A friend once told me that the reason children are happy is that they learn something new every day. When did you last learn something new? What was it? How did you discover your new learning? What did you do with it?

Albert Einstein said: "I have no special gift. I am only passionately curious."

Great entrepreneurs are passionately curious. They want to know how things work. They want to know why things don't work. They also want to know how things can work better. And they never stop asking why.

Entrepreneurs who love what they do enjoy the process of finding new and better ways to do it. Formal education is a very small part of that learning. In fact, some argue that formal education actually limits our ability to think in new and innovative ways because it reinforces traditional ways of looking at the world.

Alvin Toffler, author of "Future Shock," said: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."

So how can entrepreneurs develop a learning mentality? Ask specific questions. Assume answers exist that haven't been found. Read (but be discriminating about what you read). Ask questions ... lots of them, to everyone who knows something you don't know about something you want to know. Take time to think. Observe. Make notes. Teach others what you have learned. Implement your new learning.

I used to run a long-distance telephone company. We purchased sophisticated digital computer switches that could accept telephone calls and direct them to many destinations around the world.

One day a switch in our Salt Lake City facility failed. Even though it had built-in redundancy throughout, the system went completely dead, leaving thousands of customers without the ability to place long-distance calls. Our telephones began to ring with anxious and upset customers wondering why they couldn't place calls. We knew it wouldn't be long before our customers would begin contacting our competitors to migrate their service away from us.

We contacted experts at the switch manufacturer, who concluded that a simple but specialized part in the switch, an electromechanical solenoid, had failed, causing the switch to shut down. Replacement parts were at least 24 hours away — an unacceptable time frame for us. We contacted several local electricians trying to find an answer to our problem. None could find a replacement solenoid big enough to support the high voltage levels required by our switch.

Then the manufacturer's experts tried to find temporary "work-arounds" to get us back in service. Finally they decided that we would simply have to wait for the replacement part. They were ready to let it go at that, but I knew that would be a disaster and told them to keep thinking.

Then we all learned something. After two hours of head-scratching and awkward silence, a sheepish voice with a Southern drawl came on the line from our supplier's location in Texas.

"Well," he said, "this is going to sound crazy but ... does anybody have a pair of jumper cables?"

"Jumper cables?" I asked.

"Yep, jumper cables," he replied. "Find the heaviest pair of jumper cables you can. They should be strong enough to carry the electrical current from one side of the solenoid to the other. We'll just bypass the whole thing for now. It won't be a permanent fix, but it should get the switch up and running."

We were stunned by his solution but desperate enough to try it. We made a quick visit to a nearby auto parts store and within 15 minutes the switch was up and running perfectly. Our company was saved a lot of grief and maybe worse by a $30 pair of jumper cables.

Too many of us have forgotten what it felt like as a child to learn something new every day. Get in the habit of becoming a student of the world around you and you will become a more effective entrepreneur — and a happier person, too.


Andy Barfuss is affiliated with the BYU Center for Entrepreneurship. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]