Business Lessons from the Kindergarten Crowd

In 1988 Robert Fulghum published All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a runaway bestseller that spent over two years on the New York Times list and was translated into dozens of languages. As its title indicates, the book describes how kindergarten experiences can yield life lessons.

Twenty-five years later, as my son embarks on his kindergarten year, I see signs of the book’s enduring relevance in parallels between his experiences with school and my own experiences in the “grownup” world—particularly in starting my own business. In the weeks leading up to the start of school, my son and I had several conversations about what to expect on his first day of kindergarten and how he felt about going to school. Some of his comments reminded me about how I feel about my work.

“A little bit excited and a lot not excited”

As the summer drew to an end, my son expressed apprehension about going to school. I realized later that when he said he was “a little bit excited and a lot not excited” about kindergarten, he didn’t actually have any negative feelings about school but was nervous because he didn’t know what to expect. In spite of his nervousness, though, he embraced the uncertainty and walked through the classroom doors on that first day, ready to start a new adventure.

The terror-thrill of the first day of kindergarten reappears throughout our lives: when starting high school or college, when started a new job … or when starting a business.  When my business partner and I launched Mamu Media, I was terrified. Here I was, jumping into something completely new to me, and I didn’t know what to expect. I knew nothing about publishing and had no clue if our revenue model would work. I decided to forge ahead, though, by embracing the unknown, pushing the limits of my comfort zone, and challenging myself every day.

“What if they don’t let me sing my own songs in music class?”

My son loves to make up songs about anything. His dinner, the weather, sidewalks, parrots—you name it, he’s probably come up with a ditty about it. In school, though, he doesn’t have the freedom to break out in song whenever he likes. He and I talked about expectations in a classroom setting. In particular, his number-one goal is to learn—and a large part of that is accomplished by listening to his teacher, who (thanks to life experience and education) has more expertise than he does in the three Rs and other academic areas.

I can be fairly creative as well (though I will admit that singing isn’t my forte!), and I often have innovative or unexpected ideas about how to do things. But I understand that my own number-one goal is to keep my customers happy. I always have to be open to the possibility that a customer (or a colleague or business acquaintance or someone else) might have better ideas than me about how to do things, and in those cases I have to put my ego aside and follow someone else’s lead.

“I learned how to spell ‘stop’ and ‘go’ and ‘green’!”

As soon as my son got off the bus, I asked him how his first day of school went. He excitedly exclaimed that it was “great!” and that he learned how to spell “stop,” “go,” and “green.” I was a little surprised by this news, since we’d been working on his letters all summer long—work that had continually frustrated him. We had both thought he still had a long way to go to learn those things, but apparently he knew a lot more than he thought he knew, as those simple exercises on his first day revealed. With increased confidence in this area, my son is now very excited to advance his reading skills.

In my business life, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers. But sometimes I find that I’m more capable than I expected myself to be. Those moments are always pleasant surprises—and opportunities that I try to seize, so I can build on them and continue moving forward.

Back to School . .. Every Day

As you see bright yellow buses carrying their precious cargo to and from school, think about all the great learning today’s kindergarteners are doing. Although they might sometimes feel a bit of trepidation about the unknown (which is understandable, because at their age there is a lot of unknown ahead of them!), those little kids embrace possibilities, open themselves up to learning, and delight in surprising themselves by exceeding their own expectations. If you want to succeed in business—and in pretty much any other aspect of “grownup” life—you’d do well to take some lessons from the kindergarten set.


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