After starting a company as a 28 year-old from the back bedroom of a house in Cambridge, last year saw me complete my 27th year in business. In that time the company has changed names three times, relocated five times, won a handful of awards, enjoyed great success and nearly endured terminal failure.
Throughout the good times and the bad, as the company’s owner and figurehead, the buck has always stopped with me.
I didn’t set out to be ‘an entrepreneur’. In 1995, the internet was still in its infancy; the dotcom bubble hadn’t even started to inflate, let alone burst; and no one had heard of The Apprentice or Dragon’s Den. I had the itch, and I wanted the freedom to see if I was up to the challenge.
Bearing in mind the time of year, rather than look back I thought I would look forward. While they are not lessons or resolutions, what follows are 27 adages that have resonated with me over the years and continue to shape my thinking today.
I am by no means claiming these either as wisdom of my own, or wisdom that will work for you. But I think they demonstrate what drives me as someone working in a small, entrepreneurial business. If they help you – or help you find your own wisdom – I’d be mightily pleased.
27 lessons or adages
1. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it (Roald Dahl)
This quote from The Minpins is my absolute favourite. Dahl wrote a lot about belief, and for me it’s fundamental for any entrepreneur. The process of innovation is a creative one, making something where there was nothing before. Whether it’s launching a new business, developing a new product, or achieving a sporting goal, the magic can only happen if you believe in yourself.
2. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing (Helen Keller)
This quote is a favourite and always resonates with me when times are tough. There are pithier and better-known variants. Take your pick:
3. Life is not a dress rehearsal
4. You’re a long time dead
5. Life is short
6. You only live once (or YOLO!)
They all remind me not to cheat myself and the people around me by dodging difficult decisions or taking the easy way out. I’ve learned this can be a double-edged sword too: not everyone wants their work to be a challenge or a ‘daring adventure’, and even for some who do, their circumstances may not allow it.
7. Life is a journey, not a destination (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
This quote reminds me of the importance of resilience and the need to take time out to appreciate what’s around you. Holidays, loved ones, family and friends – and the time you invest in them – are important. I’ll never forget a friend reminding me at the top of a mountain to look around and take in the magnificent view, not just the terrifyingly steep slope below me. When you run a business, all the slopes can look scarily steep if you’re not careful.
8. If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together
I first came across this proverb when we opened an office in South Africa a decade ago. (It didn’t work – see failure below!) It reminds me when I get frustrated sometimes of the importance of working as a team, and that the key goal is how readily we get the last team member over the line, not the first one.
9. If you wait for all the traffic lights to be green, you’ll never leave the house
I resort to this a lot when I think we’re in a situation where everyone wants more certainty before we can make a decision to move forward. Sometimes it’s OK to get moving first and worry about problems as you encounter them.
I first came across the principle in a book I published for the Financial Times booklist called ‘Ready, Fire, Aim!’. I remember thinking at the time how counterintuitive that was, but of course, many modern weapons work entirely on this basis. Sometimes there’s a value in getting started, even if you’re not sure you’re heading in exactly the right direction.
10. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (Chinese proverb)
Make sure you take it. But try not to take too many steps in the wrong direction, which just makes you a busy fool.
11. Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts (Walt Kelly)
The quote always reminds me not to be a busy fool. We’ve all done it, getting lost and walking quicker as if it will magically help us.
12. You miss 100% of the shots you never take
The quote is usually attributed to ice hockey great Wayne Gretsky. It's another reminder to be bold and take your opportunities when you can. If you become too focused on failure you can accidentally pass up on success, and I’ve certainly learned as I’ve got older not only that there is no shame in failure, but that it’s actually a prerequisite for success.
13. The greatest teacher, failure is (Jedi Grand Master Yoda)
Provided, of course, that you are resilient enough to cope with it. Which brings me to what matters most:
14. It's not how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up (and)
15. Courage is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm
This quote is usually attributed to Churchill. In my opinion, stoicism is underrated.
Essential to resilience is endurance – the ability to press on regardless of what’s going on around you. I’m always conscious how much strength of mind is important here.
16. This too shall pass (Persian adage)
While times may be tough, they won’t last forever. I’ve always thought it important not to fight what’s going on around you but rather to try and focus on something positive about it. A decade ago, I attended a personal development course run by the Landmark Foundation and I learned lessons 17-19.
17. What you resist, persists
Never a truer word spoken. Since then, I consciously gravitate towards things I naturally feel resistant to, to keep myself from slipping into my comfort zone. When I did my one and (so far) only Ironman triathlon it helped me turn a fear of swimming in the sea to an appreciation that:
Another lesson from my Landmark Foundation course is summed up by the phrase:
19. The enemy of a great life is a good life
It's a refrain that echoes the approach of Jim Collins in his book ‘From Good to Great’. I like it because it’s another saying that’s counterintuitive. Most people would think that the opposite of ‘great’ is ‘bad’, but that’s not the case. If things are bad, we try to do something about them until we make them good. But when they’re good, we so often settle with what we’ve got (because they’re ‘good enough’) rather than pushing on to make them great. It’s a compelling argument to stop us from resting on our laurels.
Turning again to innovation, I would have to choose:
20. Feedback is a gift
It's a reminder of the importance of listening to what people say, whether you like it or not (perhaps especially if you don’t like it.) Far too many people dismiss feedback they don’t want to hear – it’s a natural human tendency – but it’s where the gold is hidden. My related word of caution would be to be careful what you ask however.
21. If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses (Henry Ford)
We’re supposed to be the experts and innovators, so why would we expect customers to give us the answers straight off the bat? Of course we need to listen to them, it’s vital. But after all these years I’m still learning that what’s important is to ask a better question. After all:
22. Ask a stupid question, you’ll get stupid answer
But it takes effort to stop doing it.
23. The best way to predict the future is to create it (Abraham Lincoln)
Every entrepreneur would agree with Abe. For me, that’s one of the great things about innovation; and despite the many failings of capitalism it does provide an incentive for creativity and growth. When you bet on yourself and have confidence in your abilities, the dice are loaded in your favour. Do that in a responsible manner and you have a recipe for success, which is why I’ve always liked the adage:
24. Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching (CS Lewis)
25. Knowing what you want is more important than being right
So much delay and distraction is caused by people trying to prove they’re’ right, both in and out of work. We’re obsessed by it, and on the face of it it makes sense. But it’s not helpful, and I regret the many cumulative months we’ve wasted in our 27 years as a business trying to be ‘right’, as opposed to agreeing what we want to do and trying to do it.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t base decisions on facts – far from it. Just that, looking back on things that went well for us, they were times when we knew what we wanted to do and focused on it, regardless of who or whether it was right or not.
26. The more you give, the more you get
Yet another adage that sounds counterintuitive. I have to say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the extra-curricular roles I’ve undertaken and couldn’t’ recommend voluntary work highly enough. From being a school governor to an awards judge to a mentor, while they’ve all involved hard work, I’ve always got back more than I’ve given. The opportunities to expand my knowledge and my network have rewarded me many times over and I think I’m a better person for it. To that, I would add a final reminder:
27. You’re never too old to learn
Starting a postgraduate degree course at the age of 54 has been an eye-opening and mind-expanding experience for me. And I get a huge kick from listening to so many of the more mature learners who study with International Workplace and gain so much confidence from their newly acquired knowledge.
There you have it. I hope you find something in there that works for you. Perhaps you disagree with some of them? Or maybe you have your own sayings and quotes you’d like to share back? Let me know: feedback is a gift!
David Sharp is founder and CEO of International Workplace, a learning provider specialising in health, safety and workplace management. He is currently studying a Masters in AI Ethics and Society at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.