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Tacit knowledge and entrepreneurial success

Tacit knowledge or implicit knowledge—as opposed to formal, codified, or explicit knowledge—is knowledge that is difficult to express or extract, and thus more difficult to transfer to others by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. (Source)

Tacit knowledge is skills and knowledge that you learn intuitively or perceptually instead of active studying or training. 

Active training helps, of course, but it’s hard to verbalize these skills—for instance, riding a bike or learning a particular branch of martial art. It is hard to learn martial art by merely reading a book about it. You have to go to a dojo and learn under a teacher. Most of these skills are more than cognitive intelligence. Your body learns how to ride a bike or do a particular kickboxing move. 

I. 

I have come to observe that many important entrepreneurship traits are hard to teach explicitly. You have to learn them intuitively or perceptually. Cedric Chin calls this “knowledge that cannot be captured through words alone.” 

You can read about them. You can study people who have them. You can design courses, and apply psychological knowledge and techniques in teaching them, but it is hard to teach them merely theoretically. 

While having a theoretical or verbal grasp of these skills is helpful, to truly learn these skills, you have to experience them and learn intuitively. I think that’s one of the reasons it takes multiple failures to get to significant entrepreneurial success or why it takes a long time to build fairly successful ventures. 

Four entrepreneurial skills come to mind. These skills are similar to riding a bike. You can roughly describe how to ride a bike but you can't learn about biking just by reading the description. Description fails to teach biking.

1. Asking for help 

2. Obsession

3. Doing things as default

4. High pain tolerance

Asking for help. Undoubtedly the most important founder skill. Building a company is hard. You need all the help you can get. Founder and CEO of Healthcare startup Praava Health Sylvana Q. Sinha told me in an interview a few years ago that asking for help is imperative for the success of a founder. She said: 

"Nobody can build a company all by yourself. Building a company is a lonely journey, and in some ways as a founder, ultimately you are alone and it can be hard to communicate with others about what you go through as a founder. But you can’t do it alone. It takes a village to build anything. You have to use every resource available to you, whether it’s emotional support, strategic or technical advice, or an introduction or otherwise. Don’t shy away from reaching out to people.

I’m relentless in following up with people who offer introductions or help. And I think you have to be if you want to build a business. Because this is something that requires so much more of everything than what you can imagine. And many people genuinely want to help someone who is doing something worthwhile. If you reach out to people, most of them would like to support."

In an episode of his excellent Founders podcast on Steve Jobs, David Senra describes Steve Jobs’s ability to ask for help as one of his superpowers. From the podcast: 

“There's just one sentence here that at any time, if you've spent any time studying the life of Steve Jobs, you know as one of his superpowers. He had no qualms about calling anyone up in search of information or help. That is a trait that he had the very beginning of his life, the one he possessed his entire life. I'm going to my notebook. This is several years ago, there's this interview with Steve. He's probably late thirties, maybe early forties. I think this is right before he goes back to Apple. He's talking about his ability to ask for help and he's talking about how this is something that separates people like him, who accomplish things, from people who just dream about it. And so, these are notes from a talk that he gave probably 40 years ago, 30 years ago.

He says, now I've always actually found something to be very true, which is most people don't get those experiences because they never ask. I have never found anybody who didn't want to help me when I've asked them for help. I have never found anyone who said no or hung up the phone when I called. I just asked. And when people ask me, I try to be as responsive, to pay back that debt of gratitude. Most people never pick up the phone and call. Most people never ask. That is what separates the people that do things from the people that just dream about them. You've got to act and you've got to be willing to fail. You've got to be ready to crash and burn with people on the phone, with starting a company, with whatever. If you're afraid of failing, you won't get very far.” 

Now, why can’t most people reach out and ask for help despite knowing that it can potentially change their lives? 

I did that interview with Ms. Sylvana in 2018. I have read many times that asking for help is the only path to making progress. But I still struggle to pick up my phone and make that call when I need it. I couldn’t learn the skill because it is hard to learn. You can’t take training on how to ask for help. You have to learn perceptually. I’ll get to my take on that approach later in this post. 

Obsession. Interestingly, it is hard to find a course on how to be obsessive even though in any discussion of a successful founder one common trait that gets the highest attention is obsessiveness. Great founders are obsessives. It is what separates them from the rest of us. They are obsessed with their work and company. 

But how do you learn obsession? Reading about the obsessions of Steve Jobs with design can’t make you obsessed with design. It does not happen that way. But unless you’re obsessed with what you are building, it is quite difficult to build something extraordinary. 

High pain tolerance. Successful entrepreneurs often talk about the torrent of rejections they faced in their early life. Rejection is painful. Similarly, there are many other types of pains that founders go through. Products not working. People leaving. Disputes between partners. Disputes with stakeholders. Legal challenges. So the list is endless. In short, building a business from scratch is painful. Unless you have high pain tolerance, you will not survive such a journey. Successful founders survive because their pain tolerance threshold is much higher. 

But how do you increase your pain tolerance threshold? 

