Success often involves unlearning what you learned in school

November 6, 2011

In building Consero Group, my event-development business, I had to overcome my education. Perhaps 75 percent of my success in business is attributable to skills, knowledge and character traits that I developed outside the classroom.

While my formal education provided some foundation for my work in small business, it also created significant hurdles.

Formal education can provide access to ideas and methods that are useful for managing a company in a tough marketplace. But education may also inhibit business success, training you to act in ways that are incompatible with the fast-paced and occasionally gritty world of small business.

This was particularly true for me as a former practicing attorney entering the world of entrepreneurship. My legal training made me risk-averse and perfection-obsessed — both of which helped in my legal career, but which were liabilities in an environment demanding quick decisions and high productivity.

Moreover, my education significantly increased my opportunity cost, which made the leap into business more daunting. As I considered entrepreneurship, I thought carefully about the $70,000 of law school debt that I had spent years paying off. I also had to find peace in leaving behind the law-related opportunities that my scholastic investments had generated — including a relatively secure salary of over $200,000.

As it turns out, overcoming my education played an important role not only in helping me to succeed in business, but in getting me into business in the first place.

For example, one of my first entrepreneurial tasks was to secure short-term office space in a building at Farragut North. Once I found a suitable spot, I met with the landlord, who presented me with a four-page lease. Having studied countless contract cases, and litigating a few since, I found my legal training and lawyerly instincts taking over. I spent literally days on that four-page document, researching D.C. law, correcting typos and spacing and inserting provisions on assignment of the contract and forum selection, to name a few — just as I had been trained to — until the old document was unrecognizable. While the new contract seemed perfect to me, it was totally excessive for a month-to-month agreement. The reality was that I had just wasted tons of time that I could have spent identifying client prospects, without which I couldn’t pay the rent due under that lease.

Here are the three best lessons I’ve learned along the way:

1. Don’t demand perfection. Producing excellent work is critical in the working world. However, the pursuit of perfection can become counterproductive. I realized that the countless hours I spent making excellent work perfect could have been more valuable put to use in other ways. The risk of neglecting sales calls or employees outweighs the risk of missing that improperly italicized comma that I was trained to find.

2. Be confident in the skills that you have neglected. Educated people can lose confidence in the abilities that they were not formally trained to use. I discovered my interpersonal skills, creativity and other good qualities haven’t gone anywhere; they have simply been dormant. Once I tapped back into them, they served me better than I expected.

3. Your credentials stay with you. Leaving the professional career for which I was trained in order to start a small business was a terrifying experience. However, that degree I pursued stayed with me, as well as on my resume. That helped me become more comfortable in pursuing my small business dream.

I am extremely grateful for my legal education, which provided skills and knowledge that were useful in helping me launch new businesses. And given the choice, I would have taken the same path.

But all the formal education in the world is useless without a strong work ethic, passion for the business and a competitive streak.

More important to my development as a businessman were the skills and traits that I picked up tuition-free along the way, by watching other entrepreneurs and witnessing what it took to get them to the finish line. I would take all of these over formal education, as they were clearly the primary drivers of my success.

Paul Mandell is chief executive of Consero Group, an event development firm in Bethesda.

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