Founders, Here’s How To Learn What You Need To Learn

The challenge in life isn’t learning new things. It’s learning what you need to learn to be the best at what you do.

The conventional idea of gaining new knowledge is that you pick a subject, find experts, and download as much from that person or platform as possible. It’s a linear progression that starts with knowing what you don’t know and knowing who and how to fill the knowledge gap. 

There are two problems with this model:

  1. By definition, we don’t know what we don’t know 

  2. Because we don’t know what we’re ignorant about, we also don’t know in advance the right sources to educate us

As a founder, it’s crucially important that I first learn what I need to learn to stay at the top of my game. Identifying my biggest knowledge gaps doesn’t mean buying a book about a topic that sounds interesting. It means surrounding myself with a chorus of voices who have knowledge and experiences I don’t have (and vice versa) and who are operating at smaller, larger, and equal scopes to me.

How founders can set themselves up for as many learning opportunities as possible:

1. For micro-awareness, talk to early-stage founders. I love talking to early-stage founders because there’s a very clear value exchange between us. ThirdLove is in a more mature position than their companies, so I’m able to offer them insights into the scaling journey.

In return, I get a perspective on what it means to be scrappy today: which tech platforms are driving business forward, which social movements are most relevant to our world, how novel team configurations might work in my world. Early-stage companies are essentially testing grounds for new ways of doing business. Talking to their founders gives me a front-row seat on how the experiments are going.

I was recently talking to an early-stage founder who’d had a lot of organic brand success on TikTok. I learned who was on her social team, how she structured it, and her overarching philosophies on social media. I’m much more likely to get meaningful information about leading-edge trends from early-stage organizations than legacy companies.

2. For macro-awareness, follow reputable, leading voices. Early-stage founders give me a window into the nuts-and-bolts results of what is and isn’t working on the front lines of business–an extreme closeup, if you will. On the opposite side, the macro-side, I need to find a way to broaden the lens, to stay abreast of the broader trends that are guiding our industries and the overall economy.

For this, I both follow CEOs of much larger companies and subscribe to daily news digests. While we’re all aware of how disreputable certain news sources have become, the flip side is that there are more reputable news sources and perspectives out there than ever before. You just have to curate it for yourself. Your news feed is what you make of it–and hearing from others whose perspectives differ from me the most, makes me think more deeply about those issues and opportunities. 

I don’t read every word of every daily digest every day. But having the information available gives me a chance to get out in front of impactful events, rather than being passively impacted by them.

For example, the Wall Street Journal recently had an article about how dire circumstances had become in Sri Lanka. Well, we have production facilities in Sri Lanka. Staying current on global geopolitical dynamics allowed me to make a proactive decision about how to move forward and what types of conversations to have with our partners. 

3. For ground-level awareness, talk to peers. Early-stage founders give me micro-awareness–information at a smaller scope than I’m working at. Reputable voices from major news outlets and larger companies give me macro-awareness–information at a broader scope than I’m working at. For that middle-ground, information at my exact level, I rely on peers.

When I talk with people working at a comparable scope, we compare notes on topics that are important to both of us. What’s going on with paid marketing? What supply chain challenges are we both dealing with? Solutions that they have might be beneficial to me; solutions that I have might inform their strategy. 

A notion some founders have is that they just don’t have time to talk to people in these ways. They’re too busy running their businesses; they can’t afford to allocate energy to conversations whose value isn’t clear in advance. 

But really, they can’t afford not to have these conversations. And you can do this at any level or function–if you head up supply chain, for example, then you’ll want a good group of peers that you can touch base with on a regular basis. 

Keeping your world the same size runs the same risk as keeping your impact at the same level. It may work for a while, but as the world goes about its natural growth and evolution, you inevitably become a much smaller intellectual fish over time.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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