Doing real world projects is, I think, the best way to learn and also to engage the world and find out what the world is all about. – Ray Kurzweil
If you were going to start a business tomorrow what would you do? For many people, the only model that comes to mind is possibly a technology startup – those are the ones that we see all the time. The kinds of businesses that get started in garages and go on to become huge businesses.
The trouble with basing your ideas on what you see around you is that you’re looking at a biased data set. The companies you see are the one that survived but what you don’t see is the failure rate, the ones that fell by the wayside.
It’s not hard to find opinions on why businesses fail. They don’t know what they’re doing, don’t know what business they’re in, can’t manage their money, don’t have the experience they need. And, perhaps most importantly, no one wants what they provide.
A business has to find a niche to survive. Or, more precisely, it has to adapt itself to fit into a niche to survive. The model that works is an evolutionary one – try something – make a change, cause a mutation – and see if that’s better. If it is, replicate and try again. If it’s not, let that version die away.
I’ve been watching Juran on Quality Improvement – a video series that is a masterclass by one of the pioneers of the quality movement. Quality is something that’s hard to define and easy to get. You know it when you see it. You can tell a good book from a bad one just by reading a few sentences. You can tell the difference between pieces of furniture.
But can you always trust yourself to know the difference? Probably not. Juran suggests that when there is little objective difference between products the consumer is influenced by the company with the better marketing. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether you have the better thing or whether you’ve been convinced that you have the better thing.
But is it possible that the best businesses are the ones that you don’t see, that you don’t hear about. If you started a software business tomorrow you’d be in good company – everyone else you know is probably also starting a software business. But it will probably take you a while to get your first client. If you started a plumbing business, on the other hand, you’d probably have a full diary in a week.
In Felix Dennis’ book How To Get Rich he talks about how people get wealthy doing quite ordinary things. One of the richest people he knows makes his money by digging holes. But that’s one of the things about money – you get it for doing things you don’t want to do. You get it for working. If it’s something you’d do without being paid then you shouldn’t call it work.
But how do you figure out whether you should dig holes or write software, join pipes or push paper? There’s probably something around wanting to work at a desk rather than outside whatever the weather. Some of us are softer than others. Then again, it doesn’t need to be one or the other, it can help if you can do more than one thing.
That’s where you really need to try and get theory and practice working for you – to learn from books and learn by practicing what you’ve learned from a book and trying to see if it really works. That’s the thing about the How to genre. Everyone is desperate to know how to do something and when there is a need it’s filled by something or the other. If you want a book, then a book you shall have. It’s up to you to work out whether what you’re getting is a quality product or not.
There’s that quality term again which brings us to what is perhaps an important point. If I were selecting someone to do something then these days I would want to know that they both understood the theory of what they were doing and they had also done it in real life and had learned from that as well. That’s actually a big ask – because in order to judge whether they’ve done those things you probably need to know enough to those things yourself. After all, how can you judge something you don’t know anything about?
This combination – theory intermingled with practice – the two informing each other seems the only real way to do something that can coexist in the real world and the mental world. Hands and brains together are clearly better than either on their own. For most things anyway. At the extremes – doing pure maths and running away from tigers, you don’t really want a debate about the balance of it all.
What’s my point here.
I think it’s this.
There are many ideas out there. Select ones that you think are promising. Try them out in real life. Do more of what works.