Don’t have wool in your ears, be driven by curiosity

Unconscious habits stop us from being more productive, none more so than our compulsion to check a smartphone screen, explicitly designed to exploit our addictive psychology. This is not the result of passive addiction or weak willpower, it’s engineered. A Harvard math genius, Jeff Hammerbacher, took the job as first research scientist at Facebook and created the original algorithm that tracked our online behaviours.

What concerns me most about this behaviour is it’s turning us all into sheep. Where I live I’m surrounded by hills, and surrounded by sheep. Sometimes I get so angry with the simple life they lead. They just stand there, looking like they’ve never questioned anything, never disagreed. Sometimes I think they must have wool in their ears.

We laugh at sheep because sheep just follow the one in front. We humans have out-sheeped the sheep, because at least the sheep need a sheep dog to keep them in line. But we’re in danger of following the herd ourselves.

Sheep are not curious, but contrary to what you may think, sheep are not stupid. They rank just below the pig in intelligence among farm animals. Simply, sheep react to the domestication that has decreased their instinctive behaviour and increased their docile nature, and being ‘one of the herd’ is what they’re all about.

But we need to be heard rather than one of the herd, to build the habit to be ourselves and be thinking, not doing something banal like smartphone addition, trapped in a repeatable mobius loop of technological determinism.

Bottom line, we’re not asking enough questions and more cognisant of what we don’t know. We need to be more inquisitive about everything, to organise our thinking around what we don’t know. It’s becoming a bad habit to simply spend time browsing without purpose. We need to be less curious about people’s social habits and their selfie photos and more curious about new ideas and learning.

Asking questions helps spark the innovative ideas that startups bring to market. In my own research, I track business breakthroughs, and from the Polaroid instant camera to the Nest thermostat, you find some curious soul looked at an existing problem, asked insightful questions about why that problem existed, how it might be tackled, and came up with a solution.

The Polaroid story is a favourite. The inspiration for the instant camera sprang from a question asked in the mid-1940s by the three-year-old daughter of its inventor, Edwin Land. She was impatient to see a photo her father had just taken, and when he tried to explain that the film had to be processed first, she asked: Why do we have to wait for the picture?

More recently, Steve Jobs’ curiosity for design sensibility became an essential part of Apple’s core culture and product differentiator. His genius may be outside the reach of most of us, but his quest for understanding is worth emulating.

When we open ourselves fully to our curiosity, we are able to think without limits. Curiosity isn’t about solving problems, it’s about exploration and experimenting. Curiosity can start and lead anywhere, and that’s precisely the sort of broad, open mindset startups need.

Curiosity is the driving force behind discovery and learning, continually building upon itself, allowing your mind to open to new ideas, fuelling our imagination. It’s fundamental to our success, it shapes your instinct to explore which should grow into an instinct for inquiry, and it ultimately helps you discover amazing things about what you can do now and in the future.

A curious mind can relate and connect ideas better. Maintain an open mind and be willing to learn, unlearn and relearn to find get the answers you seek. Your curiosity will develop into an amazing discovery. Something you will easily identify with and can pursue further. Curiosity can give you more and better building blocks to develop creative solutions. It fuels the soul and drives innovation.

So how do you create and sustain a culture and the mindsets of curiosity within a startup as part of its business model, when the pressure is on in a race to simply get things done? Instead of the think-build-ship routine which quickly becomes a wash-rinse-repeat cycle, adopt more of the build-measure-learn heartbeat, with its essential focus to be curious about feedback, learning and iteration, on several levels:

Be curious about the outside world We all need to take our focus off our immediate surroundings and get curious about other people, their thinking, about trends, about other cultures and points of view. About anything and everything beyond our too often insular worlds. Ideas know no hierarchy. We need to get better about responding to ‘What if?’ with ‘let’s find out’ rather than ‘let’s wait until someone else tries’.

Be curious about customers Don’t see customers simply as a transaction or an opportunity for a future revenue stream, understand why they buy from you and how your offering in turns helps your customers’ customers. You need an external focus beyond winning the next customer, and see them as a source of innovation: ‘what would an existing or new customer say to this?’ An enquiring mentality, asking ‘is this the best we can do?’ will bring success.

Assume nothing, question everything Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers – Voltaire. The acquisition of knowledge and learning derives its energy through questioning. Brilliant ideas can come out of a better question. Einstein reckoned that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend the first fifty-five minutes making sure he was answering the right question. Start asking better questions to find the right answers.

Be curious about your people Many startups work hard to attract people with inquisitive mindsets and then stick them in an environment in which curiosity is discouraged as they pivot to ‘business as usual’. Hire people with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and aptitudes and then enable those differences to spark off each other. Building a culture of curiosity starts with seeing the individuals behind the job.

Be curious about what you’re working on When was the last time you lost track of time working on something? If you’re curious about something, you’ll worker harder than the next person, who is just trying to maximise some other metric. If you follow your curiosity, you’ll end up somewhere nobody else is. Meanwhile, people who aren’t curious are trying to figure out who they should catch up with. They create a world of the uncurious, parroting something someone else told them.

Curiosity makes your mind active instead of passive Curious people’s minds are always active. The mental exercise caused by curiosity makes your mind stronger, and it makes you observant of new ideas. Without curiosity, new ideas may pass right in front of you and yet you miss them because your mind is not prepared to recognise them. Just think, how many great ideas may have lost due to lack of curiosity?

Curious minds connect information better Leonardo da Vinci was insanely curious.His observation and belief that ‘everything connects’ informed most of his work. Making connections between seemingly unimportant things is perhaps one of the most crucial creative thinking skills you can ever master.

Curiosity will conquer fear and uncertainty even more than bravery will. And that’s the point: a culture of curiosity inspires courage. The courage to challenge all those assumptions and hesitations that for too long have held us back, and those unknowns.

It was this belief that shaped the philosophy of Andy Warhol. I read that Warhol would just walk around New York City on rainy Sundays. That was one of his favourite things to do, and that gave him ideas and inspiration. He called it From A to B and Back Again.

Of course, curiosity is the key trait for finding out what we don’t know. I’m always minded of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who made semantic history back in 2002 when he gave the profoundly perplexing explanation about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns in relation to the military conflict in Iraq:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Those three sets of simple word pairs, used by Rumsfeld to describe military strategy, also convey powerful conceptual ideas with relevance to developing your startup thinking. Satisfying your curiosity and making entrepreneurial decisions based on knowns – truth, facts, and evidence – are far more likely to succeed than those based on hopes, wishes, and mythology.

We can know things but not realise how important they are. We can know things but not understand how the pieces fit together or know what is causing what. We can be blind to the obvious or blind to the implications of the obvious. It’s curiosity that brings us an awareness of how things connect. What this conveys is that ‘knowns’ are fewer and rarer than people believe, and ‘unknowns’ are ubiquitous. They surround us on all sides.

