Lessons from Magellan

"The achievement of one courageous man will awaken the courage of an entire generation" - Stefan Zweig

I recently discovered the story of Ferdinand Magellan - the famous explorer who captained the first expedition that successfully circumnavigated the globe. The story as told by the excellent Stefan Zweig had me completely captivated from start to finish, and I’ve had it on my mind ever since.

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The Most Important Question In The Universe

I am a big believer in the value of thinking deeply about your career. I graduated from university in 2011 having spent literally no time at all thinking about what I should do next, and spent the next 6 months waiting tables at a five star hotel. When my perfect job didn’t fall into my lap after that point, I figured maybe there was something I could be doing more proactively.

So, I followed the only career advice that everyone knows is true: follow your passion. I got a job working for the English Lacrosse Association. A life spent teaching, talking and playing lacrosse all day was my idea of paradise so I promptly moved to London and took up my new job spreading the game in the South East of England.

Unfortunately, as everyone really knows deep down, “Follow Your Passion” is truly horrible career advice. As Cal Newport has persuasively argued in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, passion is something that comes as a consequence of becoming really good at what you do. You need to develop skills that are ‘rare and valuable’. As you improve your skills, you will become so good that you will have more ability to control important things like where you work, who you work for and how much you earn. Most importantly though, people become passionate about things they are really good at.

Exceptions to the rule are easy to find, certainly. No doubt David Beckham was passionate about football before he was a super star, but we can’t base our decisions on the lives of outliers alone.

So, is that the answer? Become really really good at something? Almost, but not totally.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink outlines the research that has shown that the ingredients for a truly fulfilling career are: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. (And no, passion is not a prerequisite).

Mastery means that people are motivated by improving themselves and mastering a skill - further support for the value of developing a rare and valuable skill set as proposed by Cal Newport. In addition, the more you become so good that you can’t be ignored, the more autonomy you will receive. That could be because you receive promotions and so become the boss, or because you strike out on your own with your expert skill set ready to support you.

However, what’s not covered is most certainly the most important one: Purpose.

So how do you find purpose?

The short, blog sized, answer is this: to have a purpose is to solve an important problem. If you don’t already know what your purpose is, then you should pick a problem to solve. Delivering clean water to subsaharan Africa, establishing gender equality in the UK or protecting the world from the potential threat of an AI superintelligence that destroys mankind. All of these are good examples of a purpose problem.

For best results, the problem you pick should be big, it should be solvable in principle, and, ideally, it should be one that isn’t being addressed sufficiently by other people and organisations already.

Once you have picked a problem, you must decide how you will solve it. The good thing about really big problems is that there are lots of things you can do to have an impact. So, you could become a computer programmer, a writer or a great entrepreneur. Sure, if you want to cure cancer then a medical degree might be a requirement to have a direct impact, but it’s certainly not the only way to contribute. In addition, by identifying your purpose, you’ll have a better way of working out which skills you next need to develop or improve next.

Your purpose can change (despite what people say) because you can choose to work on a new problem. Obviously your chances of making progress to solving the problem are likely to be slim if you change direction every six months. But also, we shouldn't pretend that people don't change and grow over time. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of good enough. It only matters that you choose an important problem and get to work, not that you are certain it is exactly the right one for you. Most likely when you get stuck in, and your rare and valuable skills come into play, you will identify specific parts of the problem which seem to have been perfectly designed for you.

The upshot of all this is that, contrary to popular belief, the first step to a fulfilling career is not answering the question "What are you passionate about?" That question gets the whole thing back to front and upside down. Don't worry about passion because the passion will come later. The most important question in the universe for any person to answer is this: What big, important problem will you solve?

Too Long; Didn't Read - A Summary

A fulfilling career requires three elements: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. To have mastery and autonomy you must focus on developing a set of expert skills that are rare and valuable. Which skills should you choose to master? The ones that will give you the best chance of fulfilling your purpose. And if you don’t already know what your purpose is, then you must pick a big, important, but solvable problem.

Pick the problem, identify the skills, become a master, receive autonomy. And live happily ever after.

That is why the most important question in the universe is this:

What big, important problem will you solve?

What is the 'Expert Entrepreneur'?

On Day 1 of the NEF Bootcamp, we heard from Chris Coleridge, lecturer at UCL and responsible for a large portion of our entrepreneur training this year. But what, exactly, are we being trained to do? It isn’t simply how to start a business, since that could be anything from a lemonade stand to a McDonalds franchise; neither of which are the intended outcome of the NEF programme. Rather, the aim is that we should become what Chris called an ‘Expert Entrepreneur’. An expert entrepreneur is not simply someone who starts a business. They exhibit the following 5 behaviours:

  1. Expert entrepreneurs leverage existing resourcesOne of the most important things that separates an expert entrepreneur from your average joe is that he or she doesn’t wait until ‘the perfect moment’ to start working on a business or project. They get started anyway using the manpower, money, skills, etc that they already have, and don’t put things off over and over again. You will never catch an expert entrepreneur saying “Once I’ve learnt how to code, then I’ll be ready to start my business.” Or, “Once I’ve read that book, then I’ll have learnt everything I need to start my business!"

    Instead, the expert entrepreneur just gets started anyway. If you can prove that the idea is a good one then you can worry about resources, but if it turns out to be no good then you will not have wasted valuable time and money on a project that would never have succeeded.

  2. Expert entrepreneurs seek surprise and a ‘secret’The basis of the advantage that an expert entrepreneur has is fleeting, local information. By embedding themselves in a particular industry or domain, it’s possible to gain the insights necessary to spark a great business idea. If it was possible to identify opportunities by just sitting at home browsing the internet, then everyone would do it. But by working in a particular industry or living in a certain city, the expert entrepreneur will put themselves in a position to gain the right information and perspective.

    The key, then, is to get out into the world and talk to real people about their pains and problems.

  3. Expert entrepreneurs form partnershipsThere is no such thing as a successful solo founder. An expert entrepreneur is able to form a strong network and form partnerships with individuals and organisations that will benefit all parties involved. The expert entrepreneur should be confident about reaching out to others to propose this sort of win/win proposition.
  4. Expert entrepreneurs manage risk - i.e. the affordable loss principleRelated to number 1, the affordable loss principle is the idea that you should spend as little time and money as possible on a business until you can determine whether or not it is a valid business with real potential for growth. No matter what the odds of success are, the price of the next move an entrepreneur makes must be as low as possible.
  5. Expert entrepreneurs manage without predictionThe typical managerial approach is to decide on the desired ending point, see where we are right now and then determine an action plan to join up the dots and reach the goal. This is not an option always available to the expert entrepreneur; things change quickly and it is likely that you will have made some incorrect assumptions along the way. You can’t simply write an action plan that will lead you to your end goal, since who knows what you have missed or what will change?

    Instead, the expert entrepreneur manages based on their means - they manage based on what they have and where they are right now.

So, we have our definition of the expert entrepreneur! It’s most likely the case that many people have some of these qualities, but the expert entrepreneur is not so common. How often do we hear people talking about what they would do if only this or that were the case? How many people get on and act rather than sit in their rooms and plan and plan with no end? Our next training with Chris will be about idea validation; the first step to becoming an expert!