Entrepreneurship has many different definitions and variations. I am often asked by students, colleagues, and various stakeholders of the organizations of which I am a part some version of the following question: “Have you ever started a business?” I am in the midst of starting one right now (internrocket, which is aimed at blowing up the internship and hiring process by focusing on micro-project experiences). So according to that traditional perspective of entrepreneurship, I am currently an entrepreneur. I’ve tried a few in the past and failed miserably before much progress happened. I’ve consulted for many folks who have started both successful and unsuccessful ones. But the sorts of experiences I’ve had, I would argue, are equally (if not more so) valuable to my goal of engaging students in entrepreneurial thinking and doing.
The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship can be driven by necessity or by opportunity. I grew up in a fortunate situation where I never had to think about necessity. I always engaged in opportunity-driven entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship can also be legal or illegal. In my younger, more immature days, I engaged in illegal entrepreneurship. In order to get the cocaine I needed, I started dealing for some heavy hitters out of Detroit. I would put that experience against that of any entrepreneur any day. I had to manage product. I had to manage employees. I had to manage financials. I had to manage stakeholders. I had to monitor competition. Anything a “real” business does, I had to do. But I had to do it with the highest of stakes. Not that I wouldn’t have food on my table, or I wouldn’t have enough money to pay rent. I would have a couple dudes called Slim (he wasn’t slim by the way) and Frosty visit me from Detroit. I had to cheat and steal and manipulate and operate well over that line between moral and immoral. Every day I had to make very real, very dangerous (physically and emotionally) choices. I would say there is nothing more entrepreneurial that this sort of experience. It certainly shaped my current world view of what is possible and of how to get it.
The Bright Side of Entrepreneurship
As I matured and realized I needed to clean my life up, I turned to education. As an educator, I am extremely entrepreneurial. I look for opportunities to disrupt the broken ways of teaching that we too strongly hold onto. I look for the failures of those who’ve come before me, and I give myself every chance to try some new method or technique, and to fail. I hustle my ass off – weaving students, faculty, alumni, colleagues, associations, entrepreneurs, investors from around the world together around fantastic experiences.
Am I an entrepreneur? I honestly don’t know what that means (Babson College is doing some cool projects around defining that word). But my answer is categorically YES! So when I get asked that question about whether I’ve started a business, I often reply by letting people know that I’ve been entrepreneurial from an early age. As my path through life changes, the focus of my entrepreneurial spirit changes. But that spirit has always been in me. Is it in you? How does it manifest itself? Find the opportunity. Learn to fail. And hustle. The results will be extraordinary!
These three words define me and my path through life. I grew up comfortable – not rich by any means (my father was a math professor after all and even though he was ridiculously intelligent and a workaholic, he was a math professor in the 1970s and 1980s of my youth). My parents afforded me unbelievable opportunities. Private school and boarding school. Toys and books and sports – all the things important to a young boy. Each opportunity came my way, and more often than not, I failed at realizing each one. Not that I ever worked hard at them. You see, I had an older sister, and she set a bar I felt I couldn’t reach. I know, typical story, right? So my parents thrust all these opportunities my way – all of them wonderful and some of them potentially life-changing. But I failed, over and over again, by choice.
I failed at realizing the opportunities my parents so kindly placed before me. Because I was convinced I couldn’t meet the bar my older sister set. I accepted these failures, but didn’t learn to learn from them until I was much older. See, failure, it turns out, is the most powerful learning force there is. Fail at something, feel like shit, ashamed, embarrassed, guilty, angry, humiliated . . . whatever the feeling it’s not pleasant. Stand up and choose to learn from that and I promise it’s a powerful learning experience. I kept failing and not learning. Until I figured out that there are good choices and there are bad choices. My sister would always outdo me when it came to good choices. She wasn’t a goody-two-shoes. I always thought of those types as ones who really tried at being good, they had to work at it, and it was awkward. My sister didn’t try, it was just natural. It was her spirit. I couldn’t compete with that. I quickly found bad choices, and realized I could be really good at those. I didn’t fail any more! Now I was a success. And to be a success at the bad choices, I had to hustle.
