This piece comes to us courtesy of Defining Ideas, the journal of the policy research Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
After Steve Jobs stepped down from his post as Apple's CEO, his innovative career was enthusiastically celebrated by the media and public alike. Starting with his founding of Apple Computer when he was in his early twenties, Jobs has left his mark on the personal computer, the laptop, the mobile phone, the tablet computer, recorded music, film animation, and several other communication technologies that have brought the people of the world closer together. Some commentators have gone so far as to describe Jobs as a historic figure, not just in business but also in the evolution of civilization.
Along with the celebration of Jobs' splendid string of achievements has come a flood of speculation about the secret of his success. Which ingredients of character, talent, skill, and/or knowledge accounted for the explosion of entrepreneurial genius that erupted from this young man over thirty years ago? As he took on his new ventures, how did Jobs manage to turn innovation after innovation into astonishingly profitable products that transform the way we work and play? We will never arrive at definitive answers to such questions in the particular case of Steve Jobs, because the mysteries of any one individual life can never be wholly explained. But to address the broader question of how entrepreneurs develop their abilities to succeed is more than just an exercise in idle speculation—it can be a call to action. If we wish to promote (rather than discourage) entrepreneurship among today’s young, we need to gain an understanding of the conditions that favor its development. In addition, we need to make sure that these conditions prevail in places where young people spend their time—most prominently, in our schools and colleges.
In the recent news stories about Jobs’ career, some of the speculation about the roots of entrepreneurial success has seemed off the mark. The New York Times’s front-page piece announcing Jobs' resignation quoted one of Jobs' biographers as saying, "The big thing about Steve Jobs is not his genius or his charisma but his extraordinary risk-taking and tenacity. Apple has been so innovative because Jobs takes major risks…" But any idiot can take risks; and the annals of business failure are full of foolish gambles that did not pay off (up to and including the banking debacles of 2008). The essential question is not whether people can take risks but rather how certain people are able to discern when a particular risk is worth taking. In fact—and this is rarely appreciated by those in the media who observe successful entrepreneurship from the outside—well-prepared entrepreneurs generally do not experience their investments in innovation to be much of a risk. The key is their preparation, not their desire to gamble.
So what is it that successful entrepreneurs are prepared to do? A study of 5,000 business innovators, described in the recent book The Innovator's DNA by Hal Gregersen, Jeff Dyer, and Clayton Christensen, identifies five mental habits that characterize how successful entrepreneurs operate: questioning, experimenting, observing, associating (that is, making connections among disparate ideas), and networking. It is clear that curiosity is at the heart of these mental habits—the desire to find out more about something that one finds interesting, to tinker with it, and to forge something new from ways that have grown stale. Curiosity is fueled by a passion to explore the world.
What did Jobs himself have to say about the genesis of his amazing career? He shed light on this question during his 2005 Stanford commencement address. As a faculty marshal that day, I had the good fortune to sit on the stage behind our speaker, where not only could I hear the best address I'd listened to in all my years of attending such events, but I also could catch a good view of our speaker's unique fashion sense: his commencement robe was loosely covering his t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. Jobs recounted the story of his brief college experience: at seventeen years old, he enrolled in college and then dropped out six months later. He recalled that "I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure that out." Yet he did not disappear entirely from the college scene. He stayed in town, sleeping on friends’ floors and dropping into some college classes that he found interesting. First and foremost among these was a calligraphy class.
"Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take normal classes," Jobs recalled, "I decided to take a calligraphy class...I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle…and I found it fascinating." At the time, he thought that his interest was just in fun, without "even a hope of any practical application in my life." But it turned out differently, with world-transforming consequences. "When we were designing the first Macintosh computer, [what I learned in that class] all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac." He added that, since Windows copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have the elegant typography that they all now share if Jobs had not dropped in on that college calligraphy class during his free time of intellectual soul-searching. "Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on."