Curiosity has been a major factor behind many scientific and technological discoveries and the advancement of human development. It’s never too late to starting focusing on developing curiosity instincts. Begin practicing mindfulness and be conscious of your immediate surroundings. Be curious about things you usually ignore.

Following your curiosity can lead to the breakthrough ideas you have been waiting for as a startup founder, but you can only harness and make the most of curiosity if you recognise and accept the need to make time for it. As Walt Disney said, We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

Back to sheep. I’m curious that sheep only sleep 3.8 hours in a day, meaning they are active 20.2 hours a day. What do they think about for all that time? But don’t be a sheep. Either you get eaten by a wolf today or else the shepherd saves you from the wolf so he can sell you to the butcher tomorrow. Assumptions are quick exits for lazy minds that like to graze out in the fields without bother. So ask yourself, What am I most curious about?

Go fishing with Einstein to improve your entrepreneurial thinking

I remember it well. Sitting still, staring practically hypnotised by the little red stick – the float – in the water, willing it to twitch. I was with my granddad and dad, on the canal bank. And then, when it did, that magical moment, not quite believing it. Did it really happen, or did I imagine it? It twitches again, bobs down and goes under. You pick up the rod and strike. Yes! A connection via a thin nylon thread to a fish. We’re on!

I haven’t been fishing for years, but all of this came back to me watching Gone Fishing recently, with Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer, two of my comedy icons from the 1990s. They made me laugh out loud then – and again on the new programme.

Paul Whitehouse was part of the team behind The Fast Show, inspired to have a go at comedy when working as a plasterer in the house where Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were living. Characters of Ron Manager, Ken, one of the ‘Suit You Sir’ tailors and Ted were his forte.

Bob Mortimer is best known for working with Vic Reeves as Vic and Bob, developing a nightclub variety show format in Vic Reeves Big Night Out, and Shooting Stars, a comedy panel quiz show which ran from 1993 to 2011. Both were truly trailblazing – and utterly chaotic.

Whitehouse and Mortimer have more in common than just their love of laughter. They have both suffered complex heart diseases – Paul had three stents, Bob a triple bypass – and that was the back story of the series, a poignant reminder of the passage of time and how priorities change from a pair who in their prime, were responsible for the transformation of the British comedy landscape.

The pair’s friendship stretches back decades. Whitehouse reached out after learning Mortimer was in the doldrums following heart surgery, thinking a tour of the country’s finest fishing spots might help Bob’s recovery, relax them both and along the way maybe they would learn something new about each other.

In this funny and poignant six-part series, we eavesdrop as they reconnect and share their personal experiences. They also fish, and talk nonsense. A lot. On soggy riverbanks, they candidly discuss everything you can imagine, while trying to catch some fish with the excitement of a bobbing float.

Of course, it’s not really about fishing, but about friendship and getting older and reminiscing, joking about mortality and life. There are even impressions: Bob does his De Niro. It’s fine until he starts talking. Stick to silent De Niro, Bob (although, actually, a bad impression is funnier than a good one).

It was lovely television, warm, funny, and human. They shared nostalgia for their youth and revealed how they recently came face to face with their own mortality – passing a graveyard, they muse about the future and chat to a local vicar about death, and their own funerals.

Whilst modern friendships revolve around text messages and social media, it was a joy to witness friendship taken back to basics, banter without much actually happening, ambling around sharing experiences. There was something soothing and reaffirming in the embrace of the moment, the vocal joshing and the comfortable company of an old friend.

Gone Fishing was a breath of fresh air, escapist bliss. There’s a simple, endearing pleasure in watching excitable men fly-fishing in a gently bubbling river, while a group of meandering cows trudge past to the opposite bank.

Bob maintained the upbeat whimsy and sense of irreverence, Paul channels real pathos and is quietly contemplative at times. This is a wry, funny look at the reality of life on the wrong side of 50 of two men lamenting the passage of time.

In the final episode, they decide to try and catch a pike, which is perhaps not the best idea for two men of a certain age with heart problems. To close, facing the future, they write a eulogy for each other as the sun sets on their final fishing expedition. Hopefully a second series beckons, if you missed it, go back on catch-up TV, it’s well worth it.

Everyone experiences fatigue, anxiety and poor health at some point in his or her daily life, and you need coping mechanisms to help you deal with the issues and feel better mentally and emotionally. Fishing might be just what you need!

There are undeniable psychological benefits of fishing that can help you feel better on an emotional and mental level. Looking at Paul and Bob, you don’t typically catch a fish every five minutes, but the calming water helps you relax as you unplug and connect with nature, enjoying a peaceful and quiet environment.

No one is around, there’s nothing to bother you, it’s just you, open water, the fish and fresh air. Above all, the openness gives you some perspective on what is really important, and on what makes you happy.

Notwithstanding this wistful vestige of an existential neverland of fishing lodged in my psyche, as entrepreneurs we need time and space to think and get stuff out of our heads, a place to look at the horizon and keep us fresh. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

Fishing strikes me as the perfect place to think and reflect about your business challenges, the stuff you’ve got going on, and trying to make sense of it in order to learn something from it.

Where’s your favourite place to do your best thinking? Mine’s a deserted, windswept, isolated beach with just the dog to talk to. It’s hard for me to put into words why I like the beach so much, it’s just everything about it is renewing for me, almost like therapy. Beach Therapy. Perfect beaches, perfect water, perfect rock pools, your own space, all the seclusion you could want.

You cannot exist in isolation, but there’s nothing I like more than to take myself off for some thinking time on the beach. I do my best thinking in isolation. It isn’t as if you are alone, it’s that you find yourself thinking alone.  Part of the isolation comes from what you are experiencing. You are the one who sees the situations in your head most clearly, and it will often be difficult for others to see things the same way.

Yet today offers a strange paradox: our knowledge and understanding of complexities in the world expands dramatically, yet the time to think and analyse is getting smaller and smaller. How do you make time to think?

Good ideas rarely come in meetings, or even at your desk. They come to you in the bath, on a walk, on a train, doing the garden – or fishing. Albert Einstein put it this way: I take time to go for long walks so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualise what goes on in my imagination.

Besides modelling my own hairstyle on Einstein’s, I’ve always tried to adopt his maxim we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.  His thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability to ask questions was just as revolutionary as his answers.

Just imagine you had the opportunity to share a conversation with Einstein to shape your entrepreneurial thinking. It struck me a great place to spend time doing this, just chatting, would be on a boat or a river, as Paul and Bob did. The moments to share, reflect, listen and learn would be the ultimate mentoring experience, so here’s my Fishing with Einstein, in his own words, about his thoughts on how to make a difference with your own thinking:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. The blokes over at Apple and Google had all the smart computing skills and knowledge they needed, but what made Jobs and Ives, Page and Brin be great innovators was they imagined – what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then they created it.

Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference.

Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Einstein was relentlessly curious, he was fixated on following through until he was satisfied with the outcome. He was restless to a point of perfection.

Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX in 2009, Kindle Touch, Kindle Fire and now Kindle Paperwhite reflects this focus of continued reinvention. Einstein kept pushing the boundaries in a similar manner.

Maintaining balance If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x, y is play and z is keeping your mouth shut. Einstein didn’t put absolute amounts on each of his variables – he lived his life by constructing ‘what if’?’ formulas to look at relationships. He knew getting the ingredients and then working out their relationship would lead to success.

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein believed that to gain knowledge about the form of a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways.

Prepare yourself for chance I never think of the future, it comes soon enough Einstein had particular strengths that guided him to the fertile ideas and revealing experiments to undertake, he had a characteristic tolerance and even delight in contradiction.

Einstein tells us to reflect that the most consequential ideas are often right under our noses. How many times have you metaphorically banged your head against a wall for a long time with a particular problem? He said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, perhaps it’s good to reflect upon that.

So, Einstein as your fishing companion, taking the time to reflect, thinking differently and not just sitting there and daydreaming. It’s about picturing the alternatives and working out possibilities of new realities where what you are doing today is completely different tomorrow, in order to go and find the entrepreneurial revolution before it finds you.

We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, so get yourself fishing, and see where it takes you and your thinking. As Paul Whitehouse said, last year I went fishing with Salvador Dali. He was using a dotted line. He caught every other fish.

Lessons in entrepreneurial thinking from Greek philosophy

Many of the everyday fundamentals of our Western lifestyles owe a debt of gratitude to the Ancient Greeks – democracy, drama, all-action blockbuster war epics, and lying around thinking about stuff, or philosophising as it’s known. All beloved activities in the Eastern Mediterranean 2,500 years ago, and all still popular today in our house – as well as other aspects of their culture including souvlaki, retsina, lashings of taramasalata and a big, chunky feta salad.

Greek dancing and plate smashing are optional and mostly accidental at home, but my affection for all-things Greek stems from the fact that I met my future wife as a student whilst on holiday in Corfu back in the halcyon summer of 1984.

A Greek holiday romance which blossomed to the sun drenched sounds of bouzouki, fuelled by dolmades and lashings of ouzo, and survived the return flight home, as did the irrepressible deities etched on some hideous cheap pottery bought as presents. Dôs moi pâ stô, kaì tàn gân kīnā́sō.

So every time we have Greek food – yesterday Moussaka’s had an extra fluffy topping of cheese and béchamel sauce – the Greek influence on our way of life and their pioneering attitudes once again came into my thoughts.

The Greeks were thinkers, half decent too, and there is no doubt Greek philosophy can help us understand more about ourselves as entrepreneurs. Accomplished entrepreneurs like Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel credit their philosophy backgrounds for their success, and after all, many of the qualities that make outstanding entrepreneurs are the same for philosophers – both require clear, critical thinking and strong communication skills to socialise their ideas to a wider audience.

Although today’s entrepreneurs obviously live a very different way of life than Plato did, a lot of what he had to stay still applies to what we all long for: to be happier and more content in our day-to-day living. Three quotes from his writing struck a chord with me when thinking about this blog as being very relevant to startup thinking:

Wise men talk because they have something to say, fools because they have to say something With so many opportunities to voice your opinions online and in public these days, it can be difficult to just sit with your own thoughts. Plato reminds us that we should only speak when it is of benefit, and not just to toot our own horns.

The beginning is the most important part of your work. Make a start! All to often we put off doing good work and losing opportunities left, right, and centre because we never start. Fear stands in the way for some, but Plato encourages us to just get our hands dirty and see what transpires. Even if we fail, at least we know the outcome. Never starting doesn’t teach us anything.

If a man neglects education he walks lame to the end of his life. Entrepreneurial life is full of amazing things to learn and opportunities for new experience, but you have to take them. Don’t cut yourself off from all the things that are out there just waiting to be consumed and understood by you in your search for revenue, a startup is much more about learning than money.

Philosophers have a reputation for freewheeling thinking, open minded and thoughtful, but maybe metaphysical, lost in the context of their times, so is there any relevance for today’s startup entrepreneurs? Look again, I find that, in reality, the Greek philosophers were very realistic and pragmatic. They understood that things often go the opposite of the way that we want them to go, so they’re resilient, and it’s all about thinking things through and reflecting. Doing so will make you a more successful, thoughtful and self-assured entrepreneur.

As an entrepreneur, adopting some of these philosophical approaches can transform negative emotions into a sense of perspective and prepare you to have the right state of mind. At its heart it’s about controlling things, which are in your power to control and ditching the rest. So let’s look at the traits of Plato and others, and how we can benefit from their philosophical outlook on life for our startups.

They love of debate An important trait that all philosophers have is the ability to follow an argument all the way to the end. As an entrepreneur, it’s an essential skill, for example, if you’re sitting in front of a potential customer.

Equally, healthy discussion becomes more important when your business starts to grow, debate is often the key to finding the most effective course of action from a range of options. Encouraging your team to share a different point of view is healthy. Remember, you’re not trying to win arguments (‘be right’), rather, you’re trying to find the best path forward (‘get it right), so embracing other perspectives is powerful.

They’re comfortable with the uncomfortable As an entrepreneur, you have to make decisions on issues that aren’t always conveniently shaped in black and white,  you have to get comfortable working in an environment of uncertainty and unknowns – if you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.

It’s a steep learning curve ploughing your way forward in a startup, but for philosophers, ambiguity is nothing new. Embracing it teaches you to manage uncertainty and stay calm. As an entrepreneur, you’re always, in the words of Walt Whitman, conquering, holding, daring, venturing.

You’ll likely spend a lot of your time operating in the unknown, so you’ll need to be able to tolerate ambiguity. Next time you find yourself at a fork in the road, think about making a decision with 51% confidence, simply look at the balance of outcomes and make a judgement call. While it’s not ideal, it’s far better than procrastinating and waiting for ideal or easy solutions that never present themselves.

They see the big picture in the smallest details If you can’t see the big picture, you’re lacking direction and consequently can end up going randomly anywhere, wasting time and energy. It’s easy to get sidetracked by details and suddenly find yourself struggling in the long grass.

Taking a more philosophical approach helps you envision how smaller decisions will eventually fit into bigger ones, playing back your thinking. One way to ensure that you’re always on the right track is to step back, reflect and go back to your vision and big picture, and your broader horizon, and consider how minor tweaks might affect your future expansion plans.

They keep their emotions in check Your passion makes the difference as an entrepreneur to what you do, but never confuse enthusiasm with capability. In philosophy, you learn to detach from your emotions and make decisions with sound logic. As an entrepreneur, that’s a valuable lesson, since it’s easy to fall in love with a new idea, and overlook obvious flaws.

