Sunday, 26 April 2015

How to acquire an amazing level of self-confidence

Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468), to whom history credits with the invention of the printing press, was the quintessential self-reliant entrepreneur. He was trained as a goldsmith, plied his trade for decades in several German towns, and it was only in his forties that he identified the business opportunity that would transform his life. 

Taken for granted 

At the turn of the 15th century, reading material was expensive and the choice of titles severely limited. The price of a volume of three hundred pages would exceed one hundred times what it costs today. Less than one per cent of the population was able to read; as a result, only the clergy and aristocracy had access to written information.

Since ancient times, the cost of producing books had been proportional to the effort it took to copy them by hand. A monk labouring at a monastery would need two years to copy and illustrate a Bible by hand. In addition, pages of medieval books were made of parchment, that is, prepared animal skins, which also increased the overall cost of production.

Despite the high price of books, it was obvious that there was a growing market for them. The interesting question is why none of the thousands of people in Europe involved in the production of hand-written volumes had perceived the slowness of the process as a problem. Apparently, before Johannes Gutenberg, the established mode of operation was taken for granted.

For thousands of years, goldsmiths had been using gold to make delicate jewellery, as well as religious and ornamental figures. Gutenberg did not conceive the idea of casting figures with molten metal, but he was the first to realize the massive economies that could be made by casting movable types and using them for book production.

Overcoming failure

His initial experiments quickly revealed the difficulties of the enterprise. What alloy should he use to produce the types? How was he going to melt the thousands of individual letters that are needed to produce each page of a book? How could he increase ink density in order to produce clean prints?

It took Gutenberg many years to master the process. By the time he had overcome one obstacle, another one would appear. His venture led him to incur massive debts, which he could hardly reimburse. Finally, his attempts proved successful and a first run of books came out of his atelier.

In 1455, Gutenberg undertook to print the Bible. By then, he was already 57 years old and fully conscious of the immensity of the task that he had set up for himself. Unabated, he hired help to compose text with movable types, purchased materials, and began to print pages. Several dozen Gutenberg Bibles have survived the passage of time and can be admired today in museums around the world.

Gutenberg's ability to acknowledge individual problems enabled him to create a book production system that changed the course of History. He combined existing technologies into a creative solution to a problem that few people had perceived as acute. The printing press drove down book prices and spread literacy to a larger segment of the population.

Problems are opportunities

Are you also able to transform problems into opportunities? When a product or service seems overpriced, do you try to identify the reason? Do you make the effort to analyse disruptions? When you experience irritation, can you name the critical elements involved?

Johannes Gutenberg's career offers us a vivid example of an essential entrepreneurial trait: the ability to isolate difficulties and reduce them to manageable size. Once Gutenberg named a problem, he devised a solution, achieved stability in that area, and moved to the next challenge.

Individuals who try to accomplish too much at the same time frequently feel overwhelmed. Unless you achieve success in some area, you will grow dispirited and might even decide to quit your endeavours altogether. Instead, acquire the good habit of making a list of pressing difficulties.

Name your problems, assess their relative importance, and establish priorities. Deal only with the most critical issues until you have achieved a tolerable level of stability. Once you have improved a specific aspect, move to the next and build it from there. 

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Image by timheyer under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

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