Hiring and Growth

Think Like a C Student and Become a Better Entrepreneur—Seriously

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
Entrepreneurial Skills You Can Learn From Bad Students

Generally speaking, good grades are only important while you’re in school.

Simple time tracking that syncs with payroll.

Take my uncle Charles. He dropped out of school to work for a construction company. Over time, he saved enough money to start his own excavating business.

Then he bought a struggling trailer park. Then he bought an auto parts store. Then he started buying tracts of land and developed entire neighborhoods.

His education was limited—but his ambition was not. (And his success didn’t change him; even in his 60s he was still tapping cigarette ashes into his cowboy boots.)

Stories abound of people who did poorly in school yet achieved incredible entrepreneurial success.

And research backs up the anecdotes: A survey of self-made millionaires found that only 21 percent were “A” students while 70 percent were “B” or “C” students. In fact, more self-made millionaires were C students than A students.

Type of student% of self-made millionaires that identify with the group
A students21%
B students41%
C students29%
D and F students7%

That’s because your GPA can’t measure your entrepreneurial skills. Your GPA can’t measure your ability to solve problems. Your GPA can’t measure your emotional intelligence or your ability to identify opportunities and execute on your ideas.

While grades are certainly an indication of knowledge gained, grades in no way predict future success in the business world.

Here’s how thinking—and acting—like a C student will make you a more successful business owner.

How to think like a C student

1. Embrace the struggle

Building a business, especially if you’re bootstrapping, requires you to consistently delay financial gratification. Building a business requires you to constantly overcome uncertainty as you stay the course. Building a business requires mental strength and toughness.

Building a business requires embracing the struggle.

Struggle academically and you have a leg up on those who did not, especially where dedication and perseverance are concerned. Mental toughness is a muscle anyone can develop.

But it’s the touchstone of a successful entrepreneur.

That’s why it’s critical to push yourself: To try new things, to set reach goals, to be uncomfortable. Growth comes from discomfort.

If a goal scares you, that’s a great sign it’s a goal you should pursue—because even if you don’t achieve it, you will have learned something in the process.

And will have built even greater mental strength and toughness.

2. Feed your curiosity

IQ isn’t fixed; it can change over the course of a lifetime. And it’s only one measure of intelligence. Successful entrepreneurs are smart, but sometimes in a very different way.

Say you start a business. You work hard. You improve your skills, whether at managing, selling, creating, implementing—whatever your business requires. The satisfaction and fulfillment of small victories give you the motivation to keep working hard and keep learning.

That’s how successful entrepreneurs “overcome” a mediocre GPA. They see learning as a lifelong process, not one that ends after graduation or if they get an A in an impossible class. They work hard, keep learning, keep growing, keep expanding their horizons… and with it, their intelligence expands.

As does their experience.

Read. Explore. Try new things, whether business-related or personal. Chat with as many successful people as you can. Make sure your to-do list includes at least one item that will help you continue to gain knowledge or skill.

That’s how you become a lifelong learner. And, in time, a lot more successful.

3. Focus on doing the thing

Brilliant strategies aren’t an end-product. Comprehensive business plans—guided and fine-tuned by business school professors—aren’t an end-product. File cabinets are filled with strategies never executed and business plans never implemented.

Successful entrepreneurs develop an idea, set up a rudimentary system of operations, build a minimum viable product, and then they execute, adapt, and execute some more. Over time, they build a solid business based not on theory but on what works.

Your GPA can’t measure your ability to execute. But your balance sheet can.

Every time you come up with a new idea, immediately turn that idea into action items. Create a plan with specific steps. Set targets. Set timelines.

Remember, a goal isn’t really goal unless you actively work towards achieving it. Always be executing.

How to act like a C student

If you didn’t receive good grades in school, see that as a gift. Work hard to learn what you need to learn.

1. “Collect” people with complementary skills

Smart people win. Smarter people win even more often.

Even so, striving to gain more experience, more experience, and more knowledge is not the only way to succeed. Focus on gaining knowledge… but focus just as much on making connections with knowledgeable people.

You’ll never be able to know everything. But you can know enough smart people so that together you can know almost everything.

And, together, you can do almost anything.

Work hard on getting smarter. Work just as hard on getting smart people on your side.

2. Get real-world experience

One easy way to do both is to get a part-time job in the industry you want to enter.

Say you want to open a restaurant. You’re a solid chef, but your front-of-house skills are limited. Fine: Get a job as a server.

You can learn by doing and how others do their jobs. And you can identify a few of the people you would someday like to recruit to work for you.

3. Find a mentor who’s doing what you want to do

Then go a step farther and find a mentor. Plenty of people—even people you may someday compete with—will give you advice and guidance if you show you’re genuinely interested in learning. But don’t just listen; do what they say.

The only information that matters is information you can put into practice.

And never forget what Jeff Bezos says. “The smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.”

Wisdom isn’t found in certainty. True wisdom is about knowing that yes, you might know a lot, but there’s also a lot that you don’t know. Don’t be scared of being wrong. Don’t be scared of saying, “I think,” instead of, “I know.”

Only be afraid to stop learning—because that, not grades, is the real hallmark of a successful entrepreneur.

Updated: June 26, 2019

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.

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