They dissect complex problems Einstein said, If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions. This thinking highlights a skill that philosophers have mastered: the ability to break down complex problems into simpler ones.

As an entrepreneur, you’ll have to solve complex problems early and often on your startup journey. You’ll have a leg up if you can break the big stuff down into digestible pieces, rather than trying to solve it all at once.

Recently the philosophical approach of Stoicism has become an influence on entrepreneurial thinking. Stoicism is a philosophical practice considered to be a complete way of life. It focuses on these four core principles:

  • Make the best use of your time
  • Be the master of your emotions
  • Walk the path of virtue
  • Develop self-mastery

In the increasingly competitive, confusing and complex digital world, the key is stripping back the nonsense and keeping things simple and straight forward, it’s vital we focus on the signals and not the noise.

Stoicism reminds us that amidst this maelstrom, we are required to be mindful, fully present and aware, and exercise self-control, rather than being lost to emotion and lost to random thought processes. It can build the resilience and state of mind required to rebound from knockbacks.

The things you think about determine the quality of your mind, so lets look at the four tenets of Stoicism and how they impact an entrepreneur.

Make the best use of time Some periods of time are snatched from us, some are stolen and some simply seep away. Yet the most shameful loss is the loss due to carelessness – Seneca

Seneca reminds us to not waste our time because time is precious. In other words, live your life with intention and be the master over your time. Be clear with your intentions for the day and be firm on getting goals complete. Design your week in a way that makes sense for you

Be the master of your emotions The Stoics teach us that unpredictable things happen in our lives that we can’t control, but we can control how we respond to events. Responding (as opposed to reacting) requires you to be in control of your emotions and thoughts, and in control of your daily habits.

Entrepreneurs often have to figure out a way to make something possible within all the things that are impossible, and can’t waste time complaining or blaming because of deadlines to meet – we have too much on our plate to worry about that.

Take time to think before responding to pressure and avoiding immediate reaction is a difficult style to develop, but invaluable. If you’re frustrated with a business situation or a chain of events that is seemingly running away from you, close your laptop and go outside, calming your emotions will help you to think more clearly.

Walk the path of virtue As a startup entrepreneur, there will be plenty of ethical dilemmas in your company, requiring you to make difficult choices. Take a moment to think through the possible ways you could respond, and consequences. Cross out the negative responses and circle the positive ones. These are your virtuous reactions.

Develop self-mastery The Greeks famously called this form of self-discipline askesis. Seneca writes It is precisely in these days that we need to discipline our spirit… for the spirit gives the strongest proof of its resolve by not being attracted or distracted by pleasures which lead to self-indulgence.

Developing self-mastery and rigorous self-discipline enables you to become a master over your time and your actions, and can result in incredible helpful outcomes. Zeno said Man conquers the world by conquering himself. The core of his philosophy consists of virtue, tolerance, and self-control.

Entrepreneurs need to be able to achieve goals within specific time periods, they want to see quick results. That’s not to say you can’t have any self indulgence, though, we are human, but taking a more thoughtful approach adopting some of the lessons from Greek philosophers has merit. Instead of the usual headlong rush into getting stuff done, take a deep breath, open your mind and speak the future into being.

As an entrepreneur, if you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the gods, then you write tragedy. The end is inevitable from the start. However, if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody’s mercy, then as an entrepreneur you will probably write melodrama and romance.

Which takes me back to Corfu, August 1984. In the middle of a relentless hot sunny day, I relaxed under an awning outside of a cafe biting into a goat’s cheese and carrot marmalade sandwich, the Mediterranean sea breeze blowing gently, starting a discourse which has become a constant, lifetime conversation with a girl from Oldham. We danced outside the Vassilopoulos supermarket I recall, but that’s another blog.

Made in Sheffield: now stay hungry, stay foolish

Thursday last week saw me wearing my ‘proud Dad’ smile, and tears welling up in my eye (don’t be silly, it’s just hay fever) as my daughter Katie graduated and now the proud owner of a crisp piece of parchment that says ‘2:1 BA Honours in Business Management from the University of Sheffield’, made more poignant as it is my Alma mater. It doesn’t seem five minutes since I was taking Katie for her first outing in the pram.

Amidst the celebratory transition from graduands to graduates, I reflected that the graduation ceremony is where the vice-chancellor tells hundreds of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that individuality is the key to success. Wearing square-shaped mortarboards pulled down to fit snugly on their heads, my hope is that from time to time these folks will let their minds be bold, and wear sombreros.

Graduation is a joyous time full of personal celebration and recognition, warm reflection tinged with sadness about the passage of an era now ending, and anticipation about life beyond the student bar and university library. Of course being a new graduate you feel like a right clever-clogs but in real life never try to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people, or find a different room.

Do you need a plan from here on life’s starting grid? Not for me, throw that thinking out. To me it’s all about working hard and taking advantage of opportunities that come your way. Be curious, live with an open mind, don’t settle for the status quo. All you can do is try very hard to be in the right place at the right time, g o where there is no path and leave a trail. I’ve observed that most undergraduates living their three years at university do leave a trail, mainly of wet towels or dirty pots.

From standing on the shoulders of giants, and a paradoxical lifestyle of intellectual stimulation and alcoholic degradation, graduation releases you from one world and catapults you into another. Moving from the security of university life to the insecurity of real life is, I recall, daunting.  Clearly, life isn’t all about your job, but it’s the first step on the ladder to realising your potential.

I recall my own graduation. Well, just about. It all stays as good memories later in life. I think this is a period in life everyone should enjoy to the fullest. When you’re young you’re not afraid of what comes next, you’re excited by it. Katie, just lie back in the sun and count every beautiful thing you can see.

So let’s capture this future thinking, exuberance and energy of a new graduate and imagine we can take it into our daily business thinking. If you had the vitality, the naivety and swagger of a young graduate, what more could you achieve? You’d be hungry, eager, always looking forward, never resting on your laurels, curious, restless and bold. This would make you alert, full of beans and unafraid to try new things.

Agility in our constantly changing business world is a key to success, formulating strategies ahead of our competition to find a faster way to the future. But I think many people miss pivotal opportunities because they expect and accept the status quo. Yet surely inertia is a version of complacency, acceptance of where you are. Don’t allow complacency to keep you in mediocrity. Don’t grow comfortable where you are and use that as an excuse. Be agitated and restless.

For Katie today, her best years are ahead of her, and there is nothing much to look back on at this time aside from some glorious friendships and escapades, and memorable moments. As we get older, we spend a lot of time looking back over our shoulder with fondness for the good times past, but looking back in business can be a trap that hinders you.