Doing things by default. Building a business requires constant decision-making. You are making decisions all the time and a lot of your success depends on your ability to make accurate decisions faster. Decisions lead to action. For instance, you need to change something in your product or distribution strategy, unless you decide to make the change, no action will take place. 

For most of us, making decisions is difficult. We can’t make up our minds. Consequently, we struggle with taking action. 

Contrarily, successful founders live in a default action mode. Their decision lead time, unless it is a highly critical decision, is short. They don’t suffer from indecision or ambivalence about things. Even if they suffer from a lack of conviction in some instances, they disregard and side with action. 

III. 

All of the above-mentioned skills are considered some of the most important traits of successful founders. Surprisingly, it is hard to design a structured approach to teaching them. You can verbalize the story of obsession but not the skill itself. The same goes for skills like asking for help, bias towards action, and high pain tolerance. 

But how do people who are good at these skills learn them? Are these skills hereditary? Or one can learn them. While genetic disposition is possible for many skills, it has been proven that almost everything requires environment conduciveness to manifest. This is true even for people with genetic preconditions for certain diseases. Genes require the environment to help them come alive. 

To that end, if we even accept the idea that some of these skills might be hereditary, they don’t work unless you put the person into a certain kind of learning environment. It means that it is highly likely that these skills are teachable given the right environment. 

Cedric Chin offers an approach to exploiting tacit knowledge: 

“tacit knowledge instruction happens through things like imitation, emulation, and apprenticeship. You learn by copying what the master does, blindly, until you internalise the principles behind the actions.” 

This makes sense. Kids usually learn passions like tinkering from parents and peers. It is often exposure that sets the tune. When a kid sees his father tinkering with a device for hours, it ignites curiosity leading to similar habits in the kid. 

In the world of art, music, and many similar professions, learning from a master is a common practice. Often students spend a lot of time with the master, observing and learning how he operates and intuitively absorbing many of the skills and lessons. 

So you can start by spending time with founders who you think demonstrate some of these qualities. Intuitive learning through spending time with founders can be an approach to learning many of these skills. Observe them. Try to see through their thinking pattern. 

Seeing someone doing something is often a powerful motivation. Motivation is a critical component of learning. Also, copying others when it comes to these skills can be an approach to learning these skills. Initially, you start by observing others and following their approach. Gradually, it should help you to develop understanding and thus your style. 

Reading can be a powerful method. While it can be hard to learn pain tolerance by merely reading about the importance of high pain tolerance or how to improve pain tolerance, reading about the experience of other people can significantly improve the tacit understanding of the phenomenon. 

For instance, while listening to a podcast about Steve Jobs and his ability to think clearly, I came to realize that I’m a poor thinker when it comes to clarity of thought. Moreover, I also came to learn a number of practical examples with context about how Steve used clarity of thought to his advantage. I also learned that Steve also had to go through a trajectory to develop such clarity. 

It taught me three things. One, I have to improve my thinking. Second, I can improve my ability to think clearly if I work on it. Three, it will not happen overnight but it is important enough to invest for a while to develop the skill. 

When you come across the experience of other people in a real context, it is easy to grasp the importance of these skills and their practical application of them. So reading biographies of other people can be an effective experience for learning these skills. 

Finally, put yourself in situations where you have to demonstrate some of these skills. For instance, I know a person who maintains a rejection diary and has a weekly rejection goal. 

That person thinks that the only way to train yourself in asking for help without the fear of rejection is by building a rejection muscle. When you become robust in handling rejections, the outcome no longer scares you, which is often the barrier to asking for help. Often if you ask people for help, the majority of people try to help. But since we fear rejection, we rather not ask for any help. 

So I think you can design strategies and tasks to practice several of these skills by regularly putting yourself in situations where you have to demonstrate these skills. 

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), exposure therapy is commonly used to deal with fear and phobias. Many people are afraid of dogs. So if you go to a CBT therapist, one of the things the therapist will do is he will gradually expose you to dogs. Initially, in small doses and gradually, increasing the exposure. The exposure will gradually reduce your fear. It teaches your brain that all dogs are not harmful and you can safely be around dogs. Exposure therapy is often one of the most effective interventions in these instances. 

I think practice and exposure are some of the best strategies when it comes to learning tacit knowledge. Exposure through reading, direct experience, and other means can help improve these skills. Two caveats here: one, you can’t expect to learn these skills overnight. Second, you can’t expect a practical scale to measure your progress. 

Learning tacit knowledge is a subtle approach. It is tacit because we don’t have a direct or explicit understanding of how it works. We can explain how it works but it does not accurately communicate how it works. That’s a difficult situation. Perhaps we have to learn how to better use our intuition and perceptual capacities to learn these skills. Most important, you have to be patient when you are trying to figure out how to learn these skills. In many instances, it will take time before you realize that you are making progress. 

Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based writer, researcher, and entrepreneur. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and the author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about entrepreneurship, business, strategy, technology, and culture. He can be reached at [email protected]

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