Entrepreneurship vs. Education Is A Trap

Today I’m shocked to find myself not agreeing with a TED talk titled Let’s Raise Kids to Be Entrepreneurs. With a title like that, what’s to disagree with? I’m embedding the talk here too, because I’ve done that on several others, and I’m not going to stop when I disagree. Still, it’s a damn movement now: why get an education when you can just be an entrepreneur instead? I hear it all over the place and it bugs the hell out of me. People acting like these are opposites. I object.

Let me refer you to the TED.com description of Cameron Herold’s talk:

Bored in school, failing classes, at odds with peers: This child might be an entrepreneur, says Cameron Herold. At TEDxEdmonton, he makes the case for parenting and education that helps would-be entrepreneurs flourish — as kids and as adults.

It’s a trap. You’d like to cheer for entrepreneurship as just doing things, as freedom from artificial restrictions like licenses and degrees, getting an idea and building a company. I’m all for that. That’s what it’s been for me in my life. But the very dangerous trap is to use entrepreneurship as an excuse for taking the easy way out of something that would be very much worth working for. Why study? Why work at school? Just be an entrepreneur instead. But first, the TED talk, and then I’ll continue my complaining about it:

It’s a trap for two reasons: first, because it’s a cop-out, offering a rationalization for not educating people who struggle. Second, because it relegates education to job training. In both cases it reminds me of tracking people away from school the way they used to do in the 1950s and 1960s, directing the so-called “dumb kids” towards vocational school and job training instead of real school.

So about that first reason, the cop-out factor: In actual life you can’t always walk downhill. Sometimes you have to go uphill. If you don’t, you miss a lot. Baby turtles will walk only downhill after they break out of their shells and that way they either find water or die. Humans need to walk uphill sometimes too. Life takes work. You have to be able to bear down during the crunch times. And knowing how to read, write, add, and subtract is the actual daily stuff of the entrepreneur as much as it is anybody else. Take a look at the Kaufman Foundation’s Education and Tech Entrepreneurship, and you’ll see that in the cream of the entrepreneurship crop, successful founders are likely to be well educated.

And about the second: school, education, ought not to be evaluated according to real or imagined future income. For every self-made genius drop-out like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs there are a few million people stymied as adults for not having stuck with their education, not having done the uphill portions of it, when they were kids. Education is something some people have to forgo because of hard circumstances – struggling families, poverty, true disability – and that is a damned shame. Let’s solve that problem. And let’s not confuse their misfortune with the general rule that entrepreneurs armed with education are more likely to succeed than those who aren’t. And educated humans are better off in their whole lives for having had the luxury of learning to read, write, calculate, evaluate, analyze, and enjoy.

13 thoughts on “Entrepreneurship vs. Education Is A Trap

  1. Dropping out and pursuing entrepreneurship only works out for a few, and I agree that most kids should stay in school and have a fall-back position.

    Nevertheless, I’ll take Mark Cuban’s stance that kids should innovate while in college to get a feel of how they run a business, what kind of model they’d be successful with, etc. He’s an alumnus of my school and used as an example of the “Kelley advantage.” The funny thing is that a) the Bloomington police shut his pub down and b) he lived in poverty in Texas after graduating and couldn’t find a job. Failure is necessary for success.

    1. Thanks Mneiae, nice addition. I heard a similar Mark Cuban story from Jim Wolfe at George Mason University last year, and retold it here on this blog. Re your failure comment, at the Princeton Entrepreneurship Network business plan contest last month one of the students asked a venture capitalist whether past failures would reduce a person’s chances to get outside investment. The answer was no, not at all, as long as it seemed that there was learning … and there usually is. We all know that school is hardly the only place people learn things.

