Criteria for Success

From the Archives, Thursday March 31st 2011

(First published: August 31st 2009) - Each August, the new incoming class of Entrepreneurs in Training (EITs) begin their training at Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST).

The third group of EITs, the class of 2011, started at MEST this month. Their goal: learn how to start a software company that sells to international markets.

As I looked at these eager new EITs, I realized they were all very excited about the awesome opportunity that lay in front of them. They each had the ability to showcase their skills while proving to the world that talent does exists in Ghana. So I wondered if they also felt a bit overwhelmed with the challenge of it all, or even doubtful or intimidated.

As the Senior Faculty member for the class of 2009, I have been working with EITs for the past 18 months, and last week I offered my advice to the class of 2011.

This is what I told them:

First of all, it is really hard for both you and I to predict who will be successful… but I have a perspective on what can increase your chances of success at MEST.

Let me tell you a story. When I was 21 years old, the thing I wanted most in the world was to ride my bike across the US. An organization, Bikecentennial , offered trips as a way to celebrate the bicentennial of the US. They were very expensive and way beyond my means. How could I possibly get to go on one of these trips?

I saw an ad from Bikecentennial looking for trip leaders. Could this be my opportunity? I signed up for their leadership training course, paid several hundred dollars and flew to San Francisco for a week. I was the youngest and least experienced person there.

After several days of workshops, we took a three-day road trip and I was appointed as leader for the first day. It was a painful experience as I had no idea what I was doing, and found myself giving directions to all these older, more experienced people on where to go and what to do. I felt like my undertaking was a disaster.

Then it was the last day and time for reviews for all those who wanted a leadership role. I watched as others returned from their reviews. People like the bike mechanic and the around-the world traveler who I had thought were sure to get the job were being rejected.

Suddenly it occurred to me: perhaps I wasn’t as awful as I thought. When it was my turn, I gathered my courage and admitted that I had little experience and hadn’t done so well on some of the exercises, but I had learned a lot. I thought I had the potential to become a terrific leader and I really really wanted to do this. And I got the job!

There are several lessons that I learned that are also applicable to you starting here at MEST. They are related to passion, anxiety, failure and weaknesses.

The first is to figure out what you are passionate about. Passion is a process of discovery, rather than a decision. What fascinates you and gets you excited? What are you willing to sacrifice for? What do you feel that you just HAVE to do?What are you willing to take risks for, despite being told that you don’t have the experience or skills required, even if someone tells you are crazy?

This is important because it is what gives you the perseverance to stick with it when things get hard. And it helps with overcoming fears.

Secondly, learn to deal with anxiety, stress, and self doubt. Start by becoming aware of the voices in your head giving you negative messages. Then acknowledge them; only by admitting that you are feeling anxious or self doubt can you begin to overcome the limiting impact.

Third, embrace failure. You are not required to be perfect and it is okay to make mistakes. The secret is learning how to recover from mistakes. It is far better to try something, be wrong and learn something than to wait for the perfect solution and never accomplish anything.

Lastly, be honest and willing to expose weaknesses. We all share a paradox here. For the teaching staff, we need to encourage, motivate, coach, and guide you through those moments of doubt and fear of failure. What you are embarking on is not easy and it is unlikely that all will succeed. So you need the encouragement. But on the other hand, we also need to critically assess you, point out weaknesses and give feedback so that you develop your skills and increase your chances of success.

And you are motivated to impress us. But more importantly, you also need to expose your weaknesses so that together we can examine them… and determine if and how you can improve, or compensate, or adjust. That can only happen if you are honest.

Perhaps these lessons apply to us all, not just the incoming classes. Discover what you are passionate about.Develop abilities to recognize, acknowledge and tolerate feelings of self doubt and anxiety.Embrace failure and learn from your mistakes. Be honest; expose your weaknesses.

Kate Cunningham,

Senior Faculty (MEST Class of 2009)