We all hustle. It’s that drive that pushes us toward a goal. It’s that fire that wakes us up, that gets us through the day, that keeps us up at night. Some of us hustle for good, some of us hustle for bad, some of us hustle for ourselves, some of us hustle for others. But make no mistake – we all hustle. It’s a beautiful thing!
I saw opportunity all around me – kids getting high and paying lots of money to do it. I had failed many times at trying to be “good”. So I turned my hustle to dealing drugs. I was goodat this hustle. For many years. Learned to read people, learned to negotiate, learned to sell, learned about numbers and cash flow and profit and loss. Learned about customer relationships and supplier relationships. Learned about . . . way a second, sounds real similar to the kinds of things my business school courses claimed to have taught me. You know what? I don’t remember shit from those courses. But I remember all kinds of lessons I learned from the hustle. So if we could make education a system where students hustle to realize opportunities and learn from failure, students would have a better learning experience. That’s my hypothesis, and I’m sticking to it. So what are these three elements about? Why are they so important?
Opportunities bombard us every day, through every one of our senses. They seriously do – while I at times enjoy this sensory overload, most days it drives me bananas. Any time we hear someone bitching about something BOOM! that’s an opportunity. Any time we see someone struggle with something – physically, mentally, emotionally – BOOM! that’s an opportunity. Anytime you see or hear giddiness, BOOM! that’s an opportunity. And then there are those times in the shower, in your car and other private moments we don’t need to discuss when those seemingly stupid ideas flood the dull moments. Opportunities never stop – we just have to be alert to them. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, just someone who is in tune with their surroundings, and with them self. Just pay attention to what the fuck is going on around you. Stop trying to create opportunities and look and listen – there are more than enough already there waiting to be realized, there’s no need to undertake the impossible task of creating one.
So the opportunities are out there, so what? So pick one that’s interesting and act on it. Take a class, talk to a group of interesting people, learn a craft, try a new food, travel to a new location, reverse-engineer a product. The list goes on – but only if you care enough to hold down the off button and be alert.
If someone wants to try and learn something, or wants to try their hand at entrepreneurship – if these are the opportunities that they seize, hate to say it but they’re likely going to fail. So what? We’ve been failing all our life – since we were trying to figure out how to roll over unsuccessfully. Seriously – think about it. You failed in school. You failed in sports. You failed socially. Failure is as much a part of life as are opportunities. They co exist and keep us on our toes. And give us a chance to hone the most valuable skill possible: hustling.
Some people cringe at the word. It kind of makes me glow. I love to hustle. I love to figure out how to make something happen. I love to work under pressure. It’s a beautiful thing! Because it’s a universal language of getting shit done. No matter where you are, no matter who you’re talking to, no matter how different you are, everyone understands hustling. Because in order to avoid failure, we hustle. In order to take advantage of opportunities, we hustle. It’s a glorious cycle of sorts I guess. It’s the action that connects opportunity and failure in an enduring circle. Learn from one, then experience the other.
Education: Back To Why We’re Here
So what does this have to do with education? Education is at a crossroads, on a precipice, whatever one wants to call it, it’s a critical juncture. We can proceed with the standard Baby Boomer model delivering education. Or we can implement a more Millenial standard of hustling. There are so many opportunities now being created in the educational technology space. Technology enables educators to share resources and experiences in real-time. The opportunities are endless to disrupt this tired, broken model of education. Failure is inevitable, because we’re dealing with extraordinarily bureaucratic support. Because it’s a new frontier. Because while the possibilities are endless, it doesn’t mean all of them are good ones. But we need to start trying them out. We need to start hustling. No more talking (you hear me you stodgy old academics?) Get off your asses, forget about your conservative ways of approaching education, and start disrupting. Be entrepreneurial. Hustle!
Our education system is broken. Entrepreneurship represents the best option, as a discipline and as a way of thinking, to fix it. We need to look for and realize opportunities. We need to hustle. We need to fail and learn from it.
Here I share my thoughts on how to inject entrepreneurship into the education system.
Here I share my reflections on trying to inject entrepreneurship into the education system.
Here are my attempts to live at the intersection of education and entrepreneurship. Transparent. Student-focused. Disruptive. Honest.