Feb 22 2010

What did you learn today?

“You would do almost anything if you thought you could learn something from it, wouldn’t you?” someone once asked my father.  He recounts that question (which is really a statement) as one of his greatest complements ever.  And, for what it’s worth, he also raised me.  There could be no truer words to lead off the first blog post of Night Train Consulting.

The journey of Night Train Consulting from September 2009 through February 2010 has been about learning more than it has been about anything else.  It was certainly not about getting rich (it took us four months to become profitable).  In a famous slip of speech, Jeff once told Liz, his wife, “Alan and I decided our goal is to not make money.” (he meant to say that we decided that making money would not be our primary goal).  It was not even about getting work, either.  There were opportunities from which we walked away because the learning value was not as great as the contract value.  More than anything, the question which we asked of every potential opportunity was “how much do we expect to learn from this?”

This is partially selfish; Jeff and I really enjoy learning.  Our other main project at the moment is the Third Arena project, which, as it happens, is also all about learning.  It is more focused on what we are doing to help increase learning opportunities for others in their day-to-day lives.

But learning is also critical to our strategy for survival as a company.  We are not the same company we initially conceived on day one.  We will not be the same company six months from now that we are today.  And it is nearly impossible to imagine what kind of company we will be in six years.  For that reason alone, even if there were no others, we choose to put learning above all else.  This blog is about synthesizing that learning process for ourselves, and maybe passing on some useful tips to you as well.

We hope you will not treat our musings as knowledge for downloading, to be read and deposited into a bank account of information in your brain.  We are only offering seeds that might save you a bad experience (with a webhosting service such as godaddy.com, for example) or might inspire you to go off and have a great experience of your own.  It is only from those experiences, and from the conversations you have with people in and around them, from which true knowledge can be gained.

So what is the biggest lesson from the first four months?  There are many, but here is the most important one so far:

No matter how much you research a topic, you will never, ever, know everything happening in that area.  This is especially true for anyone attempting to be “innovative” “outside of the box” or “ahead of the curve.”  Assume that everything you slaved to uncover represents only a small fraction of what is actually out there.  Assume that your brilliant idea is being thought of by 10 other people right now.  And what are the odds that 1 of them is better funded, better connected, or better able to execute than you?  Go ahead and assume this is the case and adjust accordingly.  We’ll write more about what “adjust accordingly” means, but, mostly, this means that we think you should engage in lots of open conversation from the very beginning of your project, whenever you embark upon doing something which you imagine to be “innovative.”

I’ll leave you with a sufi poem which was read this weekend at the Ashoka Campus Changemakers Retreat by Edgar Cahn, founder of Time Bank, and so much else.  Like my dad’s favorite quote, it sums up nicely the first four months of Night Train Consulting, if not the lives of most people:

“I asked for widsom
And God gave me problems to solve

I asked for strength
And God gave me difficult situations to face

I asked for courage
And God gave me danger to overcome

I asked for love
And God gave me troubled people to help

I asked for favors
And God gave me opportunities to work hard

I received nothing I wanted.
I received everything I needed.

~ Swami Vivekananda