Okay, okay, simmer down. I’m not calling you out. I am simply suggesting that admitting you don’t have a clue is a good first step. Let’s face it, none of us have any clue when venturing something new. And the younger we are – just starting our careers – the truer that is. We learn primarily by doing. Until you have ‘been there, done that,’ you don’t know squat. Read about it all you want.

Wisdom is knowing what you don’t know and not deluding yourself otherwise.

There is a popular school of thought that says you should ‘fake it till you make it.’ Really bad advice. Those who have made it know you are full of sh*t and those who haven’t don’t matter. Amazes me how many people start believing their own bullsh*t. The absolute worst thing you can do in life is bullsh*t yourself.

This applies to everything you do in life, but allow me to pivot and apply this truism to entrepreneurs and business owners. This is the world I live and work in – some 35+ years now. Been there, done that. It cracks me up to see all these twenty somethings trying to tell other twenty somethings how to be successful entrepreneurs. Conversely, it’s somewhat pathetic to see old bureaucrats who have never worked in a business try to counsel aspiring entrepreneurs on how to start, build and sell one. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s a gig. Fake it till you make it. Sorry to burst your bubble.

I run three businesses designed to address the start to exit value chain.

At StartupBiz.com, I invest in and mentor startups.

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At iREV.biz, I advise growing companies on how to create exponential value and position themselves for a successful exit.

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At SellBiz.us, I serve as an M&A Intermediary to help business owners cash out.

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Here’s the truth of it:

Most startup entrepreneurs don’t have a clue and they don’t know it. Youth is exuberant. Hubris rules over wisdom. I was one of them at one time.

Most business owners who are ready to sell their companies after many years of running it don’t have a clue (about how best to sell it), and they don’t know it. Experience is a fickle mistress. Arrogance often rules over wisdom. I was one of them at one time.

Most business owners of growing companies know they don’t have a clue about a lot of things necessary to build their companies and hire to compensate for it. They know what they don’t know. The successful ones are wise. I was one of them on and off at one time (having 4 wins and 3 losses).

In my book, A True Professional, I try to layout what it takes to get a clue – how to distinguish data from information from knowledge from wisdom. They are four very different things. And it starts by acknowledging what you don’t know and set about getting smart about whatever it is you need to know to get you from here to where you want to go.

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Source: Donald Clark, http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/index.html

Here are a few strategies and tips for getting a clue:

First, associate with people who actually know, not those who simply have the job. The Peter Principle states that in every organization people rise to their level of incompetence. Lots of people hold jobs they are not qualified for, or which have out grown them. It’s important for you to recognize the difference, otherwise you will be learning the wrong things from the wrong people. How do you know if one actually knows? They have been there done that and failed at it a fair amount.

Second, true knowledge must be practiced to be gained. You can read about something all you want. You can listen to tapes and watch endless how-to videos. But to understand it, you must practice it. If you truly know it, you should be able to teach it. Studies prove that we retain 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we share and discuss, 80% of what we experience, and 95% of what we teach others.

Third, be comfortable with the fact that you will never have all of the answers. Never be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure.” Separate fact from opinion. The path to knowledge often starts with a hypothesis. True knowledge is gained by proving or disproving the hypothesis. Disproving something is not failure, it is knowledge. Thomas Edison said, “I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Fourth, you can’t become an expert at something that doesn’t hold great interest for you. You don’t necessarily have to “love,” your field, as some proclaim, but you do have to be keenly interested in it. If you find yourself bored, or not growing, for heaven’s sake change professions! Do not be afraid to jump into an entirely new career. Of course, you will want to test it first to make sure it’s a good fit. Then set about knowing everything you can about it.

Fifth, stay abreast of major developments in other fields. History is full examples of major breakthroughs that came from applying knowledge and insights from one field to a completely different field. Subscribe to publications dedicated to covering advancements in other professions. A good strategy is to follow startup news and the stock market. The generations coming up behind you are often the best spotters of new trends.

Sixth, keep up with current events. There are multiple sources which sum up local, national and international news. Browse the headlines at least once a day. Some services will also send you a daily briefing of the topics you are interested in. You should always have a working knowledge of what is going in the world and what your peers and associates are talking about. 

Seventh, take up a hobby not related to your work. Many successful professionals take up painting, story writing, playing a musical instrument, crossword puzzles, stamp or coin collecting, or a myriad of other hobbies. Find a hobby that gives you a break from your work, while stimulating your creativity and strengthening your thinking processes. Hobbies also relieve stress and bring you into contact with people you might not ordinarily associate with.

Finally, find a way to make a unique contribution to your profession. Once chosen, focus relentlessly on something you can invent or improve within your field. This drive will force you to learn everything about it. Get as much feedback as you can. Test it in the field, not just on paper. Figure out how to leave a lasting legacy within your chosen profession.

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With that, may you be less clueless tomorrow than you are today. Be a life-long learner. Share your knowledge and experience with others and defer to those who have ‘been there and done that’ where you have not. Knowing what you don’t know, and not trying to fake it, is the true path to business excellence, a successful exit, and personal wisdom. 

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