We tend to spend too much of our business time lamenting the past – lost customers, lost projects, regretting the lack of discipline to get things done.  Whatever you did yesterday is gone. It is over. There is nothing you can do about it. The spare change you’ve lost down the back of the sofa yesterday is gone forever.

This tendency to continually and obsessively rehash and analyse the past isn’t helpful, you get lured into constantly looking backward, stuck in your past instead of looking forward and building your future. Live in the business of tomorrow, don’t try and fix what’s broken today, make some new stuff.

Katie will create her fortune by anticipating future trends and envisioning her own ambitions. She knows where she is going and how she is going to get there. Rarely do youngsters rest on their laurels or allow themselves to bask in the security of today, so adopt this attitude to your business.

Your challenge is to lead two businesses, simultaneously – your business of today, and your business of tomorrow. Long-term vision shouldn’t be scuppered by short-sighted, short-term actions, future orientation enables you to stay ahead of the game. I really don’t think that you can ever plan the future by linking it to the past.

We are not here to fear the future, we are here to shape it. The future is always more important than the past, you have to believe this, or why get put of bed in the morning? The future is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned.

Katie has boxes and scrapbooks filled with mementos, clippings, postcard, concert and plane tickets, old letters, and trivia. This memorabilia is great, but if you want your business to succeed, your mind must focus on where you are going, not on where you have been. It would be more productive to make a scrapbook with pictures of where you want your business to go and what you want to be in the future.

So what are the key messages I’m giving to Katie as a new graduate that you could put into your own entrepreneurial business thinking? Here are ten thoughts.

Listen to the voices in your head – what do you mean, you don’t hear voices inside your head, is it just me then? Whatever the voices tell you, trust them and your instinct, and go for it.

Expect a lot from yourself, believe in yourself Don’t let someone else define your agenda, you decide what is possible for you. Dare to believe you can be best, and make it happen. Embrace challenges and setbacks as defining moments, learn from them, use them as springboards.

Don’t care about being right, care about succeeding Steve Jobs used this line in an interview after he was fired by Apple, and I think it’s a great guiding principle for anyone, as a person or business leader.

Chose your attitude Regardless of appearances, no one escapes life without enduring tough moments and cul-de-sacs. The truth is, life is messy and unpredictable. The difference between those who overcome challenges and those who succumb to them is largely one of attitude.

JRR Tolkien’s words in The Hobbit are inspiring about your choosing your attitude for personal or business growth:

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead. Today and tomorrow are yet to be said, The chances, the changes are all yours to make,The mold of your life is in your hands to break.

Be Unique Our world today is full of ‘me 2’, replicas and imitations, so craft a life of originality, novelty and innovation. Conformity to the norm will merely sentence you to mediocrity, who wants to be average, surely that’s just a blank face in the crowd of irrelevance – be the voice that other folks want to listen to.

Life’s too short to go unnoticed – be audacious, but with humility Life is all about progression from good to great, wanting to be with other people, and other people wanting to be with you. Push yourself to be there, at the top table, but never be afraid to wash the pots too.

Leaning back, or leaning forwards, which do you think is the best stance to take? The first thing you need to do is to make others sit up and take notice. Catch their eye, don’t catch a cold stood waiting.

Reach beyond your expectations – a Shackleton quote. Success means different things to different people, and that’s okay, but it’s not other’s definitions you should be concerned with, but your own expectations. As you continue your journey of growth, it’s my hope your sights will shift from the modest pursuit of success to the passionate pursuit of significance.

Live at your Personal Best Following on from the above, in this Olympic year, look into the minds of Beamon, Owens, Lewis, Fosbury, Redgrave and Liddell. Push yourself at every moment, seize the day. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost.

Be a lifelong learner Graduation isn’t the end of learning, just the start. Learning defines the person and is a lifelong endeavour of discovery, improvement and fulfillment. The minute you stop learning is the minute you cede your future and check out on the race with yourself to realise your potential.

Be mindful Mindfulness isn’t just a state of mind, temporary and fleeting, but a real place to be, conscious of living in the moment. Pay attention to the moment, and make it happen. Fantasy of ‘what will be’ is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, but don’t take life too seriously, be happy.

Stay hungry, stay foolish ok, that’s eleven, but the closing lines from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford speech captures a sentiment that seems on the face of it somewhat flippant, however, when you reflect, it’s a statement about keeping your ambition and being adventurous, never taking yourself too seriously, and keeping the zest and attitude of youth.

In addition, Jobs made three other points to the Stanford class, which are worth repeating here and relevant to all entrepreneurs, not just graduates:

  • You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future, so follow your curiosity, intuition and your heart.
  • Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick, but keep going doing the thing you love, that is great work. If you haven’t found it, keep searching until you find it. Keeping looking don’t settle.
  • Live each day as if it is your last, because one day you will be right. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it by living someone else’s life, don’t be trapped by dogma of other people’s thinking, don’t let your own voice be drowned out by other people’s noise. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Everything else is secondary

Check out Job’s inspirational speech here:

There is a light that never goes out from your time spent at university – Katie, like myself, was made in Sheffield – so keep that alive in your business thinking. The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it. Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

The importance of self-esteem for a startup founder

Starting your own business is one of the most emotional things you will do in your life. The ups and downs can be dramatic, and the emotions involved in startup life can test the self-belief and resolve of even the most confident entrepreneur. Whilst we often think the success of a startup is down to the innovation and the idea, I think it’s as much to do with your self-esteem.

Self-esteem reflects a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth, a positive and negative evaluation and judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs – for example, ‘I am competent’ and emotions such as triumph, despair and pride – three feelings I know startup founder experience every day.

Self-esteem is made up primarily of two things: respecting yourself and feeling capable. Every adjustment in your startup business model shouldn’t be viewed as a crisis in self-esteem, nor every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. Adversity, and perseverance and all these things can shape you.

In many ways I view a startup as a completion with yourself. Negative thinking patterns can be immensely deceptive and persuasive, and change is rarely easy, but with patience and persistence, backed up by diligence and research, your startup can fly. Reflection is a way to balance out the emotion.

Research shows that there are four emotional stages that most entrepreneurs pass through on their way to becoming completely comfortable with their new startup life. The four are: the Busy Phase, the Second Thoughts Phase, the Self-Doubt Phase, and the Been There, Done That Phase. Although the phases’ names might seem slightly negative, understand that each stage is associated with a mix of emotions, both negative and positive.

The third stage of emotions research says most entrepreneurs experience during their startup, mirrors the first and second stage in many ways, in that there are both positive and negative moments. There are a number of negative emotions you can expect, but there are also many effective ways to cope with these feelings.

For example, performance anxiety. One of the toughest things about a startup is that it can be difficult to measure your progress. Setting milestones based on your MVP and customer development are fine, but finances are scattered and unpredictable, but with cashflow acting as a real measure of success in terms of survival, this can lead you to wonder about how well you are performing.