Three points from Jobs' commencement address are noteworthy for an understanding of youth entrepreneurship and how it is fostered. First, consistent with evidence presented in studies such as The Innovator's DNA, a principal factor in entrepreneurial achievement is persistent curiosity. Second, many young entrepreneurs are unable to satisfy their curiosity in the context of today's schools and colleges, so they drop out. This has been the response of not just Steve Jobs, but of founders of Microsoft, Facebook, and a host of other contemporary business icons. Third, there is a vast store of useful knowledge available in our academic heritage that can prove invaluable for entrepreneurs who learn it. Jobs found useful ideas in calligraphy; others have found useful ideas in science, engineering, economics, history, art, music, psychology, ancient Egyptian studies, and the list goes on.
Putting these three points together leads to an inescapable conclusion about our country's educational priorities today: They are poorly suited for cultivating the entrepreneurial genius that lies nascent in many young people today. At the K-12 level, amid the frantic pressures to raise student test scores on basic (and usually remedial) skills, stimulating curiosity is barely on the classroom radar screen these days. Many of the subjects that could evoke interest among all of the students who find memorizing basic skills dreary—subjects such as art, music, theater, or emerging media technology—have been squeezed out of the curriculum by budget reallocations intended to make room for yet more instruction in remedial skills. The intention has been to equip students with abilities that can make them "employable."
But the unrecognized irony is that the very subjects that have been marginalized are those that are foundational for promising opportunities in today's economy, including careers in thriving fields such as entertainment, communications, design, advertising, and online education. The other unfathomable irony is that some of the people who are pushing hard for this rigid narrowing of our schools' curricula are wealthy foundation donors who left school themselves in order to pursue entrepreneurial success. It was not through learning to score high on basic skills tests that these business titans came to excel in the world of free enterprise. Rather, it was through their vision, passion, and imagination. Still, their influence has been to drive the vision, passion, and imagination out of today's classrooms, and to remove the variety of subjects that could capture the curiosity of the wide spectrum of students.
At the college level, the problem lies not so much in the lack of interesting classes—most American colleges offer students a rich menu of courses across the arts and sciences—but in the difficulties that many students have in finding their own uses for what their colleges offer. For students unable to connect with a program of study that moves them towards a meaningful goal they can embrace, this problem is aggravated by the increasing specialization of course material once the general education requirements, if they exist, have been completed. Failing to find a purpose in what they study, such students are left with only two choices: to grind it out for the sake of the degree, or to drop out to look for something more fulfilling.
Such educational settings are inhospitable environments for aspiring entrepreneurs. They seem designed to prevent the emergence of a future Steve Jobs. At best, our educational establishments force aspiring young entrepreneurs to leave school quickly and pursue their dreams elsewhere. Some students will do just that, leaving school early, as Jobs and many of his contemporaries did, sometimes—but not always—with great results. In this educational model, the best service that a school or college could provide a young entrepreneur is to get out of the way of the exit.
It does not need to be this way; nor is this the best use of our educational resources. The waste of human capital in this dispirited model is clearly evident. For every Steve Jobs who finds his own way after leaving school or college, there are dozens of young people who drift through their early adult years aimlessly, vainly searching for a vocation to which they can fully dedicate themselves. In my recent book The Path to Purpose, I cite research that found that about 20 percent of today’s young have a well-defined direction for their lives. The others were looking around, experimenting, trying to find a realistic goal that suited their talents and interests. More than a few were perplexed about what to do and often discouraged about their prospects for a useful and satisfying career.
Our schools can play an essential role in helping students who have not yet discovered their life purposes to determine their best talents and interests. Schools can inform students about the range of options available to them, they can teach invigorating ideas that will motivate students to learn, and they can encourage students to acquire the kinds of knowledge that will enable students to accomplish what they believe in—or, to quote from Jobs' commencement address, "to do what you believe is great work...to love what you do." For the less-privileged students who have never heard the term "entrepreneurship," and who know little about its prospects, this route could kindle their passions and paths to success. But many young people will not be able to discover this without guidance from adults who have a broader understanding of how the world works. Isn't guidance of this kind what our schools should be doing?
William Damon is a professor of education at Stanford University, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. For the past twenty-five years, Damon has written on character development at all stages of life. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Education and a fellow of the American Educational Research Association. Damon is a Co-Investigator, with Richard Lerner, on a multi-year study of youth entrepreneurship supported by the John Templeton Foundation.