken the launch of a brand new venture, they can never look at the world in quite the same way again. We become different people with different priorities and a different outlook on life. Seniors are launching themselves into adulthood; new entrepreneurs are launching themselves into a new life.
5. Seniors focus on fun. Party may be the single most important noun and the driving verb for most if not all seniors. I mentioned how seniors develop amazing organizational skills in the final year of high school, but I didn’t mention what I believe is the key driver. You see, most high school seniors understand that they have got to get and stay organized in order to make sure they have time for a social life. A robust social life. Entrepreneurs too need to make sure that they too organize their lives in a manner that still leaves time to enjoy their families, their interests, and the people around them. Sometimes it can be as simple as taking the team out for a beer on Friday ot making sure that a monthly date night with your spouse is prioritized and protected.
6. Seniors find mentors. A funny thing happens to 17 and 18 year olds – they start to realize that some of the adults around them are pretty cool people. High school seniors often discover a teacher or two who inspire them and guide them in ways that they will value and remember for the rest of their lives. In business it is equally important to find the person or people who can teach you, guide you, and help show you the way.
7. Seniors perform the rituals. College applications, financial aid forms, yearbook photos, AP tests, prom, and finally the graduation ceremony itself. These are the ritual elements of senior year and everyone who graduates understands what these mean and how they are the markers on the road. Ritual is equally important in the world of startups and small businesses; have a schedule and stick to it, use regular meetings to keep projects and people on track, have a weekly ping-pong tournament that the team participates in, post a weekly article to your blog. These little acts and ceremonies can add a sense of regularity and momentum to the daily tasks of entrepreneurial life.
8. Seniors make tough decisions. Choosing a college is probably the most important decision that a young person can make and for most graduating seniors it represents a meaningful transition to early adulthood. Entrepreneurs too must make touch decisions about their product, their employees, and their company. Just like a high school senior needs to collect and analyze the data and the facts about each of the schools they are considering, entrepreneurs also have to look at the data, consider the facts, and use their own subjective judgement to arrive at a final decision whether about filing a key position, taking on additional funding, setting prices, or choosing office space. Take the time, do the homework, weigh the options and choose the best one.
9. Seniors have to battle through in spite of everything. The Urban Dictionary has a great definition for a disease common to many high school seniors during the waning days of their final year: Senioritis is a “crippling disease that strikes high school seniors. Symptoms include: laziness, an over-excessive wearing of track pants, old athletic shirts, sweatpants, athletic shorts, and sweatshirts. Also features a lack of studying, repeated absences, and a generally dismissive attitude. The only known cure is a phenomenon known as Graduation.” Entrepreneurs have their own version of senioritis, particularly common with businesses that have been around for a few years. It is critical that we keep it interesting and refuse to spiral down into boredom or ennui; undertake a new project, research best practices, do a thorough analysis of your competition – whatever it takes to stay engaged with your business.
10. Seniors graduate. They move forward in life usually with great relief that they are starting a brand new something and leaving something else behind. As adults we recognize that life has its phases, and graduating seniors come to recognize that one is coming to a close and another is just beginning. Entrepreneurs can learn from this too, but in the context of business: the phases that we go through are distinct, each demanding us to develop and use certain skills, each requiring us to shift our focus according to the context and to the events surrounding it. We have to recognize the end of one hase in our businesses and the beginning of the next in order to perform well and be effective.
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