The Difference Between School, Work, and Entrepreneurship

Effort. You need effort to succeed a traditional corporate environment. You need it to succeed in academia. You need it to succeed when you start a business. But when it comes to running a company, effort doesn’t guarantee that you succeed like it does in the other two.

When you’re in school, your grades are – for the most part – tied to your effort. If you study hard, you’ll score higher on tests. Even if you do bad on tests, you get credit for attending class, asking questions, and doing homework. If you put in extra time after class, your teacher/professor will likely notice and adjust your grade accordingly. Your hard work is directly tied to your success: you work harder and longer and you always get better grades.

Same thing in the corporate world. Work hard, put in extra hours, and you’ll inevitably get good reviews, get raises, and get good recommendations. Even if your project bombs and costs the company a ton of money, your boss will still likely give you a glowing review if you come in early and stay late. You work hard. It wasn’t your fault that the project failed.

That’s not what happens when you run a business. You can throw all of the hours in the day at something, all of your heart and soul, but if the work is misguided it doesn’t matter. All of a sudden your hard work isn’t necessarily rewarded.

Running a business is hard. The odds are stacked against you. You have competition that has more resources and more experience. There are a lot of ways your business can go wrong. There are a lot of things you cannot control.

Your smart work is what’s rewarded. You still have to work hard, but the amount of effort doesn’t directly correlate to success. You have to decide what matters and what doesn’t, and then spend your time doing what matters and ignoring everything else. Most people suck at this because someone else has always made those decisions for them. Their entire life someone has told them what is important and how they should be spending their time.

Starting a successful business always requires effort, hard work, and persistence. But it also takes effort, hard work, and persistence applied to the right things. You can’t just blindly throw hard work at something and have success. Working hard is no longer the difficult part. Figuring out what to work hard on is.

10 comments on The Difference Between School, Work, and Entrepreneurship

  1. TIm says:

    I like a lot of the points you touched on with this post Adam. To be a successful entrepreneur requires a very unique and interesting combination of traits, which is probably one reason why serious entrepreneurs have an unwritten bond. As you mentioned just hard work or a good idea or a specific base of knowledge or a degree or ambition or desire or passion and the list goes on and on is not enough to equate to success. Entrepreneurs need to have all of those traits and the guts to give it a shot. I think it would be interesting to try and create a list of the top 10 identifiers that will offer the greatest chance of success, a a Meyers-Briggs Personality test for entrepreneurs or would be entrepreneurs.

    Again, as you alluded to in your post this combination is fairly specific, if you are lacking one piece of the puzzle it greatly increases your chance of failure. This bizarre equilibrium of required skills can help explain why so many businesses fail. This theory will vary going from one industry to another, for example your knowledge of razors would not help you in the tire industry and my knowledge of tires wouldn’t help me in the razor industry – however, it’s hard to ignore the fact that humans have the ability to think and learn, it is rare that I don’t see something or learn something every single day that I can apply to my business in a capacity that will make it better.

    The ability to think is the key. I do not mean this on a low level, obviously, however, the ability to process raw information and concepts into a business is a very demanding task. The ability to truly think encompasses most of the traits required to be a successful entrepreneur, it requires dedication, passion, hard work, creativity in finding it, sifting the fact from the fiction, staying in the present, learning from others(both directly and indirectly), and the list can go on and on. Let’s face it most people are very afraid of the concept of high level thinking, looking at things from a truly different perspective. When we discuss thinking in that light it seems to be the key and reminds of a saying I particularly like: No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking.

    This leads us in another very interesting and related direction, I promise I will stop after this point! The same author who coined that saying strongly believes that the key to happiness is applying effort. Many unique things seem to be coming together with this theory. First of all, entrepreneurs are never thought of as lazy they are constantly applying effort. If you are not in a good mental state of being, having your fundamental needs taken care of you will not be happy, your mind will not be as sharp in other words your ability to think will be derailed and ultimately you will not be able to become a successful entrepreneur, and the cycle will continue. Coincidentally laziness seems to be the goal for most of North America, and depression is at an all time high, the quality of life is at an all time high and we are miserable taking the lazy way out. How many miserable, lazy, depressed entrepreneurs do you know? Is it our unique mind set, or is it the fact we are thinking, growing and applying honest to goodness effort to something?

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Well said as always Tim. Gotta love the comment longer than my post 🙂

      You’re right – I don’t know very many entrepreneurs who are lazy or depressed. I can only speak for myself, but when bad things happen I tend to figure out what went wrong and what I can do better next time, and then shake them off and move on to the next thing. My mind is always so focused on what’s next and what needs to be done that I tend not to sit around and worry about the past or things I cannot control.

      But that’s just me. I do think you’re right though – laziness (and the goal of laziness) definitely seems to correlate to unhappiness among the people I know. For the most part, the happiest people I know are driven and focused and genuinely enjoy the process of achieving the things they’re dedicated to.

  2. Adam Gilbert says:

    Adam, great post! Choosing what to work on is by far the hardest skill an entrepreneur must learn and master which only comes from experience. And the best experience only comes from making bad choices.

    Anyone can work their ass off. Not anyone can choose what to prioritize.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Definitely. Once you make a few bad choices you learn really quickly. There’s nothing like spending your money and seeing a $0 return that will sharpen you up real quickly. I/we have made plenty of those decisions and they always make you better the next time around.

      (by the way, your comment didn’t get stuck in SPAM. Finally!)

  3. Rob says:

    I think the hardest decision is actually deciding what to *not* do – where not to diversify into, what clients not to work with and what work not to accept. Where not to spend money. It’s really hard to always be in a business mindset and think of it in terms of pure financials, and a lot of the time non-businesspeople don’t understand why you don’t do these things, or change in a certain way. For instance, there are things we could do to improve our sales, however it’d cost us more to make those improvements (higher ongoing costs) than we’d actually improve sales by, so it’s simply not worth doing – yes more people will buy from us, but we’ll actually end up with less money, just an increased turnover and increased admin. no thanks!

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Very true Rob. People always say to me/us “you guys should do X” or “why aren’t you guys selling X, it would make you a ton of money”. Since they probably haven’t run a business, they fail to look at the entire picture. How much capital will it take? How long until you see a return? How much risk? What other resources will you have to give it? We’ve gotten to the point where we usually don’t do something unless it keeps coming up over and over again as an opportunity we can take advantage of AND we think it will be a good long term piece of our business.

      • TIm says:

        I love talkers (what I call the people you’re referring to) the “I’m going to….” crowd, all they do is talk never any action. People who think selling their brilliant ideas is a business are 99.9% of the time sadly mistaken. The idea, no matter how great, is only a piece of the puzzle and no puzzle is complete without the remainder of the pieces.

  4. […] 2009 Adam here: This is exactly what I was describing in my last post about the difference between school, work, and running a business. […]

  5. Rob says:

    Spammers getting their URL wrong 4tw.

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