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by • February 3, 2017 • Lean startup meta, Lifestyle, WealthComments (1)39

High stakes learning

I recently took a sailing course with 5 other people and they all came out of it worthless, whereas I learned to sail. We all had the same teacher and experiences. Why the different outcomes? Talking to them, each had an excuse as to why the course didn’t matter. One was just learning enough to accompany her son on his boat. One had a whole year to learn to sail, so this week was relatively unimportant. Another was taking a second course soon and figured he’d learn it all then. Whereas I figured that if I didn’t learn this stuff properly, I’d eventually be responsible for drowning a my friends.

Give someone sitting in their garage a busted diesel engine and a manual, and they’ll say they can’t do it. But put them in the middle of a desert and you can bet they’ll figure it out. High stakes help learning[1].

The reason this matters to you, the aspiring entrepreneur, is that you’ll occasionally find yourself in situations where the stakes are extremely high, but they don’t seem that way, because the result is far-off or abstracted away.

The most common example is learning core skills like programming, sales, marketing, and English-language communication. But since there’s no immediate crisis, we focus on the tedium instead of on the fact that this could help us achieve our biggest goals (or that it could protect you if in a crazy situation like having your leg cut off while your wife is pregnant).

We take university seriously because it seems important thanks to the easy feedback of grumpy vs. happy parents and a little number that tells us how well we’re doing. And we take jobs seriously for the same reason. But the whole point of the 60 years you spent doing school and job bullshit is to build a good life for yourself. Entrepreneurial skills are the shortcut to doing that, which means that apart from keeping you and yours safe and healthy, you could easily argue that learning them properly is the most important thing in your life.

I’m not sure that me saying it or you reading it will help at all, because it’s still impossibly abstract until you’ve been saved by it. I was a shitty driver until I rolled off the highway in an accident that could have killed me and my passengers, and after that I was a very good driver, because I understood the stakes. Self-defense teachers are always trying to get their students to picture the life-or-death stakes instead of just going through the motions, but very few people spend the mental energy to do so. But after I’d been violently mugged a couple times, the stakes became very clear and learning got a whole lot easier.

The entrepreneurial learning is tough because nobody holds a knife to your throat or sends your car flipping end-over-end down a hill at 60 miles per hour to help you internalise the point. But if you can manage to convince yourself that the stakes are high, even the most difficult parts of the slog will get a whole lot easier.

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One Response to High stakes learning

  1. Jakub Kostecki says:

    Hi Rob, thanks for your post on swapping equity, taking money off the table and other ways of reducing startup risk. I was wondering if you have some more information / resources on equity swapping. A Google search didn’t lead me to anything noteworthy and I’m looking to learn more about this way of mitigating risk while building startups.

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