To overcome this self-doubt, you should define and measure your success in your own terms, because measuring your startup’s success using finance measures might not be an option at this point, it could be helpful for you to look to other types of milestones, such as those related to projects or personal goals. However, with new ways to measure success, come new ways for you to be disappointed.

Frustration will abound in equal measure with feeling positive. As you become more comfortable with your business, you’re likely to be thrown a curveball or two and some setbacks – anticipated new business not closing, new hires not taking job offers made, or even prototype development not hitting the mark. The good news, however, is that this is all part of the startup learning process.

Look back to those days when you were employed before you launched your startup – and don’t lose sight of the many reason you stepped into the world of entrepreneurship. Remember, you experienced days like this in your previous work life, the only difference now is that you get to decide how to handle the situation rather than relying on your boss. Just keep in mind during these frustrating times that every startup experiences setbacks – and regularly, too.

At this point, you are probably fully invested – emotion, energy, time and cash – into your idea, and so the concept of quitting, even during the toughest and most frustrating of times, is unthinkable. It’s not a remote possibility. During this stage of emotion self-doubt, expect your determination to be renewed. Your business is part of your personal identity now, and your commitment to it as a measure of your personal success is a high driver.

Frustration, performance anxiety, and determination are all emotions you’re likely to experience in your new life as an entrepreneur, and combine into a maelstrom to undermine your self-esteem. We’ve all had those quiet moments when we reflect and doubt ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, there are a raft of positive experiences along the way too, but be realistic, a startup is hard and there are no shortage of unknowns, unexpected challenges and risks.

But let the chips fall on the floor as they may. Simply roll your sleeves up, and strategise. Focus on asking yourself questions on strategy, and do the hard stuff. The insights you’ll gain by answering those questions will help determine if you’re on the right path or perhaps need to pivot or change direction.

As long as you’re honest with yourself and deal with it head-on, there’s nothing to fear from self-doubt. It’s actually a good mechanism for keeping you on the right track.  Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your startup life, but define yourself.

The Six Pillars Of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden demonstrates compellingly why self-esteem is basic to psychological health, achievement, personal happiness, and positive relationships. It was the culmination of a lifetime of clinical practice research and study, and hailed as the most definitive work on the topic.

As with all such ‘psychological analytical’ research, the key is to take the framework and apply it to yourself. There is no ‘right or wrong’ answer, simply an opportunity to frame your own situation and thinking against a useful framework, and ask ‘so what does this say to me?’

Branden introduces the six pillars – in essence six action-based practices for daily living that provide the foundation for self-esteem, and explores the central importance of self-esteem in five areas: the workplace, parenting, education, psychotherapy, and the culture at large.  From a startup and entrepreneurship perspective, it’s an opportunity for self-reflection – but don’t over analyse. It forms a useful ‘conversation with myself’ structure.

One thing that is important to grasp is that self-esteem is an indirect result of what you do. Branden breaks this down into the six practices highlighted below:

Live consciously This requires us to be fully in the present moment. This takes a bit of practice, because many of us are conditioned to disown the here and now, to survive what we have thought that we cannot handle. It’s about being comfortable with yourself, your persona, what you’ve achieved and what you stand for. Respect yourself at all times, what you’ve achieved and where you’re going.

Accept yourself We all have flaws and attributes, but you also have the opportunity to enhance who you are, by accepting everything about yourself. In fact, the only way to enhance who you are is to accept yourself. Don’t try to live in someone else’s skin or adopt their personality, simply be yourself for what you are. Measure your success by your own standards, not others.

Take responsibility for your experiences There’s a piece in the book which says: I have learned to be in conversations where I say to myself, “It comes down to ‘this is where you end, and I begin”. Giving yourself such an affirmation helps you to say what I will and will not experience, and this is quite liberating and fulfilling. Again it’s about asserting yourself to yourself – if you don’t respect you, no one else will.

Assert who you are Like what you think, feel, believe, need, want and value is genuine, and don’t doubt yourself against some alter-ego or artificial model of what you want to be. Your startup is a reflection of you.

Live purposefully Make an agreement with yourself to reach your highest potential, while you maintain balance in your life. You only get one chance, make it happen and realise your potential. Again, don’t covert or envy. Don’t look at the progress other startups are making, simply focus on your own model, execution and growth.

Maintain your integrity Know exactly what your principles and values are, and stick to them, no matter what others think or do. You started with a clear purpose in mind for your startup, don’t lose sight of it – it’s the ‘why I am doing this’ which is a vital reminder when you do hit the brick wall and doubt yourself.

If you are consciously aware of the real conditions of your startup life, accepting of yourself, take responsibility for yourself, assert yourself, have a sense of purpose and are rigorously honest, then self-esteem is the natural result.

High self-esteem, while often confused with cockiness or arrogance, is a trait that should be fostered in entrepreneurs and be sought after when building your team. Self-confident people are often positive and outgoing and those are the types of people you want on your side.

The most beneficial effect of reflecting upon these six pillars of self-esteem is to make you more aware of your own values and what is important to you, and to keep you honest with yourself. That’s the benchmark, not what others think of you, not what you think others think of you, or what you crave as a new model of you in your startup.

It’s when things go wrong that you must not quit. You’re doing it for yourself, so make it matter where it matters most, inside.

A startup is like riding a bike, to keep your balance you must keep moving.

Albert Einstein died in his sleep at Princeton Hospital sixty-one years ago today, on April 18 1955. His archetypal boffin persona and image of unkempt hair is firmly lodged in popular culture, and his stature as a pre-eminent thinker of C20th is well-earned, as his ideas and theories changed the way the universe was imagined.

Almost from birth, Einstein’s enquiring mind was developed by parents who encouraged his independence. Aged five, his father gave him a compass to play with, and he was captivated by the motion of the needle. This was the genesis of his interest in science, as later, his theories would be used to explain the motion of the needle.

In terms of being an entrepreneurial thinker, he is without match, I mean, who else, picturing a man falling off a roof would realise he would not feel his own weight? He called this the happiest thought of my life because it lead him to the general theory of relativity, the culmination of an eight-year obsession with gravity.

If your review the many quotes and statements he made throughout his life, from a startup perspective he provides insightful guidance on thinking about problems, creativity and personal values, starting with his maxim we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

He always had a clear view of the problems he was trying to solve, and held the determination to solve them. He regarded his major achievements as mere stepping-stones for the next advance. Whilst his principal tools were a notepad, a pen and pencil, his thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers.

So how do we capture Einstein’s approach to crafting breakthrough ideas into our own everyday working lives in our startups, crafting new products and services to out-think our competition?

Follow Your Curiosity: The important thing is not to stop questioning… Never lose a holy curiosity.