  2. Hi Tim,

    I agree with some of your points, but also still agree with Cameron with others. My opinion is that Cameron is looking at it through his own experience with school and business – and it does relate to many people out there. Our elementary and high school education system in this country is rated where? We have standardized testing that does absolutely nothing to show what a person really knows – it only shows what they can remember for a very short time. It also doesn’t come close to stacking up against the rest of the developed world: http://abcnews.go.com/2020/Stossel/story?id=1500338
    The other point he is making is our schools lack options for the wide variety of personalities and individual learning curves that attend class. College is a whole other story where cost becomes a giant factor – and it makes it very difficult for a top student of a horribly ranked high school to make it into any of those schools the majority of Tech Entrepreneurs are from (and I don’t think Cameron was speaking of Tech Entrepreneurs…he was speaking of all entrepreneurs).
    Let’s face it, you don’t have to be as successful as Bill Gates to be an entrepreneur – anyone who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise is an entrepreneur and many of them do have specific personality traits. Different people respond to different stimuli – so shouldn’t there be different ways to teach the same subject? For example – I used to flunk true/false and multiple choice tests all the time; however, if I was tested on the same subject matter through a written essay or oral essay I would receive “A’s” all the time.
    A follow up to this article should be very interesting: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704198004575310692784758722.html?mod=wsj_share_twitter
    Standard education isn’t necessarily the best for everyone, for many reasons beyond money. Many entrepreneurs opt to take the classes they need…and only those, and surround themselves with other people that can help – a bakery doesn’t need a Stanford MBA to make money.
    If you want to start a drug manufacturing company, an auto plant, etc., etc., then yes – an education from a top school will surely help you get there.
    Don’t get me wrong – I find education extremely important. I also find the need to improve the way we educate in this country just as important – or even more important. There has to be a better way to make sure everyone wants to be educated and continues their education throughout life. Let’s face it…there are plenty of schools in this country where the kids would be better off teaching themselves…what’s the point of graduating if you can’t read?
    I enjoy your tweets and your posts Tim, thank you and I look forward to reading more!

    1. Thanks for the comment Zach, and I like where you’re going with this. Where Cameron is saying our mass-production education isn’t working very well, and your additional details, I think we can all agree. What kills me is that for our generation, baby boomers, this country had relatively strong public education, and then we became accomplices in letting it fall into mediocrity. That’s a real point.

      Absolutely true, by the way, that a bakery doesn’t need a Stanford MBA to make money. Exactly as you suggest. But making money isn’t the measure of education. Funny you should mention that example, because the former head baker of our best local bakery now works with us at Palo Alto Software writing web stuff. And he wouldn’t have had that option if he hadn’t had the education he has. Getting up at 3 in the morning got old. Thank goodness he didn’t quite school to start baking.

      And thanks for a series of interesting comments on this blog. Tim

  3. I think he makes some good points about how the current educational system is structured. It is mostly geared towards preparing people to take a job as a wage earner. This stifles much of the creativity that would be so beneficial to an entrepreneur. Seth Godin makes this point effectively in his book, Linchpin.

    I agree with you that education is valuable and well worth the effort. His comments “entrepreneurs aren’t students”, and “entrepreneurs don’t do accounting, they hire accountants”, are nonsense. An entrepreneur who isn’t constantly learning will soon be left in the wake of his or her competition. Understanding accounting and finance is essential to running a good business.

    This video highlights a trend of thought that entrepreneurs shouldn’t be formally educated. I read comments all the time by people who say they would never hire someone with an MBA. These comments seem to come from disdain for education as a whole rather than a criticism that students aren’t taught the right skills. The value of education has been proven over millennia. The question that people should be asking is if the educational system provides its students with the right skills for today’s society.

  4. As one who has dedicated my educational and professional life to helping kids stay in school AND be successful in life, I have some strong opinions on this blog entry.

    There are several assumptions made in the blog and the presentation of which I agree. The public school system is exactly that-a ‘system’- one from which most emerge mediocre at best and disadvantaged at worst. Higher education is a victim of it’s own success. Certain higher ed. institutions have become nothing more than high priced ponzi schemes wherein students parrot the views of their professors only to emerge unable to actually DO anything (let alone think for themselves).

    Teaching kids how to be entrepreneurial is an incredibly powerful and intriguing idea. If you are middle to upper class, have a relatively secure income and a business base from which to draw on for investment/partnership on the other side of all this entrepreneurial goodness. Sadly that is not the case in most communities. The fact is, to be successful AT ANYTHING one has to be able to read, write, compute mathematically and communicate effectively.

