Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Being smart and thinking you are smart

Do you remember the Millennium Celebrations? Y2K? Was that really five years ago? What were you doing five years ago... most likely something different from what you're doing today. As we now enter the second half of this decade, my question to you is ¨C what will you be doing in five years time? Where will you be in 2010? If this is half time, how has the first half gone for you, and what do you plan to change your approach in the second half?

As a nerdy 13 year old, my claim to fame was being in the school chess club. I had been taught that being brainy was good, and the most brainy game to play was chess. Or so I thought until one chess-playing afternoon, after a particularly grueling exam, I posed a question to my chess buddies: "If chess is so smart, why is the leader the weakest piece?"
"If chess is so smart, why is the leader the weakest piece?"

Everyone stared at the king for a moment, and then started to try and outdo each other with the ways in which chess was so different from the intellectual competition we were facing at school: "Why do we sometimes win by sacrificing the strongest pieces?", "Why does the game end not because the winning player has all the options, but because the losing player has run out of options?", "Why is the best player not the one who sees what's there, but sees what's next?", "How does a game that looks so black and white remain so grey?"

I forgot about our conversation for years, while we continued to get our grades, pass our exams, and fight for our college places. We put our heads down and worked at being the smartest, the cleverest, the strongest. In fact, it was 10 years later before I was reminded of that conversation.

I had left university and started my entrepreneurial career. Being a fast mover, I had already achieved two business failures and was heading for my third when a wealthy property developer, Michael Braunstein, gave me a word of advice: "The reason you won't be successful is because you still think you're smart." Huh? I asked him to elaborate. He said: "You think you're smart, so you try and do everything yourself. As for me, I know I'm stupid, so I have no choice but to hire smart people like you to do everything for me."

In academic circles, everyone competes to be the smartest. In entrepreneurial circles, it's quite the opposite. When I graduated from Cambridge I was conditioned to think I was special. It took me years to realize that this thought was the biggest thing stopping my entrepreneurial success.
Entrepreneurs do not think they're special: Their customers are special, their team is special. As long as I was the strongest piece, I wasn't even playing the game.

"It is well to remember that the entire universe,with one trifling exception, is composed of others ."~ John Andrew Holmes

From that day forward my thinking changed. When I had a bright new idea, instead of thinking "I've had a bright new idea" I would think "Who would already have had this idea?" and I would make the effort to find them and learn from them. When something needed to be done, instead of asking "What do I need to do?" I would ask "Who can do this?". Instead of thinking I knew, I'd look for who knew more. I started to spend more time valuing the strength of those around me and the moves they made.

As the American Industrialist, Andrew Carnegie said "No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it".

When we choose to make ourselves the weakest in the team ¨C by surrounding ourselves with others who are each superior in their own strengths ¨C we also realize the game is not to try and be successful, but to make others successful. If you want to find a billionaire, look for a large group of millionaires and you'll find the billionaire in the middle. Focus on success and it will elude you. Focus on the success of others and the favour is soon returned. There's a saying: "It's lonely at the top". Of course it isn't if you've made sure everyone else gets there first.

In my late twenties, as I found myself increasingly surrounded by strong teams that allowed me to step back and view the game, I realized the extra time allowed me to look further ahead for the benefit of everyone. Moving less meant seeing more. It reminded me of another of our 13 year old comments: "Why is the best player not the one who sees what's there, but sees what's next?".

We are five years into this new millennium. How will you play the game in the next five years? As an academic or an entrepreneur? What resources will you access? As their primary resource, academics use their knowledge, while entrepreneurs use their network. Academics need to know in order to do. Entrepreneurs need to do in order to know. Academics study the past, while entrepreneurs study the future. In these next five years, will you be choosing to live in the past, or in the future?

"If past history was all there was to the game,The richest people would be librarians ."~ Warren Buffett

Back at school, we were all taught to compete against each other and demonstrate just how smart we were on our own. Demonstrating our smartness was the key to our survival. Ten years later, I was being told that this winning formula was now a losing formula. How should I now reconcile this? Did I really need to choose now between book smart and street smart? Did I need to choose between academic or entrepreneur? Was it really that black & white?

I thought back to chess. No one piece can win the game on its own. We're all a part of each other's game, so we win or lose together. I thought about Michael Braunstein's words ""The reason you won't be successful is because you still think you're smart." Hmm.. not because I was smart, but because I still thought I was smart. Some people think they know. Some know they don't know. This time the answer was black and white: The smart entrepreneurs have the certainty to know and ¨C at the same time ¨C they have the humility to know they don't know.

"And in knowing that you know nothing,That makes you the smartest of all ."~ Socrates


Excerpt from Roger Hamilton's newsletter

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