If you are reading this right now, you are a consumer of information. Most knowledge workers consume a bevy of information each day from conversations, articles (like this one), social media, and other sources.
Consuming information, at face value, is generally seen as a positive experience. You are exposed to others’ experiences, able to abstract lessons learned, and can create abstractions to incorporate this new knowledge to improve your life.
But does consuming more information actually make you a better decision-maker? Do you become more proficient just by exposure and osmosis?
I’ll save you the suspense - no it doesn’t.
Your consumption of information needs to make a few more jumps to actually take hold in your brain. You need to act on this new information to codify your comprehension of it.
Luckily, there are a few ways you can do this - and in my experience, starting your own business is one of the best ways to solidify your learning.
Almost one month after graduating from university, I put on my one and only suit and went off to my first day at my first full-time job. I naively thought that this job would put into practice the knowledge I had acquired over the first 22 years of my life - mostly through my schooling.
I quickly learned otherwise.
Now, the rational portion of my brain knew that my Japanese Society coursework probably wouldn’t factor into my day-to-day life as a healthcare management consultant - though I thought some of my economics and business courses could prove beneficial.
I was wrong.
My takeaways from microeconomics textbooks did not prepare me for the problems I was being asked to solve.
This is not (wholly) a post about how the university experience does not prepare a graduate for the business world - in fact, many of the experiences I had during university put me at a significant advantage when I entered my first job. The twist was that most of these learnings occurred outside of the lecture halls.
I found that the most prevalent skills that I could use from my university days were time management and the “80/20 rule.”
Throughout my four years at university, I was a member of the varsity baseball team - where we played 56 games over a ~3 month period each spring. We often played 4-5 games a week, traveling around the country every other weekend from Thursday to Sunday. This was on top of our full-time course load.
An outside observer to this experience may assume that grades would inevitably drop for baseball players in the spring semester when compared to the fall term (our “off-season”).
In fact, the opposite was true for many of my teammates and me. Our cumulative GPA rose during the spring semester, even with our 56 games and extended absences from campus.
Why did this rise occur? Because we were forced to be better with our time.
With games, practices, and seemingly constant bus and plane rides, we didn’t have time to waste. We either used our non-baseball time to complete coursework or we failed. Simple as that.
But the time constraint alone doesn’t fully explain why our grades would rise. That, I believe, can be attributed to the internalization of the “80/20 rule,” or Pareto’s Principle, which asserts that roughly 80% of outcomes come from 20% of all causes. In other words, if we could learn 20% of the most important material for a course, we would be able to control 80% of our grades.
I believe that our time constraint in the spring, in conjunction with our subconscious adhering to the 80/20 rule, allowed our team to understand the coursework at a deeper level - and subsequently perform better in the classroom.
The key here is that this was not an exercise in the abstract - we needed to practice these principles and apply this lesson on a daily basis to graduate. Through this continual application, we were able to codify these principles into our future decision-making process.
Just like how we experienced immediate feedback during every at-bat (you either got a hit or didn’t), we experienced near-immediate feedback with our approach to coursework. We were able to reflect on how we performed in the classroom and make necessary adjustments - which launched another feedback loop.
I found that when I entered the workforce upon graduation (after my unceremonious retirement from baseball) it was the time management and 80/20 practice that I pulled from most regularly to perform my job well.
Fast forward to 4 years into my professional career as a management consultant. I now had 2 (!) suits and experience solving real-world problems for Fortune 500 companies.
I was able to use my time management skills to effectively prioritize the most important things I needed to complete, and apply the 80/20 rule to client work in order to optimize the results from resource-constrained projects.
Alongside the skills I attained in university, I was also learning new ones on the job - like how to manage projects that met profitability targets and how to craft a compelling message (yes, how to make pretty PowerPoint slides).
Though I was learning new skills, something was missing.
It was during this time that I became a “passive consumer of information.”
In my quest to climb the corporate ladder as fast as possible, I filled my hours outside of work with reading the classic business books (e.g., Good to Great, The Effective Executive, etc.) and the latest Harvard Business Review articles. I felt that reading these information sources would complement my on-the-job skill building and accelerate my trajectory.
