• Advice

4 things no one teaches you in business school

School can only teach you so much.

The real lessons of entrepreneurship are picked up along the way. While you undoubtedly would have learned important things and formed new networks in business school, this acquired wisdom -- your experience with clients, with projects, and with keeping your own deadlines -- is probably worth more than the $200,000 you would have spent going to business school.

Here are 4 things you’d never learn there:

1. How to read people

“Business always comes down to people situations,” the CEO of IMG once said.

Whether you’re closing a business deal, nailing down project specs, or reviewing drafts, the work that you do is rarely as important as how you communicate that work to your clients.

This isn’t about reading people so you can manipulate them to do what you want. Being able to read your client means:

  • You can tell when they don’t trust you -- and you can work to build their trust
  • You can tell when they’re about to back out of a deal (before it happens) -- and work to prevent it
  • You can tell what communication style they prefer -- so that you don’t either bog them down in details or make them nervous with too few
  • You can tell if they’re scared or if their boss is breathing down their neck -- so you can be extra careful to support each decision you make with “boss-pleasing” statistics (for instance: “I chose to put the button there because studies show that it has a 45% higher click rate in that position.” Scared employees love to hear statistics so that they can back up their choices to the higher-ups.

Learning how to read people is just one aspect of emotional intelligence. And you don’t even need to be social or an extrovert to read others; in fact, it has been show that introverts are much better at accurately interpreting people’s facial expressions.

2. How to deal with work you don't enjoy (or are failing at)

As a freelancer, chances are that you’ve started a business in a field that you enjoy. Even if it’s not your “passion,” it’s something that is intimately intertwined with your life.

But how do you deal with projects you hate? The will to continue and push through this kind of work is not something anyone can teach you, and still doing your best in such circumstances and not complaining about your stupid project to everyone you know is a lesson acquired with effort.

And then come more serious failures: What happens if you loved knitting on the side, but when you tried to make it a business, you suddenly hate to even look at a knitting needle? The strength to put an end to a business that fails, or that you hate, takes an unbelievable amount of energy.

All of these things involve grit and resilience. In the dictionary, grit is described as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.” Andrew Zolli, author of Resilience, Why Things Bounce Back, says “resilience is a dynamic combination of optimism, creativity, and confidence, which together empower one to reappraise situations and regulate emotion.”

Regulating emotion is the tough part.

When you get stressed or are in the midst of a failure, studies show that the regulatory, forward-thinking, and creative problem-solving parts of your brain go quiet. So when you’re stressed you’re literally less equipped to deal with the challenges in front of you with emotional intelligence.

This is why so many freelancers have turned to meditation and other spiritual practices. They allow us to recenter and coming back to our work with our full selves. But you have to discover what works for you. There will come a time when the stress of running your own business, a difficult project, or a failing business will force you to develop these strategies.

3. Gratitude for what you have

This one is kind of cliche (which is probably the reason business schools don’t talk about it). Gratitude for what you have, for the clients you have, for the work that you do, is a business lesson much more energizing and vitalizing than knowing the difference between an LLC and a C-Corp.

I love these tips from ZenHabits:

  • Morning gratitude session. Take 2-3 minutes each morning to give thanks, to whoever or whatever you’re grateful for. You don’t have to do anything, other than close your eyes and silently give thanks. This one act can make a huge difference.
  • Say thank you. When someone does something nice for you, however small, try to remember to say thank you. And really mean it.
  • Call to say thanks. Sometimes you might think about something nice that someone did for you. Perhaps you remember during your gratitude session. When you do, pick up the phone and call the person, just to say thanks. Let them know what they did that you’re grateful for, and why you appreciate it. Takes a minute or two. If it’s too early to call, make a note to call later. Even better is telling them in person, if you happen to see them or if they’re on your route. Almost as good is a thank-you email — keep it short and sweet.
  • Give thanks for “negative” things in your life. There’s always two ways to look at something. Many times we think of something as negative — it’s stressful, harmful, sad, unfortunate, difficult. But that same thing can be looked at in a more positive way. Giving thanks for those things is a great way to remind yourself that there is good in just about everything. Problems can be seen as opportunities to grow, to be creative. See the prayer below for more on this.

4. A sense of worthiness

This is arguably the most important “business” tool on the list.

The truth is that how you feel about yourself is how other people are going to treat you. If you consider yourself a technician who mutely carries out clients’ wishes, you’re going to get treated like one. If you think you’re only worth $10/hour -- yes, you guessed it.

We talk a lot on this blog about how to price your services, increase your rates, and communicate value to your clients. But absolutely none of this is possible without feeling like the services you offer are worth having.

There is not even any advice I could give you for gaining a sense of worthiness. This is one of those things that comes with experience -- and for most people, it also comes with age.

Freelancers, what have you learned through experience that no one could ever teach you?