I was interviewing a candidate for a senior position recently. He had very impressive qualifications. Degrees from the finest universities. Glowing testimonials from his previous employers. An MBA from the most prestigious business school. Things were going very well.
Then I asked the question I always do: what’s the most important lesson you’ve ever learned?
He answered: Never stop learning.
For me, that’s the answer. It’s that no one who wants to be a success in business can ever afford to stop learning. Learning from academia, learning from experts, and of course, learning from experience.
There’s a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi that sums up what I mean. Gandhi said: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
As business people, we need to be absolutely aware of every single moment and situation in which we find ourselves, so that we can take maximum advantage of it right now. But we also need to apply the lessons we have learned to every situation we encounter in the future.
It’s something I try to do every day, when I remember a lesson from my first years in business. I had just set up a telephone service taking orders for, then making and delivering sandwiches to local offices.
The sandwiches were delicious. I had lots of customers. I could barely keep up. Lots of money came into and went out. But there was never any left over.
Then I worked it out. The sandwiches were too good. I was being seduced by turnover, rather than profit. I was putting so many premium ingredients in them that my customers were literally eating into my margin.
It’s a lesson that hurt, but I’m glad I learned it then and not today. And as for the candidate, he is doing very well indeed.