    Education of some kind (public/private/charter/cyber) is critical to these fundamental skills. Education and entrepreneurial pursuits go hand in hand. They don’t replace one another.

  5. Well constructed Tim,

    I’m not a frequent commenter, but I was hooked by your headline. You are obviously a well educated entrepreneur and have been exposed to many who’ve taken the same path – I think Cameron’s message is the other side of the coin. Entrepreneurs are very much students or maybe said differently, “learners” – perhaps it’s just the word that is distasteful to Cameron? It likely carries the same disenchantment as the institution of education does for many. He is obviously very learned, as he sites numerous examples of both his educational process and the process that he is instilling in his children – lifelong learning. I will consider and incorporate several of his ideas with my kids and friends.

    The call to action I heard was one of transformation and we can all agree the system of education needs change. He is calling for a broader system – one that considers other paths. Speaking of broad, the word entrepreneur has become a broad term, and leaves much wiggle room. It started as “one who undertakes or manages”… which of course involves risk – perhaps the entrepreneur is just one who is either forced or encouraged on the path less taken.

    To each his own: Money is a good metric for many on this path, but as the video at the conclusion shares, it’s about making a difference in the world, money is a tool to be used – control it, don’t let it control you.

    And to Mneiae, I would supplement that having a back-up plan can provide a place for mediocrity to hide. It’s well intentioned advice to be used with discernment – consider also Santa Anna’s response to his troops, when he burned the boats. It became very clear there was one direction and retreat was not an option.

    Thanks for challenging my assumptions Tim!

  6. One of the major things I learned how to do was finish something, even if I didn’t like doing it or it was hard. It serves me well in my own business.

  7. I respect where you are coming from and understand the point you are making Tim, but I do feel as though you have taken Cameron’s talk in a way that he didn’t intend.

    My impression from his talk was that kids are currently being thrown into the “you’re not good enough” bin because they don’t excel at the traditional schooling system. The current school systems are built to advantage those who are good at studying, not necessarily learning.

    The need for an education system that nurtures the individual skills of children, instead of nurturing their ability to recite information is becoming increasingly evident.

    Obviously the more basic skills are imperative for all children, writing, reading, communication and mathematical skills are all important. Beyond the basics however, children should have the opportunity to express and build upon their talents and interests.

    I get the feeling that this is where Cameron was headed with his talk. Children are being taught in an archaic system which only offers a small minority the chance to shine. For Cameron, his specialty happens to be entrepreneurship and it is something he has experience with. I think it is about giving your kids more options rather than allowing a cop-out attitude.

    In some ways the current schooling system is a cop-out because their ability to change is hindered by the powers in control of it. You will find many younger or innovative teachers pushing for the system to accept technology as a means of learning but the dusty people running the system only remember what it was like to learn the alphabet by hand writing it with ink and a feather pen.

    Finally I just wanted to say that I am all for educating people to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, IT specialists etc. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur nor do they want to own businesses. I think it is important that people do have other options should things go pear shaped. I just don’t believe we should be pushing the current culture of “if you aren’t good enough at studying for exams, the only other option you have is to be work at Burger King”.

    1. Jay, that’s fair enough; Cameron Herold doesn’t get onto the TED platform without having something interesting to say. Ted is an amazing resource. I agree with you on where he was headed, but that doesn’t mean I have to buy it outright. I don’t think “don’t worry you’re an entrepreneur” is a great solution to kids getting thrown into the “you’re not good enough” bin. And I don’t think the current state of affairs is all that great either. Thanks for a thoughtful comment.

  8. Great post and discussion Tim

    It is unfortunate that we often view education as something we do when young and then we are done. Education comes in many forms and venues – we should all strive to continually learn and become better educated. Education is a life long experience and it is stimulating to have classes that cross generational boundaries. My prediction is that those that realize what they do not know and seek means to educate themselves are far more successful than those that stick to the past.

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