“For those about to…”

Jeff Skinner

I remember the morning, decades ago. A rookie PhD student on my first day. Someone escorted me to my laboratory bench and then drifted off. This was to be my base for the next three years. Around me purposeful chatter and tables messily piled high with electronics and buzz of other people’s experiments.

I had used labs many times before but always as an undergraduate, reproducing someone else’s hypotheses with someone else’s kit. It was now my turn to generate and test my own hypotheses – and I had no idea where to start. Where on earth do you start? Friends and family imagined me embarking that day on a new life of glamour and excitement. The reality was an intense feeling of loneliness and ambiguity.

The bench was empty save for a scrappy A4 stapled booklet. On the cover the words, “For those about to…”. Inside the preface, “… being a miscellany of tips and things that we wish someone had shared with us on our first day. Shortcuts for those about to from those have done so painfully”.

Overleaf, “Instructions to the reader. Procure a cup of coffee, find a quiet corner and read me”. I did. “Remember that everyone around you was haunted by loneliness and ambiguity on the first day; you are not alone; this is an apprenticeship. Relax.”

And on. “Build community; look around, ask what everyone else is up to – they will love talking about their projects and be intrigued by your journey; ask and return favours; clean up after yourself and others as well; like and be liked by technicians, secretaries and porters – they are the lubricants; take every opportunity to present your work, reporting triumphs and and sharing worries alike, the cracks are where the light gets in; read and listen widely – innovation happens at the interstices of disciplines;  nurture hobbies and relationships for they keep you sane”. And on.

The authors had cleverly left the last section blank, entitled, “For those to add what we have forgotten…”. There followed wisdom from generations of students who also wanted to give to those about to. Pages added. Later I learned that now-successful alumni returned years later to add their pent-up paragraphs. From humble beginnings this had become a tome, repository, a commonplace book, an institution.

Nowadays we have blogs but the principle is the same. Entrepreneurship, like research, is an apprenticeship – but one that can be accelerated.  There are hundreds of LBS students, alumni and others in our orbit who have learned ‘entrepreneurship’ the painful way. Each has experiences and observations and methods that are valuable to ‘those about to’, wherever and at whatever stage they’re at. Tips that they wish someone had told them that can save swathes of time and – if not prevent failure then certainly increase the odds of success.

We have the platform. Enjoy. Reflect. Add. Share.