Everything I Know About Business I Learned From My High School English Teacher
Since coming on board as co-CEO of a growing New York startup, I’ve increasingly found myself on the receiving end of one seemingly simple, yet surprisingly difficult to answer question: "What defines a successful business person?"
The traits that matter the most are quite simple -- and I actually learned all of them from my high school English teacher, Mrs. Miller. The lucky among us have had a teacher that played a pivotal role in shaping not only our work habits, but also our character. Mrs. Miller was a stern but caring teacher whose wisdom and high expectations continue to impact my work today. She encouraged me to:
For a long time, every English essay I submitted would come back liberally marked up with comments like, "Poor overall structure," "insufficient evidence," or "overly wordy." After sitting me down and explaining in more detail where I was going wrong, Mrs. Miller would encourage me to implement the changes we had discussed instead of wallowing in defeat.
Any successful business person, from a small-business owner to a seasoned entrepreneur, experiences pitfalls. Picking yourself up and trying again after a defeat or setback is key to long-term success.
Unfortunately, after a round of quick edits, I’d often then receive an even worse grade than I received initially. The point? My English teacher believed that improvement wasn’t easy or an automatic function of repetition. If you wanted a better grade, you had to be willing to use your own mind, as well as work hard and fast.
The most successful business people I know put this in place every day: They are diligent and tenacious but also smart and selective in how they apply their efforts.
There is no greater asset in business than an ability to sell your vision to others. Whether dealing with customers, employees, managers, suppliers, journalists or venture capitalists, a successful outcome almost always depends on the same core competency that I picked up in Mrs. Miller’s English class -- an ability to build a logical, well-structured narrative that persuades others of the merits of an argument.
The most impactful business people I’ve had the privilege of working with have the unique ability to think through a problem and only interject when he or she can marshal the relevant facts, statistics, insights, precedents, and comparables in support of a cohesive argument. These persuasive, thoughtful leaders are almost always the ones that actually move things forward, because people around them are convinced and inspired to act.
I had a lot of strong opinions in high school. I still do. But Mrs. Miller taught me to appreciate one fundamental fact about English literature, life and business: There is rarely only one right answer.
Business building is a discovery process. Yes, it’s important to have a clear vision -- and the drive to see it through -- but the best business people are not blinded by their own passions and convictions. They remain open to a changing world and the experience and insight of others and are willing to make changes where necessary.
A successful career in business will call on a wide range of skills and require no small degree of luck -- but when I want to remind myself of the basics, I always return to Mrs. Miller.