An audio version of the blog post is available below:
[Please pardon the part in the audio recording where I claim Branson has no reason to feel confident. I should have said he had* little reason.]
This week, I listened to Losing My Virginity: How I’ve Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way by Richard Branson on Audible, and I picked up some new ideas. The book is narrated and written by him, and at first I was a little put off by his accent—which is British—but then I got used to it.
I chose to spend my monthly Audible credit on this because I feel I always get the most perspective and the best lessons from reading biographies of people who have done remarkable things. And I think Richard Branson is one of those. Branson grew up middle to lower class and went on to build the Virgin empire that has brought his personal worth to an estimated $5 billion (though I don’t know how any of that is measured).
The audio book is a mere 5 hours, and since I listen at a speed of 1.25x it only took me about four. The retelling of Branson’s journey is about a mix of business, personal life and descriptions of the stunts Branson is known for. I personally wasn’t a big fan of these.
I was reading to learn from Branson more so than for entertainment and I felt the regular lengthy intervals about sea channel crossings and hot air balloon flights were there to create an artificial and also unnecessary sort of excitement. I felt Branson’s actual life was already interesting enough just by virtue of all he’s accomplished, starting with creating a small magazine geared towards students, then a health centre, a record label, an airline, communications companies, and more. But don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot in spite of the hot air balloons.
Two interesting things struck me while reading. The first is that Branson was very confident for absolutely no reason from the beginning. For example, in his youth, he was terrible at sports and all but a disaster academically, but he still had the audacity to write letters to the headmaster complaining about the lunch room at his school. Most people wouldn’t feel they have the right to do something so daring in his situation, even if they did want a better lunch room. In fact, I think myself and most people I meet use the existing evidence of their accomplishments to license themselves with confidence. Well, maybe this isn’t the best way because Branson’s spirit and passion led him and another student to start a small magazine named Student, all about students’ interests and issues. That was his first venture, and the rest as they say is history.
From there, Branson built a health centre where students could turn to be connected with doctors offering cheap care. While working on his by then up-and-running magazine, he saw an opportunity to connect students with certain health conditions with doctors charging less or nothing and ran with the idea.
Later, he started some record stores, knowing he could sell records for cheaper than the competitors and make a profit.
I am not writing all this to retell the book, but to demonstrate the essence of the second lesson I learned, which is that Branson was very, very good at identifying opportunities. This struck me because I see so many small-time entrepreneurs who have loads of skills sell something they think people should need or want, rather than truly offering an improvement on what their target market is already wanting or needing. That makes no sense, especially since these are smart people, but I’m inclined to think the reason this is somewhat rare is that this ability to step outside of yourself and notice the collective habits of streams of people is, broadly speaking, a type of listening that takes a lot of humility. Do I make sense? What I mean is, you just gotta stop thinking about yourself and see others and listen to others to be able to do that.
The idea of building a record store that sold cheaper records came from noticing that friends of his would spend three times the amount of money they’d ever consider spending on a meal on a record without ever thinking about it. Branson knew he’d have an advantage and a shot at business by providing the records for less.
Other than these two great qualities (confidence and great perception) Branson seemed remarkably normal. Aside from his pitiful academic and sports careers in his youth, he seems to have struggled quite a bit with relationships, both personal and business. In other words, he’s not good at everything he’s tried. This is both comforting and surprising. I haven’t personally had the opportunity to meet many people who’ve accomplished extraordinary feats, so each time I see stories of how truly average high achievers are (or at least, can be) in most aspects, it inspires me. But it’s also surprising because it goes against a narrative I’ve accepted, of people being either wholly (or even mostly) remarkable or unremarkable. Good or bad. But even if it takes less mind-space to see the world this way, it’s limiting and the cost of that is higher than living with and accepting the uncertainty of not being able to “peg” people as one thing or another because I know one side of them.
And that’s it. I hope you enjoyed reading. I’m sharing my view partly because I think it’s different from much of what so many others shared on Goodreads. For example, I didn’t learn any specific business tricks or a how-to for running an existing business. Instead this book shifted my perspective on business in general (something I frankly have little experience with) and it inspired me. I learned that when it comes to starting a venture, listening a lot more closely and identifying ways to serve others is probably more fruitful than starting companies meant to furnish the owners (or, you) with better lifestyles. And I also learned that this right attitude will probably go a much longer way in keeping you trying when things aren’t perfect—and so ultimately with being successful.