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Roman Gypsies, Entrepreneurs, and The Key to Self-Improvement

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Trial and error. It’s the most underrated process crucial to success. Growing up we are largely taught to be afraid of failure. And yet, the single most common trait of the greatest entrepreneurs, executives, and even performing artists, is their ability to take risks, learn from failure, and adjust their approach as they gear up for round two. In short, they test and adapt. Knowing how and when to take risks obviously increases the odds of reaching your goal; but perhaps more important is the mind-shift toward risk-taking that exposes one to a broader range of opportunities to be successful.

Indeed, until the 20th Century, tinkering, testing, and adapting to natural surroundings was a crucial part of human survival. If our ancient ancestors didn’t discover fire, how long do you think they would have lasted? The same can be said for early hunter-gatherers, farmers, and even medieval peasants. The human need to survive at all costs was clearly evident during those times – if their approach wasn’t working, they had better adapt quickly, or face the real threat of poverty, malnutrition, and death. It’s evident the process of testing and adapting to one’s circumstances shaped the way our species has evolved over time. However, not until the last two hundred years have such a large portion of the masses been able to truly exist as sedentary creatures. Pondering this realization recently, I began to wonder, “What if all ‘Western’ school curricula dictated taking a year off from classroom instruction, and forced students to live and survive as Roman gypsies?”

Yep, gypsies. You know, those annoying panhandlers trying to sell you plastic replicas of the Colosseum for 12 euro on every street corner in Rome. Having trouble discerning how I came up with such a thought? It’s okay, bear with me. Let’s pause for a moment, and consider – these gypsies survive day after day selling toys to tourists for a living. Mundane, maybe, but it’s not exactly easy work. And it’s not as if their value proposition is unique – there are hundreds of them, all selling essentially the same garbage. Before I describe the benefits of learning the ways of the gypsy, it’s worth noting these people are entrepreneurs (however rudimentary) at their core. They base their livelihood on directly selling a good or service to others, functioning as your their own boss, in a crowded marketplace – not an easy experience. While gypsies likely land in this lifestyle out of necessity, we could all learn a tremendous amount if forced into the kind of entrepreneurial world they experience daily.

So, how can living like a gypsy enrich the development of Western students? What could we possibly learn from gypsies? Well, these folks are master testers. If they can’t find a way to sell their toys, they can’t eat. It’s that simple. While some are lazier than others (and they probably pool their resources together to increase their chances of survival), the best individual sellers are those that get inside the heads of their customers. And they do this through testing.

A few weeks ago, I sat on the Spanish Steps in Rome, transfixed while watching a young gypsy throw a squishy red ball onto a wooden place mat on the ground. The ball, in the shape of an animal’s head, squished into the wood and reformed into it’s original shape within a few seconds. The gypsy picked up the ball, and repeated the process. Toss, squish, reform, repeat. This in itself was nothing special. There were a half dozen or so “competitors” doing the same thing within a two block radius of this guy. It was his approach that intrigued me. Unlike many of the other gypsies I saw that day, he was constantly tinkering with his approach.

After watching him simply stand there tossing the ball downward for about 10 minutes (during which time he sold exactly zero balls), he began to greet tourists with different phrases as they walked by. Specifically, he started targeting parents with little kids. Smart move, I thought. After testing that approach for a while, he then moved a few steps north of his original location, to greet tourists from a different angle as they approached him. No single method he employed during this time was vastly more successful than any other, but watching this process sent my mind racing.

This guy is cold calling. He’s a door to door salesman. A pitchman. A retailer. A sole proprietor. A public speaker. Nothing will stop him from succeeding at his trade, because he has to. His environment constrains him, forcing him to test and adapt. Whether it takes him three weeks or six months, he will test his way into the most effective approach to selling those annoying red squishy balls. And you know what? If those don’t ever sell, he’ll find something else that does!

How many young Americans are ever put in a position where they have to sell something with true purpose? Seriously, you’re going to count that summer folding jeans at the GAP? That’s not what I’m talking about. The first thing most high-school students learn to sell is themselves – on their resume, in job interviews, to fraternity presidents, etc. Many never approach the environment faced by an entrepreneur, let alone one that will help them build skills necessary for future success.

But that’s okay, this can be fixed. The concept of “test and adapt” can be applied in everyday life. Start small, then gradually build up, until your tolerance for what was once considered “risky” is greater, and you expose yourself to more opportunities.

Here are three tangible ways one can apply the test and adapt philosophy today:

1) Pick up a passionate side hobby, and work to become better at it
2) Sell something (over and over again)
3) Learn something new (take that class you always wanted to take in college)

Testing isn’t just for college students and online marketers. The concept of test and adapt can apply to anyone looking to improve in something (even, apparently, gypsies selling trinkets). Approaching progress as a series of tests removes the fear of failure, and helps us view self-improvement in a whole new light.


Written by bryan

May 5th, 2011 at 1:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Roman Gypsies, Entrepreneurs, and The Key to Self-Improvement'

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  1. Hi…Great post!!!It can help a lot of people because of this post…

    Cher Shives

    11 Jul 11 at 01:46

  2. Self improvement can be a great part in terms of success..Thanks for the motivation..


    19 Jul 11 at 09:54

  3. Thank you Cher. What did you find most helpful?

    Thomas – thanks for the comment! What are you motivated to achieve?


    19 Jul 11 at 15:18

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