Curiosity helps to fuel our imagination, to open new doors and form new connections.  When we ask questions of ourselves, we can shake up our beliefs.  What unanswered question is swimming around in your head about your startup?

What Einstein is trying to deliver with this message is that curiosity was the means through all the foundations during his life. The pursuit of curiosity is what drives a startup founder, that’s what divides us from being average. Keep digging your vision and answer all the questions. You will be amazed how startup life can be extraordinary with continuous curiosity.

Perseverance: It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

Einstein was known for his persistence in focusing on problems until he found a solution. In the same way, startups need to develop a knack for perseverance, to keep nurturing and looking for new angles to approach prospects. Keep trying. Keep making the calls, even when (especially when) it’s hard, by staying with problems longer, as Einstein says, can mean the difference between failure and success.

We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when creating them – so perseverance requires you to pivot, modify you thinking, failure to do so will simply compound the problems – but keep going.

Make Mistakes: A person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new.

Mistakes are inevitable especially when pursuing a startup activity, they can be disappointing and tough on the confidence but often necessary to test the way forward to the end goal.  What great things are ever accomplished without failing in some way first?  The real failure is in the not starting or completing, it’s a first learning.

Remember, a startup is an experiment, it means that we should forcefully attack the unknowns and test them out. Dare to discover and dare to make mistakes. That’s what divides startups from successful and unsuccessful. Dare to try and be wrong.

Live in the Moment: I never think of the future – it comes soon enough.

As they say, the moment is all we really have, a tough concept to grasp. By becoming more aware of the moment, we can ground ourselves in what matters most and set our startup priorities.

Einstein also said, Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.

What a great example Einstein uses to illustrate the importance of focusing on the present!  We can miss the pleasures of the present by becoming too preoccupied with the past or the future.  Reminding ourselves daily to be present will provide us with a greater appreciation for what we’ve achieved to date, whilst also ensuring you give your all to whatever you’re currently doing. Multitasking is a killer to productivity and innovation in a startup, focused energy is the key.

If something isn’t working, change it: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Avoid the insanity of poor results. If something in your startup process isn’t working as well as it should, you need to make some changes. If you’re not filling your pipeline with new business prospects, not getting enough new features developed, or not attracting new talent, then why aren’t you changing your processes? Why keep doing the same things and expecting the results to change? If you are not boldly experimenting or innovating then you’re not taking enough chances.

If you have been unhappy in certain areas of your startup, opt to do one thing different tomorrow.  The idea is to shake up the routine, sometimes a new perspective on the same situation is all it takes to open one’s eyes to what’s possible.

Create Value Strive not to be a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.

How would you define success?  What will make your startup a success? These questions can be great ones to ask yourself, because whatever it is for you, that’s where to place or continue to place your focus.

Some startups approach the word ‘success’ wrongly. It’s not just being profitable, success is about getting there, step by step, so we will be able to appreciate the business we have created.

Einstein wasn’t motivated by conventional definitions of success, he lived modestly and spoke humbly. He seemed genuinely interested in larger questions affecting humankind. As a startup, of course need to make sales and negotiate deals and generate profit, but the best way to do this is to forget about making your numbers for a moment and instead zero in on the real value that your product or service offers to potential clients.

Drill down to below your basic pitch to better understand what your real added value is. Make sure you can convey this sense of value to your prospects, and make sure you believe in it yourself.

Don’t waste your time trying to be successful, spend your time creating value: value for your customers, value for people and value for society. If you’re valuable, then you will attract more business and therefore more success. It’s not what you do, or how well you do it that’s important, it’s who you are that counts. At all times, strive to do something that matters.

Learn the rules and then play better You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.

It doesn’t mean that you have to behave like everyone else or do the same things other startups do, once you have a full understanding of the rules of the market you’re in, you can have the power to play better, challenge the rules of the game, or to change them.

To become an expert at something, learn all you can about that subject, study other’s successes and then aim to do it better than them.  The stronger your commitment and passion is to your endeavour, the greater your resolve will be to succeed.

A startup is more of an art than a science, but we can still take heart in these lessons from one of history’s greatest scientific minds. If we can all approach each day with a spirit of curiosity, perseverance and creativity, we’ll be able to carve out our own definition of startup success – and generate more lasting value for our customers, our people and consequently, ourselves. A startup is like riding a bike, to keep your balance you must keep moving.

Finally, as we remember Einstein on this poignant day, his final words sum up the man. Hours before his death, Einstein’s doctors proposed trying a new and unproven surgery as a final option for extending his life. Einstein simply replied, I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.

Millions saw the apple fall, only Newton asked ‘why?’

Martin Zwilling writes an inspirational blog on a variety of issues impacting startups – here’s the link – and recently asked in his blog Do you have the intelligence to be an entrepreneur?

This set me thinking about some of the great innovators and their own entrepreneurship credentials, and how current startups mavericks like Elon Musk compare to those that have gone before.

As Zwilling states, many people feel that they just aren’t smart enough to be an entrepreneur, yet there seems to be no convincing evidence that a high IQ is a prerequisite for being an entrepreneur. We all know of successful businesses started by first-time entrepreneurs who dropped out of school, and according to many ‘street smarts’ (experience) tends to trump ‘book smarts’ (intelligence) every time.

Another perspective is that there are in fact multiple types of intelligence, and we all have strengths and weaknesses along all of these scales. It appears that most successful entrepreneurs are those with the broadest range of skills and experiences, while a depth in any given discipline is not so important.

Zwilling identified the eight most commonly recognised intelligences that cover the potential of most humans, prioritised by applicability to the entrepreneurial role:

Word-smarts (linguistic intelligence) People with a high linguistic intelligence display a high facility for word usage and languages. They are typically good at communicating ideas. Good entrepreneurs need these skills to lead a team, sell ideas to customers and investors and write strategies.

People-smarts (interpersonal intelligence) These attributes are the embodiment of social skills. Entrepreneurs with high social skills interact more effectively, they are able to sense the feelings, motivations and temperaments of others, to enlist their support and negotiate effectively.

Self-smarts (intra-personal intelligence) Intra-personal intelligence is the capacity to understand your own strengths, weaknesses and motivations, and to capitalise on these insights in planning and strategy.

Number-smarts (logical-reasoning intelligence) Logical-mathematical intelligence is the ability to calculate, quantify and think logically. Entrepreneurs use strengths in this area to balance their passion for a specific solution and to develop the specific steps and financial resources required for building, rolling out and scaling the business to success.

Nature-smarts (naturalist intelligence) This sort of environmental and cultural insight is rooted in a sensitive, ethical and holistic understanding of the world and its complexities. Good entrepreneurs use this to see new markets first, predict trends and devise effective marketing campaigns and demographics for focus.

Picture-smarts (spatial intelligence) Spatial intelligence is the ability to think in three dimensions and the ability to visualise with the mind’s eye. Core capacities include mental imagery, spatial reasoning and an active imagination. It’s easy to see how this is important for entrepreneurs in solution design and product branding.

