I first heard of the "Learn - Earn - Return" phrase from Bert W. M. Twaalfhoven, an international entrepreneur and venture capitalist from The Netherlands, during one of the European Foundation for Entrepreneurship Research meetings more than a decade ago. It immediately sunk with me. Since then, I have been using it as a life philosophy statement and quote it in every opportunity to reflect the human life cycle in general, and of entrepreneurs in particular.
Bert, who is now 92 years old, has compiled his fascinating entrepreneurial experiences in a book where he shows the different aspects of being an entrepreneur. During his journey, he founded 65 companies in 14 countries, including 32 startups, 12 acquisitions, 25 joint ventures, 35 exits, and had 16 failures.
A much younger entrepreneur, Tristan Walker (36), described this concept in a pie chart as one of his “life lessons” by assuming a life expectancy of 84 years. He said:
- From birth until 28 years old, you are Learning. You are building up your knowledge, skills, and experience. You are building human capital. This includes school and other life experiences where we invest in ourselves.
- From 28 to 56 years old, you are Earning. You are converting your human capital to traditional capital – more experience and money.
- From 56 onwards, you are Returning. Once you have enough, it is your turn to give back.
These time intervals, including the assumption of the life expectancy, are not absolute. They will shift and they will be different for every entrepreneur since the focus and priorities will be different. Learning, for example, is a life long activity and it will not stop at 28 years old. The same is valid for the earning and for returning phases as well.
What is important is to split the life in 3 phases and make sure that you leave enough time (and resources) to maximize the return phase to invest in your family, local community and the world hopefully sooner than later.