Monday, August 11, 2008

Entrepreneurship and the art of bicycling

Business Times - 16 Mar 2004

Learning about either involves the mind and the gut


WHAT is a bicycle?

This is not a trick question. There are two ways to find out the answer. One is through borrowed knowledge. You can get to know more about the bicycle through a traditional education-based system.

You can spend your early years in an innovative, fast-track, knowledge-based educational system via a gifted programme. Tutors and teachers can spoon-feed you on the intricacies of the brakes, pedals and the handlebars.

You can study the risks involved in cycling and do comparative studies on the most appropriate type of helmet and protective kneepads to wear. You can also be 'taught' the art of balancing oneself and the need to.

A global positioning system for navigating the bicycle can be included in the syllabus. Higher 'bicycle knowledge' can be gained by observation or experimentation and you can even finally get a PhD in 'bicycle-logy' without being able to ride one.

The other way to find out about a bicycle is via experience. You get to know a bicycle simply by riding one. You can even do a triple somersault without any prior knowledge about the bicycle system.

This bicycle-based analogy illustrates two aspects of the learning process. They are basically two sides of the same coin and both must balance each other for a total learning experience.

Training of the Mind

The knowledge-based system which we are accustomed to so far generally requires a logical, facts-and-figures way of learning. Concepts and principles are based on those discovered and are known entities, except if you have not read them. Questions are well defined and students are to regurgitate and apply those principles.

At a higher level, new theoretical or even practical ideas generated are generally based on further rationalisation, synthesis or mixing of existing knowledge. This is done via experimentation and the power of observation on problems surfaced up by those encountered through the door of experience.

Otherwise, the ideas that are generated out of a knowledge-based system are for an imaginary marketplace - that is, not tried and tested - and many will fail the test of the marketplace. You probably will retain the reasoning and thinking skills but will forget most of the knowledge that was pumped into you during your early learning years.

By pushing educational boundaries, educators can continually add new knowledge and push more difficult concepts downwards to the young.

The mantra for a knowledge-based learning here is to acquire, acquire and acquire some more. With the advancement of science in recent decades, there is a knowledge explosion. Even a lifetime isn't enough to learn everything.

But if the education system overdoes the training of the mind, we may achieve many negative traits among students. In pursuing education excellence, the present mantra is divide them into groups at an early age and to push them to the limits of learning incompetence.

As such, we are creating many more who are anti-learning as there is no joy in their educational experience, given the work overload.

For those who have succeeded in the rigorous educational regime, a sense of untrue confidence prevails, hence resulting in arrogance or even naivety.

Given that the educational system is so result-focused, we find ourselves caught up in fighting over an extra mark or two throughout our education years. Teachers and students alike end up focusing on the trees and not the forest.

Training of the Gut

The alternative approach is an experience-based system of learning. Try remembering your own cycling experience or try observing your children trying to acquire the art of riding a two-wheeler. This is generally an intuitive process by venturing into unknown territory. You need not know anything about the bicycle in depth.

And you can only acquire the art of balancing the two-wheeler by letting go of the mind/knowledge interference. If your mind starts interfering, you will not succeed in balancing the two-wheeler. In fact, if the knowledge-based education system emphasises the risks of cycling, you may not even dare ride one.

In the training of the gut, the main goal that applies to everyone is to discover one's centre. Hence, training of the gut means, among other things, the ability to go beyond one's own boundaries, develop confidence, judgement, sensing and awareness.

All these traits can be developed only through experience. Remember that these are the skills that the young are naturally trying to acquire after they are born until they are truncated or stunted by an education system that too heavily emphasises mind training.

The process of discovering one's centre cannot be spoon-fed. It is powered by gut-feel and only you alone can make that happen. If you over- or undercompensate yourself, you will fail to find your centre and will not be able to balance the bicycle. And that discovery cannot be taught but only acquired through experience. When you are centered, your awareness and consciousness are at a higher state of alertness.

The mantra here is exposure, exposure and more exposure.

This exposure can only happen if students have sufficient time (after completing all the knowledge-based educational assignments and accompanying tuition homework). Everyone can acquire the knowledge of bicycling but only you can balance the bicycle through experience. And once you have acquired the skills, you will be able to retain them throughout your life.

Balancing the Mind and the Gut

Once you have experienced cycling, the ideas you will get on how to improve a bicycle system will be more realistic than imaginary - and more acceptable in the marketplace. Thus, knowledge-based learning works together with experience in promoting innovation and problem-solving.

Experience also helps serendipity. Interestingly, many discoveries happen by accident, but if you have not found your centre via experience-based learning, you will not have the awareness to recognise a happy accident when it happens.

Remember, Sir Issac Newton discovered the law of gravity by accident, not through scientific analysis. But if he had not discovered his centering as a scientist, he would not have had the awareness to notice the gravitational phenomenon when the apple dropped on his head.

And if he had not had a good grounding in scientific knowledge, he probably would not have come up with the law of gravity. He would probably have just eaten the apple.

The Gut Route to Entrepreneurship

Like cycling, all of us who want to be entrepreneurs have to experience it and to discover our own entrepreneurial centre. This means developing those traits that are important for entrepreneurship - which can be done mostly through experience.

There is no substitute for this. When you try to find a rationale or a reason to be an entrepreneur, then the centering will not be discovered and entrepreneurship will usually not happen. This is because your knowledge-based logical mind will tell you that entrepreneurship is too risky and complex - which will put the brakes on further development of your entrepreneurial ideas.

Hence you will not move forward. As the adage goes, sometimes, 'to analyse is to paralyse'. The more you excel in acquiring your knowledge through your traditional educational system, the less entrepreneurial you will be. That is one reason why we don't see many PhD holders starting their own businesses.

If our education system continues to be heavily biased towards the training of the mind, we may, at the end of the day, produce a populace that does not have the confidence to venture out of the known or out of the 'comfort zone'.

It is only when we, as a society, are able to create a total learning experience, balancing the teachings of the mind with those of the gut, that cyclists will not only think they know the bicycle well but also ride it with confidence. Only then will we have more entrepreneurs stepping out and seizing new business opportunities.

(The writer is a mechanical engineer by training, and a business consultant by profession, with CEO Search & Services)

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