In the startup world, Eric Ries has helped push forward the notion that the goal of a startup is to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible.  In fact, it’s my very favorite definition of a startup.  

As a social entrepreneur, so too is your job to learn — not just about your organization but also about yourself as a leader.  

Yet with the pressures to build a team, pitch funders, measure impact, scale programs and run daily operations, there’s all too much pressure to put on blinders and simply charge ahead without pausing to reflect.  

It's only a couple of years after leaving the social enterprise I co-founded, that I realize just how much I truly learned from the experience — probably more in two months than I did in two years of graduate school!  But I only realized these lessons when I finally had the time to reflect after the fact — I never did a very good job of learning on the job.  And to think how much stronger I would have been as a leader if I had taken the time! 

In my current role coaching, mentoring and advising social entrepreneurs, I recommend they do three things to maximize their learning as a changemaker, which I am happy to share with you so that, unlike me, you can learn as much as possible right now.  

1.  Schedule time daily (or at least weekly) to reflect on lessons learned

As is often said, “if it isn’t scheduled, it will never get done.”  Even the best of intentions aren’t enough to outlast the daily urgent demands placed upon us to do instead of to reflect.  So reserve space in your calendar now to have uninterrupted time to write about what you have learned.  It could be 5 minutes at the end of each work day, or it could be an hour every Friday afternoon.  Even Jeff Bezos creates this unstructured time on his calendar — and if he can prioritise it while running Amazon, surely you can as well. 

Once you have reserved the time, make it as easy on yourself as possible so that your time is spent reflecting, not managing a documenting system.  I set up a Google Docs Form where I can enter learnings and new ideas, and then use the amazing service IfThisThenThat to have the form sent to me automatically via email, on a regular schedule, at the time of my choosing.  This reduces the friction to pausing to reflect and absorb lessons.  

While simply thinking is good, putting your thoughts down in words, in a structured way not only helps to formulate clearer thoughts. It also makes sure that all of your lessons and learnings are there for you to easily access again in the future.

2.  Surround yourself with a learning group

The one thing I did well was to regularly surround myself with fellow social entrepreneurs to swap failures, victories and everything in-between.  I’ve found it remarkable in meeting social entrepreneurs from around the world that we have much more in common than we ever think we would. Even if we are working on vastly different topics in vastly different parts of the world, the shared mindset of a social entrepreneur connects us in powerful ways.  

In surrounding myself with great social entrepreneurs I have benefitted tremendously from hearing them reflect on the lessons they are learning and meanwhile, through sharing some of my own learnings with like-minded people, it helps give me clarity as I pull out new connections and ideas.  

And because we speak the same language — even with diverse backgrounds and experiences — it gives an especially rich area for cross-pollination of new ideas to blossom.  

3.  Give yourself physical space

I co-ran my social venture from a macbook air and an iPhone.  While this setup blessed me with zero office space expenses (except for an obscene coffee tab from bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop), the lack of a physical office meant that while I never really entered one, I never actually left it behind, either.  This left me exhausted from hyper-connection and without a space to rejuvenate myself.  

In his timeless book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey shares that the seventh habit is sharpening oneself through self renewal.  He suggests four dimensions: physical, social, spiritual and mental.  While he is not prescriptive on the how of spiritual, renewal he is clear on the why: to create space for growth.

If traditional entrepreneurs are bad at finding time for renewal, I believe social entrepreneurs are that much worse. We are often so invested in the impact we seek to have, that any hour away from pursuing it feels like an hour wasted.  This paradigm needs to be flipped: it’s because of our passion that we must make sure we take time to "sharpen our saw” so that we are not just ready for our next challenge, but we come prepared with greater efficacy derived from our lessons learned.

I’ve found that some of my greatest insights and ”ah-ha moments” have happened when I’m the most disconnected from my social venture: long plane rides, walks in the woods and intense workouts at the gym.  By putting our bodies somewhere else and removing the constant calls for our attention, we naturally gravitate towards reflection and learning.  And not only do we come back more energized, we also come back with new ideas, fresh perspectives and lessons synthesized.

It’s ironic that perhaps my greatest lesson learned is the importance of taking time to reflect on all of the lessons I have been learning.  And believe me: I know how hard it is to make the time.  But I promise that the rewards will be so worthwhile, as your organization and your leadership grow to new levels.

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