Body-smarts (kinaesthetic intelligence) This intelligence involves a sense of timing and the perfection of skills through mind-body coordination. Business entrepreneurs who good at building innovative new products are especially strong in this area. Strengths here also lead to leadership presence.

Music-smarts (musical intelligence) Musical intelligence is the capacity to discern pitch, rhythm, timbre and tone. In addition to being key to any business directly or indirectly related to music, this skill helps entrepreneurs to be better listeners. Music-smart people also tend to be logical.

An interesting analysis by Zwilling, which profile can you identify with? Where does your intelligence manifest itself?

Reflecting on my own strengths, then I can identify with the ‘number-smarts’ detail above. Indeed, one of my clients last week acclaimed me as a genius with numbers, as I’d prepared a complex but user friendly financial model that gave her a financial map of her business model canvas. I smiled and replied that the accolade of ‘a genius with numbers’ belonged to one man – Isaac Newton – who had always been someone I revered. Newton’s thinking was undoubtedly the mark of a hugely intelligent genius, in the language of mathematics.

It has been said that the main difference between a genius and an ordinary man, is only that a genius knows how to think, rather than what to think. Often the word genius is accompanied by words like creativity, or maybe it is their IQ, or some combination of the two that sets them apart from the rest.

Maybe there is more. Geniuses look for entirely new concepts and believe that anything is possible – traits of entrepreneurs. It is this belief that leads them to approach problems in different ways – often they will see connections and patterns where the majority of us don’t – again an underlying characteristic of entrepreneurs.

So what makes a genius? Let’s look at Isaac Newton to see if we can identify some traits, and how we can learn from them to enhance our own entrepreneurial thinking styles.

Isaac Newton experienced a difficult and lonely childhood. His father, a farmer, died three months before he was born on Christmas Day 1642 at Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire, and when he was two years old, his mother, Hannah, moved away to remarry, leaving Isaac to be brought up by his grandmother for eight years.

He was a thinker from a young age, making a working windmill driven by mice running around a treadmill aged eight. After Grammar School, his prodigious academic talent was recognised and in 1661 he went to Trinity College Cambridge.

Having dabbled in the study of alchemy, combining ‘the magical and the mechanical’, the first sign of his unique thinking style, by the end of 1666 he became the first to describe techniques for differential calculus, using his own definitions of ‘fluxions’. It was during this period too, when prompted by a falling apple, he compared the attraction exerted by the Earth at its surface with that required to keep the Moon in orbit, and the concept of ‘the universal law of gravity’ was born.

Not content with this, Newton then went on to conduct a series of brilliant experiments and he was the first to discover the true properties of white light, that it was composed of more basic rays, each of which had its own colour – the spectrum.

As a result of his endeavours, Newton was made a Fellow of Trinity College in 1667, but his academic career was only just beginning. Over the next few years he refined his mathematical research. Newton’s published his masterwork Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica in 1687, known as Principia. In this work, Newton stated the three universal laws of motion.

Principia is undoubtedly one of the books that changed the world. However, it’s a modest volume, about 6 by 8 inches, weighs about three pounds and consists of 512 pages written in Latin filled with mathematical problems, calculations and diagrams. Newton’s work was quickly recognised as that of a genius, and in 1703 he received the ultimate accolade in British science by being elected president of the Royal Society. He was knighted two years later.

Newton was a difficult man, working in solitude, prone to depression and often involved in bitter arguments with other scientists, but by the early 1700s he was the dominant figure in British and European science. He died on 31 March 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Newton towered intellectually above his contemporaries as no other since – Einstein had his picture on his office wall – writing his own epic of scientific discoveries and contribution to mathematical thinking. Newton himself had been rather more modest of his own achievements, famously writing in a letter to Robert Hooke in February 1676: If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Newton himself often told the story that he was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation by watching the fall of an apple from a tree. Although he did not arrive at his theory of gravity in any single moment, watching the falling apple was his eureka moment – though not the cartoon version that the apple actually hit Newton’s head. It’s an enduring image, and following a period working in orchards in Oregon during his vagabond years, Steve Jobs named his company ‘Apple’ and the original logo was that of Newton sat under an apple tree.

So, let’s look at Newton’s genius, his ability to come up with ideas, and generate alternatives and conjectures like a modern day entrepreneur. Why are so many of their ideas so rich and varied? How do they produce the variations that lead to the original and novel? By studying the notebooks, correspondence, conversations and ideas of Newton, researchers have teased out particular common thinking strategies and styles of thought that enabled him to generate a prodigious variety of novel and original ideas. The following are thumbnail descriptions of strategies that are perceived in Newton’s thinking.

Newton looked at problems in many different ways. Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has spotted. Newton believed that to find a solution to a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem.

Newton used pictures to share his thinking. The explosion of thinking in the Newton was intimately tied to the recording and conveying of a vast knowledge in drawings, graphs and diagrams, also seen in the renowned diagrams of da Vinci and Galileo.

Newton was productive. A distinguishing characteristic of genius is immense productivity. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents. He guaranteed productivity by giving himself idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. Newton too was a prodigiously novel and disruptive thinker. In his yearning for Theory of Everything he sometimes worked 18 or 20 hours a day. This gargantuan capacity for work he continued for a quarter of a century when in his prime.

Newton made novel connections. Like a child playing with Lego, a genius is constantly combining and recombining ideas, images and thoughts into different combinations in their conscious and subconscious minds. Newton’s falling apple moment enabled him to combine differing concepts in a novel way, and as a result he was able to look at the same world as everyone else and see something different. Leonardo da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

Newton thought in contradictions. Geniuses think different thoughts because they tolerate ambivalence between opposites or two incompatible subjects. Because Newton could tolerate juxtapositions and variations, he was open to novel and ambiguous stimuli, and could see the hidden relationships that led to his spontaneous breakthroughs.

Newton made bets. Newton’s process was trial and error, a journey down many dead-ends that eventually gave him a solution. It is not luck, but creative insight of the highest order. Newton’s diaries show he often noted things as ‘interesting’ and wondered if it had potential. This curiosity of an unrestrained search for ideas led to his hypotheses or bets, which he would explore and ultimately prove.

Recognising these thinking strategies of Newton and applying them will make you more entrepreneurial for sure. Newton ‘knew how to think’, so adopt some of his ways to improve your own thinking – it will work.

Embrace the thinking of Newton in your every day approach to work and you’ll unearth new ideas to take your business forward. Give yourself 10% of the working week – that’s just one afternoon or morning – to thinking.

Millions saw the apple fall, only Newton asked the question. Newton made the most telling remark on the process of thought that I have ever encountered. It is also the simplest. When asked how he had come upon his theory of gravity, he said, By thinking on it continuously.