Rejecting the Entrepreneurial Education

Entrepreneurship can’t be taught. You can hone business skills and cultivate entrepreneurial instincts, but at the end of the day, you either have the entrepreneurial spark or you don’t.

One of the most inspirational professors I had in college taught a course in Entrepreneurship. One day, in the middle of writing a sentence on the chalkboard, he paused and made a startling pronouncement:

“I’m the expert in this room. But you already know that there are no experts in entrepreneurship — if you’re serious about this life, you should know that you’ll spend half of it defying the experts. So what are you doing here? Why do you care what I say at all?”

The room fell silent; some of us were startled, others pleased, and at least one of us was trying to work through the paradox of listening to someone who said not to listen. But the professor continued:

“I know you aren’t serious about being entrepreneurs. If you were, you wouldn’t be here — you would’ve taken your tuition and turned it into the next big thing. You’re entrepreneurial enthusiasts. You’re sitting on the sidelines.”

It’s been a few years, so I’m not sure how much of my own thinking has seeped into my recollection of that day. But I know for sure that my good professor had, to my vindication, tapped into a feeling I’d held for a very long time. Entrepreneurship isn’t a science, it isn’t an art, and it most certainly isn’t a job — it’s a way of life, and ways of life cannot be taught through books and lectures. Ways of life can only be lived.

I came to this conclusion even before I signed up to be an Entrepreneurship major, partway through my sophomore year of college. At that point, I was already freelancing as a web developer, and the little I’d seen of the Entrepreneurship courseload made me think that it would fit nicely around my very busy schedule. If I were lucky, I might pick up some useful business skills along the way, and hopefully meet some fellow innovation-minded people.

The Entrepreneurship department was not what I expected. I found myself to be an iconoclast, even in an iconoclastic major, and I spent much of my time trying to avoid projects that were nothing more than busywork. The people I met were great, but few were as innovation-minded as I’d hoped — many had joined the major because they hoped to take over the family business, or run a franchise, or otherwise take the road more traveled. I have nothing against any of those goals, or the people pursuing them, but I was hoping to meet more Richard Bransons and Elon Musks.

Don’t get me wrong, there were aspects of the major that I loved. The professors were wonderful, as were my classmates. Most of the classes, though unexciting, have proven useful. Had it not been for Intro to Marketing I would never have discovered one of my enduring passions. Most of all, the major lit a fire under me — a desire to prove myself outside the confines of an often parochial major.

That’s the thing with majors that focus on innovation — there’s no way to avoid being behind-the-times. If all your professors experienced the era of big-business, they can only ever prepare you for more of the same. But I wasn’t interested in starting the next US Steel, I wanted to start the next Twitter or Tumblr, and there’s no class in coming up with the Next Big Thing.

Education comes in two varieties — vocational and classical. Vocational education is a means to an end; classical education is an end unto itself. These days, almost all education seems to be vocational — most college students are there because it fits in with their career goals. They’re in college because it’s “part of the plan,” just another step in a perversely pigeon-holed life. Tell me if this sounds familiar: “I need to get good grades so I can get into a good college so I can get a degree and get a good job so I can retire early and do nothing until I die.”

I wish I were the only one who’s noticed this pattern; then I could shrug it off as a delusion. But, in his brilliant article “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” former Yale professor William Deresiewicz writes:

When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. Although the notion of breadth is implicit in the very idea of a liberal arts education, the admissions process increasingly selects for kids who have already begun to think of themselves in specialized terms—the junior journalist, the budding astronomer, the language prodigy. We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.

Even those still inside academia have noticed. I first became aware of Deresiewicz’s article after Rob Reich, a professor at Stanford, quoted it in an article on his Stanford-sanctioned blog.

If you’re interested in pursuing the entrepreneurial life, here’s my advice to you: avoid an entrepreneurial education. Instead, become a student of humanity. Read the classics. Learn to communicate well with all kinds of people. Pick something about which you know nothing and learn everything you can about it, then pick something else and do it again. Become a sponge to the world around you, absorbing its best and rejecting its worst. Get educated for education’s sake, not to become a better entrepreneur but to become a better human.

And then, once you’ve started down that path, pick a practical business skill and learn that. Accounting, finance, marketing, management — any of those will do. A solid business school will serve you better than a vague course in “entrepreneurial thought,” which you’ve already gained through your own experiences and your grounding in classical thought.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The giants aren’t in the classroom teaching; the giants are out there doing and making. You see them in the news. You use their creations. You live in the world they have built. There are many ways to get to know them, none of which involve treating entrepreneurship as a vocation. Entrepreneurship isn’t a science, it isn’t an art, and it most certainly isn’t a job — it’s a way of life, and ways of life cannot be taught through books and lectures. Ways of life can only be lived.

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