Recently I was invited to speak at an event in New Orleans. Most of the people I met were pleasant professionals who had come to the Big Easy to learn the latest techniques for selling a company.
There was, however, one person who stood out to me. I first noticed him in a breakout session where he seemed intent on proving how much smarter he was than the speaker. Instead of sitting square to the front of the room, he sat sideways so he could face both the presenter and the 30 or so people in the audience. Whenever the speaker asked the audience a question, he would roll his eyes as if to say, "Duh, everyone knows that." Without being called on by the speaker, he would then answer the question for anyone within ear shot.
I observed him in three sessions and realized his self-righteous behavior was a pattern. At each coffee break, he would huddle with his cronies, who all seemed to be congratulating themselves on how smart they were instead of meeting the new people in the room. I did a little research on Mr. Know-It-All after the conference, and his bio reads like a shrine to his achievements, complete with three professional designations next to his name.
He may, in fact, be as successful as he wants the world to think, but my guess is his self-righteousness has actually held him back -- after all, he was paying to attend the conference, not being paid to speak at it.
Curiosity is the currency of entrepreneurs
The opposite of self-righteousness is intellectual curiosity, and I have found that the most successful entrepreneurs have that in abundance.
For three years, I produced a radio show for which I interviewed a different successful entrepreneur every weekday. If anyone had the right to be self-righteous, it was these company founders running businesses with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Yet most were far from self-righteous. Instead, they seemed to go through life asking questions, wanting to know how things work.
Anecdotally, I recently had lunch with the successful founder of three multimillion-dollar start-ups. Before I could get a single question in, he wanted to know everything about my recent book launch: "How did you use Twitter to promote it?" "How did you pick the cover artwork?" "How did you find a publisher?" and so on.
He has no interest in writing a book; he just wanted to know about the process of writing and promoting a book.
The Achievement Equation
Watching successful entrepreneurs (and the occasional self-righteous buffoon), I have developed an equation to keep in mind:
Intellectual Curiosity / Self-Righteousness = Achievement
If you'd like to cultivate a sense of intellectual curiosity, practice by simply asking more questions than you answer. In a conversation, aim for a 5 to 1 ratio of questions to answers. Remember, questions that begin with the word how tend to elicit the juiciest responses.
Your counterpart will enjoy the attention and may just reveal something you can use on your entrepreneurial journey.
So what's your Achievement Equation?