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What is the Best Business Education? Run a Marathon (Transcript)

Andrew Johnston

Full text of What is the Best Business Education? Run a Marathon by Andrew Johnston at TEDxYouth@MileHigh conference.

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As a business instructor at a community college, one of my favorite courses to teach is Intro to Business. It’s one of my favorite courses because in this class I assign the students a company project. In this project the students go out, they find a small business, they meet with the business owner, and then they share with their classmates key technical information about the business. Information such as: what’s the company’s product? How do they price their product, how do they promote their product?

It’s a great assignment because it really brings to life all the technical theory that the students have been reading about in their textbook. But you know what the biggest insight is from this assignment, you guys? The biggest assignment is when the students share with their classmates what the single biggest piece of advice the business owner has for a young person starting their business career. You know what that biggest piece of advice almost always is?

Before I tell you what it is, let me first tell you what it’s not.

Business owners are telling my students that success in business is not about being an expert at writing pivot tables in excel. They say it’s not about being a jockey at the ten key calculator. They say it’s not about being able to recite accounting regulations, no. Instead, what business owners are telling my students the key to success has everything to do with the development of this: character, life skills, things like passion for your work, work ethic, persistence, determination, and good old fashioned grit. That’s what business owners are saying is the key to success for a young person starting their business career.

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How do you teach grit? How do you teach these life skills? Some schools are trying to teach it through self help books and seminars. Here’s the problem with self-help books and seminars: they don’t cut to the chase, they don’t force the student to actually apply what they’re reading about in the textbook. It’s all theory. It’s like if I want to learn to ride a bike. I could read a book about riding a bike, I could watch a video about riding a bike, but until I’m actually on the bike pedaling, and braking, and ringing the little bell on the handle bars, have I really learned how to ride a bike? I don’t think so.

Again, how do you develop these skills? How do you develop the skills to develop the resilience to keep going when life circumstances, and maybe even the people all around you are telling you to quit? That’s just the question my colleagues in the business department, two years ago, and I asked.

In 2013, we launched a new class called “Change through Challenge.” The premise of change through challenge is very simple: all the life skills that I mentioned, persistence, determination, grit, all these life skills can be acquired and mastered through the power of training for a marathon.

Guess what the final exam is in this class? A 26.2 mile marathon.

Why a marathon? Because a marathon gets to the heart of the matter. Because a marathon doesn’t goof around. Because training for a marathon is the perfect vehicle for teaching all these life skills that business owners are saying is the key to your success in business and in life.

Because you see my friends, mother marathon, she’s a strict teacher. She doesn’t allow cheating, and she doesn’t grade on a curve. Because you see guys when you’re at the start line of a marathon, I don’t care if you’re the CEO, or if you’re the janitor. If you haven’t put in the work, if you haven’t put in the training, if you haven’t mastered these key life skills, you’re not going to finish the race no matter who you are.

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The goal of the course is very simple: just finish the marathon. I don’t care if you run across the finish line, I don’t care if you walk, I don’t care if you hop, skip, and jump; just finish.

Everyone from the 19-year-old single mom to the 60-year-old vice president has taken this course. The students train three days a week on their own. We meet on Saturdays for the long group run, and then we meet on Monday night for the seminar.

In the seminar we talk about three very simple things. We talk a little bit about diet, talk a little bit about training, and then the discipline of the week, and how that discipline relates to their school work, how it relates to their business, and how it relates to life.

One of the disciplines we talk about is goal setting. How do you take a big hairy, scary goal like a marathon and break it down into weekly, even daily tasks so it’s not overwhelming?

Think about that old riddle: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, that’s what we’re doing here. I think about a student that I had the very first semester we taught this class. Her name was Mandy. Mandy in addition to going to school full-time and training for the marathon, Mandy was opening up a hair salon.

Upon opening the doors at the salon, Mandy immediately realized that opening a small business was not unlike training for a marathon, especially that whole overcoming adversities piece. When she opened the doors, she had nay-sayers that were telling her that she ought to quit because it will never work. She had bankers that wouldn’t loan her money when she needed it most. She was encountering code enforcement officers that harassed her every week and worst of all, a lot of times, she would come in to the morning plumbing disaster. How did she get through this?

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