Entrepreneurship is cool these days. It’s study is booming in universities. Pardon me if I look askance at the phenomenon.
Teaching entrepreneurship was considered in the WSJ on March 19, 2012 (P. 4, sec. R) in dueling articles titled “Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?” It juxtaposes the thoughts of Dr. Noam Wasserman, Harvard Business School, and Victor Hwang, Silicone Valley venture capitalist. To oversimplify, Wasserman believes you can teach entrepreneurs to use studied evidence to avoid the shoals of common entrepreneurial failure by teaching informed technical processes and preempting historic start-up mistakes. He states, “We can teach founders to use [data] to avoid common hazards.” His belief is that an entrepreneur can be taught much like an accountant, an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer.
Victor Hwang, on the other hand, feels entrepreneurship can’t be taught. Mostly because it is simply messy. It requires a lived life and a broad personal experience to deal with wide-ranging problems like the daily unexpected and unprecedented, or the unquantifiable. He also states, “Leading a start-up also demands a deep understanding of people that can only come from real world experience.”
For me, Mr. Hwang clearly wins the argument over the teachability of entrepreneurship, despite the hordes of students currently piling into entrepreneurial courses. (For more on this, see my blog of Oct. 17, 2011-“MBAs, Whaling, and Entrepreneurship.”) I know very few of my entrepreneurial brothers and sisters that would not agree with Mr. Hwang. But I also believe both he and Dr. Wasserman are arguing penultimates of the entrepreneurial experience.
So how can one prepare for entrepreneurship if it can’t be formally taught?
I would say that the entrepreneurial quest is at heart a spiritual quest, even among entrepreneurial atheists. You can and should study everything in that quest: from physics, to poetry, to philosophy, to history, to economics, to biology. Study anything and everything. Except entrepreneurship.
There is a spirit-sucking anomie afoot in the world that bespeaks meaninglessness. The popularity of the idea of entrepreneurship comes from a deep and universal longing to impart real personal meaning to existence. A self-generated business is a way to craft your own meaning, your own truth, your own freedom, and your own rapture of being alive. It is, perhaps, a low-level search for God in a confusing world that God ofttimes seems to have left.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book “Good Business” talks of the importance of “flow (centeredness) to a creative businessman. He states, “At its most fulfilling a career in business involves a series of steps in which one takes on ever greater responsibility, making it possible to experience increasing flow for many years….It is not too far-fetched to suggest that the growth of businesses is in large part the result of their leaders’ need to grow as persons.” (2003, Viking Peguin, p. 64)
When asked what advice she would give to a young person planning a business, British entrepreneur and founder of The Body Shop, Anita Roddick, says: “Listen, don’t even talk about business–don’t be controlled by language. Bury it. Talk about a livelihood that you can create for yourself, an honorable livelihood that gives you freedom.”
How do you teach that at Harvard? Thank you, Anita.