There is no secret

14 05 2012

Each time I log in Facebook the first ad that pops up encourages me to “Become an Entrepreneur”.  Apparently I do this by enrolling for a master’s degree at a top on-line university.

My thought is that this is the very worst way of becoming an entrepreneur.

I am, by all accounts, and unbeknownst to Facebook, already an entrepreneur. I know this because I’m often invited to speak about my journey to becoming an entrepreneur. My c.v. says that I am one of the UK’s 50 Female Entrepreneur Ambassadors. I mentor individuals on their business journey.

I mention these facts only by way of getting to my point – there is nothing special about being an entrepreneur and you don’t have to go to college to learn how to be one.

I was listening to a fascinating talk by Matthew Syed the other day. Matthew is journalist and broadcaster and was an international table tennis player. He was talking about our obsession with talent compared to endeavour; why we admire, for example, footballers like Ronaldo with their “effortless” genius but are rather less fond of the “workmanlike” Paul Scholes who has clearly worked to make the very most of a smaller amount of talent. He said that he became an international sportsman of outstanding quality by playing a lot of table tennis.

This struck a chord with me as the most frustrating thing I hear when I’m talking to people is, “I couldn’t do what you’ve done”. Yes you could – there is no mystery – there is no gene for enterprise – there is no God-given talent.

Matthew Syed went on to make the point that our focus on “natural talent” was destructive in that it led to those who were deemed not to have an innate gift to give up. How many times have you heard people say, or maybe said yourself,  “I have no brain for Maths,” or “I just can’t do it, my brain doesn’t work that way”.

Actually brains are really plastic and if you use bits they grow bigger. For example, the region of motor cortex that controls the piano playing fingers is larger in pianists and, crucially, it has been found  to expand in the brains of volunteers learning to play the piano.  Pianist were not born with a massive motor cortex which allowed them to become concert pianists, they practiced playing the piano and the more you play the bigger the area becomes. Practice not genetics – development not a gift from God.

To illustrate further, Mozart, a renowned child genius could play the piano like a master by the time he was 6. A genius, surely. Well no. Further examination reveals that he had been playing the piano from the age of 1 under instruction from his piano teaching father. Mozart had crammed in more hours of practice before the age of 6 than most pianists fit into a lifetime.

So what is this to do with enterprise?

Simply this. Just do it. It’s as simple as that. Like any new skill you will try and fail and learn and improve. There is no mystery.

One more thought. Up until my late 20’s I fancied myself to be an artist. I did the odd painting  and assured myself that my day job in medical marketing was really just a cover for the true genius within. In early 1990 I visited a Peter Howson exhibition. He is the same age as me. What struck me was not the quality of the work, which was outstanding, but the sheer quantity of these finished works. There were rooms full of canvases. He was an artist because he actually painted – that’s what he did. While I sold dialysis equipment he painted. I was definitely not an artist. 20 years later I gave up my day job and made sculptures – full-time, day in, day out. I got good and had my work in galleries across Scotland.

And a final observation. I was the salesman of the year every year for my company. I was not a great salesman. That is not modesty. As my manager observed, I simply made more calls than anyone else or as he put it, “the more raffle tickets you buy the more prizes you win.”

A perfect triumph of effort over aptitude.