10 Business Lessons I Learned at Bars
Back in college and my early 20s (when I actually had a social life), I tended to go out to parties and bars more often than I thought I “should.” My gut often told me that I should probably be studying, reading, exercising, sleeping, networking or otherwise engaging in productive activities that were more likely to directly advance my career. But I went out anyway. Those informal outings with my drinking buddies felt like a fun (and deserved) distraction from work rather than a process of self-development in and of itself.
In retrospect, I now realize how formative those years of partying really were for my career. I learned a ton of social lessons that have tremendously helped me later in life.
Of course, you do not actually have to drink alcohol or go to bars to develop these business socialization skills, but the fast-paced social environment involved in nightlife does provide a great setting for that type of personal development. This is an important lesson for passionate entrepreneurs who become such workaholics that they forget the importance of socialization.
1. Be patient yet persistent.
We’ve all experienced that frustrating moment when the bartender seems to be ignoring us in favor of other customers. Veteran bar patrons handle this impression of rejection by maintaining a visible presence and by making multiple (polite) attempts to gain the bartender’s attention.
Related: 12 Habits of Exceptional Leaders
Just like in sales or fundraising, people tend to serve our needs better when we project an air of confidence and respectful persistence. Frequent bouts of rejection and recovery build character.
2. Tip the bartender early.
Taking good care of your service providers early in the night is the fastest way to improve your quality of service as the night progresses. This same lesson goes for employees, clients and investors. Recognizing people for their performance (particularly in unexpected ways) will improve both the quality of their work and the strength of your relationship.
3. Fake it ‘til you make it.
At a trendy urban night club, it’s often easy to feel like the shortest, ugliest, poorest, worst-dressed or least cool person in the room. The dirty secret is that every partygoer has felt one of these emotions at some point. People who succeed socially (and in business) don’t necessarily possess all the desired qualities from the outset. They simply succeed in convincing themselves that they are awesome until other people start believing it too.
4. Don’t always go for the most attractive girl (or guy).
One of my favorite scenes from A Beautiful Mind was the bar scene when Russell Crowe's character explained his game theory epiphany in the context of which woman his friends should flirt with. He cautioned them against going for the most attractive woman at the risk of alienating the other women with whom they had a better chance.
This allegory can be used to illustrate not only game theory but also the “80-20 rule.” Sometimes, rather than playing all your cards targeting the world’s best sales prospect, dating opportunity or venture capitalist, you will attain a higher return on investment by starting with targets that are more “in your league.” Impress other key players until the elites have no choice but to pay attention to you.
5. Pace yourself.
Nobody likes a rookie who drinks too much, pukes and passes out before midnight. Nor does anybody like a manager who is bouncing from one fire-drill emergency to the next, or an employee who procrastinates and then has to cram at the last minute. A more responsible and experienced partier learns to plan ahead, get some food in his or her stomach and drink a glass of water between every other adult beverage.
Moderation builds character. Personal restraint and composure are some of the traits needed to become a poised, collected manager in the face of a crisis or urgent deadline.
6. Double your expense forecasts.
Every battle plan becomes worthless once the first shot is fired. Over time, a veteran partier learns that the statement “I’m only spending $40 tonight and only staying out until midnight” is rarely a promise they can uphold.
Learning that every project ends up taking twice as long and costing twice as much as originally planned can help you choose your projects better and prepare more honest forecasts that you can adhere to. That new project -- or night on the town -- might not actually be worth the can of worms it might open in the first place.
Related: 9 Tests Every Leader Must Pass
7. Follow up with new relationships.
Throughout the night at a bar, party or business event, you typically have great conversations with people you’ve never met before. Each of these people could potentially become a friend or important contact -- provided that you do the work to follow up.
Whenever you meet someone you like, always remember to ask for their contact info so you can follow up the next day. Send an email, tweet, text, Facebook message, LinkedIn request or whatever is appropriate for the relationship, and come up with some reason to reconnect soon (coffee, a party invite, a bike ride, a phone call, an invitation to play basketball at your local park or maybe even just virtually discussing an article that you thought they might like).
Your success in life is directly proportional to the number of awesome people with whom you are connected.
8. Fail fast.
Sometimes the current bar just isn’t the right fit. The vibe is dead, the band sucks and there’s a smell coming from the bathroom. But half of your friends are only halfway done with their drinks, and the other half figure they’ll order another round while the others finish. The cycle continues until -- before you know it -- you've spent the whole evening at that crappy bar.
A smart partygoer, and manager, can tell when the team is becoming overly committed to a dead-end initiative. She or he knows when and how to convince the group to stop investing in the current solution, before too many resources have been invested in it. “Agile” managers both have more fun and invest their resources more efficiently. They know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
9. Take leadership when nobody else will.
There’s nothing worse than asking your friends, “What restaurant do you want to go to?” and getting the collective response “I don’t care, whatever you guys want.” This indifference can dampen a group dynamic pretty quickly. Groups actually want someone to steer decision-making to establish clarity and understanding among members.
Whether in nightlife or in business, you begin to learn that that someone can be you. Learning to take initiative is possibly the largest single contributor to success in life.
10. Designate a voice of reason in your group.
All groups need at least one designated driver to abstain from the Kool-Aid and ensure that the team members make rational decisions. Even with a great, visionary CEO to steer the bar-hopping itinerary, few groups can truly achieve greatness without a sober COO to keep everyone realistic and pragmatic.
Overall, learning to consistently have a fun, efficient and safe night out with your friends can prepare you for a lot of the challenges that can be thrown at you later in life. The best side effect is that you emerge from these youthful social activities with a network based on real friendships.
Whether you are hanging out at bars, playing in sports leagues or participating in a chess club, learning to confidently make the most of your personal relationships will help you become more successful throughout your career.
Andrew Cohen is the founder of Brainscape, a web and mobile education platform that helps people study more efficiently. Brainscape originally grew out of a personal project that Cohen created to help him improve his Spanish, while working in Panama for the World Bank. It later inspired him to seek a master's degree in instructional technology from Columbia University and transform his pet project into a fundable startup that can help people study any subject. Brainscape has since raised several million dollars from top venture capitalists.