What I found through reading this type of material, though, is that within my position I did not have the chance to apply many of the lessons I was learning. I was not being faced with the situations I read about - making consequential product decisions, or how to effectively sell to the C-suite.
Those types of decisions, unsurprisingly in hindsight, were being made by the owners of the businesses I was employed by.
I fell into a “Consumption Trap.” I was consuming information, being able to take great notes, and even reflecting on others’ decision-making but ultimately, those observations made their way to my “tickler” file - stored away for the day when I could actually use it. I had no opportunity to reinforce what I learned through real-world practice.
I was stuck halfway through the “Learning Loop.”
While there are many definitions of “The Learning Loop,” the one that resonates the most for me is from Shane Parrish over at the tremendous Farnam Street blog.
At it’s most rudimentary, the learning loop can be described as having an experience (either directly or indirectly, from reading), reflecting on that experience, abstracting lessons learned from the reflection, then putting those abstractions into practice through action - which then creates another experience, kicking off another loop.
Within my 9-5 job, I felt stuck on the learning loop - not being able to fulfill the full loop because I could not take my abstractions into practice through action. I was stuck at the bottom of the loop (abstraction) and thus not actually learning much of anything.
In no way am I blaming my employers at the time, quite to the contrary, almost all of my superiors recognized my ambition and continually put me in positions to have experiences that were, in hindsight, far exceeding my capabilities at the time.
What I lacked was any “skin in the game” to make those experiences consequential to reflection, abstraction, and action.
I needed to find a way to complete my loop with skin in the game.
To say that I started my independent consulting practice with the sole intention of accelerating my learning loop would be a stretch.
While I may dedicate an entire post to the reasons why I decided to quit my stable 9-5 job in pursuit of my own venture, it’s safe to say that learning from failure was not my driving motivation.
My true inspiration for going out on my own was the allure of owning an asset, taking a risk in my own name, and ultimately controlling my time and location (I wanted to live in other countries and move whenever I felt like it).
Meanwhile, the rational side of my brain told me: “Well, if you don’t succeed you’ll end up with a great learning experience for your next go-around.” But the lessons learned from failure was not the desired outcome from the outset. The outcome I was aiming for was creating a sustainable independent income source that allowed me the freedom to set my own hours and location.
I’ve learned from almost 3 years of self-employment that having your own business forces you to accelerate your learning loop - or else insolvency is imminent.
I found that setbacks and challenges were the norms rather than outliers. Each day I was faced with problems I never had to deal with as an employee.
Fundamental business questions like:
My answers to the above questions constituted my survival chances. The answers to the above questions were my business. Everything else was just an idea.
At long last, I had skin in the game - and at first, it was terrifying.
There were no clear answers to how I should make decisions that had very real consequences. There was no one to tell me what to do. And my bank account balance depended on how I navigated this new world.
I realized that, subconsciously, my learning loop went into hyperdrive. Whatever challenge was most pertinent to survival - from sales to creating a website - was the information I needed to devour and quickly.
Consuming information was no longer the aim - I needed to implement this newly acquired knowledge quickly to solve the day’s challenges.
The magic came when I realized I had the opportunity to get immediate feedback on how I did in practice. I either made the sale or not. I either created a compelling website or I didn’t.
I was able to read a book on sales in the evening, implement the tactics the next morning, get immediate feedback, and consequentially tweak my approach moving forward.
My learning loop was accelerated in a way I couldn’t imagine when I started. This acceleration relied on the application of my time management skills and the “80/20 rule” I had used many times before.
Ultimately, I was acquiring new skills and codifying them through repeated practice - I had never learned so much so quickly.
I am not advocating for everyone who wants to accelerate their own learning loop to quit their stable job and wade into the entrepreneurial waters full-time.
In reality, starting a business is not for everyone. There are significant inherent risks and everyone’s situation is unique and may not allow it.
Though, if you are frustrated by not being able to learn certain skills within your primary job, there may be an opportunity for entrepreneurship on the side.
My advice would be to start small. Find opportunities that will allow you to put your learning into practice - ideally with skin in the game. Through real-world practice, you can access feedback quickly and codify your lessons learned.
So what are you waiting for? Get going.