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As I finished up my weekly newsletter of NYC’s tech events and classes, I thought a lot about some recent conversations I’ve had with some new entrants into the startup ecosystem–enthusiastic young professionals whose stated goals centered around learning. I sometimes find myself wondering in this world of classes, accelerators, and religious zealotry around methodologies if anyone is, in fact, learning anything. I’m not surprised, since I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me how to learn. Sure, eight years of Jesuit high school and college gave me frameworks for learning, but it was never made obvious what I’d use them for and how they tied back into the outside world. It was just assumed that if I started memorizing stuff, eventually I’d just starting thinking on my own and perhaps get curious enough to get new knowledge and challenge what I had through these frameworks. I don’t know if it was by design that I reference Descartes when I think about risk and uncertainty or by accident, but I wish I had started doing that earlier.
What seems to be missing is a few levels down in the stack–a philosophy about the way the world works, a few on the nature of uncertainty and what is, in fact, knowable, etc. People are learning marketing without studying how the human brain makes decisions. They’re learning test driven development without ever picking their heads up to see if they’re even working on the right problem. It seems that the quicker the fix, the easier the shortcode, the more willing people are to learn it.
I fear that new generations are losing interest in honing a craft through mastery of the fundamentals and the building blocks of knowledge. Perhaps it’s the fact that in a superconnected world, people feel closer to being on the verge of greatness. They’re closely tied to internet rockstars. They’re just a YouTube video away from being famous. Their parents told them they were special and now they’re part of the awesomeness promotion machine, so all they need to do is sign up for a ride, right? Why bother practicing anything?
I’ve been relearning how to swim–since I still haven’t really mastered the crawl. The teacher reminds us that the drills he has us go through aren’t actual swimming–they’re just drills. Drills strengthen your ability to do key aspects of what eventually all gets tied into the swim stroke.
If I were to break down my job as a venture capitalist, I’d say the top five skills needed are as follows:
- The ability to relate to and understand a wide variety of people.
- Being able to think outside of yourself and your own experience.
- Pattern matching for early warning signs of trouble.
- The ability to help someone become better at what they do.
- The abilty to be direct and honest.
For anyone who wants to be a VC, those are the skills I would work on. Obviously, they’re not terribly exciting–not like following technology trends, blogging, etc.–but they’re the fundamentals that all of the other stuff is built on. These building blocks are important, but I rarely see anyone being thoughtful about them or consciously working on them.
Superficial thinking, and the inability or unwillingness to break things down into component parts are barriers to learning. I never hear wannabe VCs talk about what investors could have known about various startups at different points in time–and when they do it’s always with a quick, sweeping judgement. They knew something was going to fail or be successful, when the real situation is always a lot more nuanced.
Before you go to your next class, think about why you’re learning what you’re learning–and what types of decisions is it going to be a building block for. Start to pull apart every new piece of knowledge into it’s component parts. Spent more time understanding what the foundations of honing your craft are before randomly filling your head with a lot of tips. Build the machine that builds the thinking machine in your head. Perhaps this book will help you figure things out (HT to Maria Popova) This Explains Everything: 150 Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works.
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