How To Unlearn Getting A's In School To Improve As An Entrepreneur

I once heard a Fortune 500 executive give a talk, where he proclaimed that he "would rather hire a 'C' student than an 'A' student." It shocked me in the moment. It seemed so counter to what we’ve all been taught, striving through years of school to eke out As in order to set oneself up for the best path to success.

The argument, according to the exec, was A-students strive for overperfection and were likely to pass up social events to achieve grades. The C-students, on the other hand, would feel more comfortable not understanding everything about a new project from the outset and were much more likely to be well socialized. As someone who didn’t always have the perfect report card, I loved it.

I was never a good student. Not once. Always academically gifted, I instead just hated the game. This led to regular conflicts with teachers, professors and administrators. The whole process of learning seemed needlessly repetitive to me. Half of my time in school — if I’m being generous — was centered around socializing and avoiding boredom. Educators would warn me that my lack of work ethic, in their eyes, would be my own undoing. I, instead, climbed the educational ladder into a masters degree with a relative ease, banking my Bs and Cs along the way.

At the beginning of each semester, I would go as far to take the course syllabus and cross out the homework and participation portion of the grade, which typically accounted for about 20%. My maximum mark would be 80% or 90%, and I would focus on the parts that would ensure my obtaining the grade. If participation or homework accounted for more than 20%, I dropped the class. I never bought into the system.

After I completed my undergraduate degree, I soon found myself working as an entrepreneur much earlier in my life than expected. When my first business began to take off, I just did my own thing. I would take some weekdays off or travel or enjoy whatever flexibility I felt like I needed. I was, after all, already somewhat accustomed to living life on my own terms. Meanwhile, my process led to more and more success. Unbeknownst to me was the resentment this bred in others. People were extremely jealous of my lifestyle so I tried to help them recreate what I had.

I quickly would run into the same problem again and again; it’s the same problem the Fortune 500 executive voiced. The people I tried to help had ingrained the lessons taught in school so deeply, they couldn’t think like an entrepreneur. I had to help them unlearn everything they were taught in school. Essentially, I had to take A-students and make them into Cs.

Here’s where I focused my efforts, since they’re three mindsets entrepreneurs must have that are most different from how and what we’re taught in the classroom.

Specialization Is Key

Our school systems make us generalists.

You take many classes across a broad spectrum of topics and pretend to be an expert in each. It’s completely impractical. You need a base of knowledge to be able to understand each other and interact in a society, but beyond that, it’s fine not to know certain things. It’s problematic, however, if you don’t learn a deep knowledge about something. It simply puts you at a disadvantage to anyone that has a deeper level of knowledge in any one field.

A generalist has little value in a workplace. A specialist on the other hand has extreme value in the right circumstances. You need to align your skillset with your pay and push yourself to grow as an expert to increase that pay. It sounds simple but it’s not. The better you build your expertise, the easier it’s for others to recognize you as an expert.

Schools teach you to get As across a variety of subjects, whether you’re well positioned to do it or not. It’s a waste. Instead focus on your high value skills and push your limits there. It gives you a better chance of success.

Outsource Whenever You Can

In order to complete a task, you need a variety of skills. It’s the obvious counterargument to specializing. But it’s a lie. Manufacturing plants have long perfected isolating a person’s responsibilities down to an extremely focused skillset or role. You can do that too. Essentially, take any task that others can do better for cheaper and then outsource it.

School systems expect an individual to accomplish learning through independent study. But by doing so, you’re chasing grades in areas you’re not best suited for. In real life, you can completely ignore things you’re not good at by simply hiring out the task. It’s often in your best interest to outsource all kinds of jobs and tasks. As an entrepreneur, it’s absolutely imperative to hire out low value tasks to regain time and high value tasks you’re simply not equipped to accomplish.

Outsourcing becomes its own skillset. As your business grows, you learn how and when to relinquish control to someone else, how to evaluate their work and how to manage your systems for oversight. The answer to all of this are good contracts and better relationships. It’s not learning how to do every task under the sun.

Partner When It Works For Both Parties

When you see that you’re constantly outsourcing or unable to start a project without the expertise of someone else, it can make sense to partner. It can be extremely profitable if you find a partner that you can rely on to speed up your process, either through their knowledge or skill.

In school, on the other hand, when you partner with someone it’s often by demand or through camaraderie. The result is you either got stuck with someone you don’t get along with or you got along so well, it was extremely difficult to work.

In the real world, finding a suitable business partner is based on skills and strengths. You want someone that can complement what you bring to the company. Maybe it’s someone with similar skills as you, which allows the business to produce more. Or, instead, It could be someone with completely separate skills that will make your business run well in a completely new way. Even still, it could be someone more senior than you, providing mentorship or funding.

Business partners aren’t always best friends or even friends at all. They’re not required to socialize or work on things together. A good business partnership helps all parties build better and faster than they would alone. And that’s the goal.

Breaking Away From The School Mindset

I could go on for days about how our education system makes it difficult to succeed as an entrepreneur. I’ve talked about specialization, outsourcing and partnerships, but there’s one, far more valuable tip: Be ok with making mistakes.

You’ll, after all, make many mistakes as an entrepreneur. You won’t have to worry about being held back a grade when you do. Instead, make sure your losses aren’t critical. There are no guarantees in life and even fewer for the self employed, so feel free to explore. There’s no box. No winners and losers in any given moment. By shedding yourself of this mentality, you can more confidently navigate an uncharted domain. It’ll allow you the capacity to see setbacks as beneficial and discover new pathways to success.

The best entrepreneurs make a loss a win, and a win a quantum leap in wealth. In neither case does it mean you’ve passed or failed some test.

By Timm McLean, MBA |

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