“What did you learn at school today?” It’s a basic enough question, and one we’ve all probably asked and answered many times in our lives. But what answers are we hoping for? A new vocabulary word? An interesting historical fact? How to solve a polynomial? These are all valuable bits of knowledge, but as educators, we must make it our mission to ensure that they are conveyed within the larger context of empowering our students with a set of bigger-picture skills and competencies. We must enable them to forge their own path and innovate in the world that awaits them outside the classroom. This is a philosophy I’ve always believed in, but it didn’t truly hit home for me until I stepped away from education and became an entrepreneur.
I began my career as a high school history teacher, and after working as a teacher and administrator for several years, I partnered with my father to start a food and beverage company called Grins Enterprises. Our flagship product was a “better-for-you” beverage, a healthier alternative to sugary sports drinks. My title was Director of Operations, and anyone who has worked in a startup or small business knows what that really means: You name it, I did it.
From production to sales, shipping to social media, I was working in a lot of areas in which I had zero experience. I found myself learning and developing new skills at a rapid pace. As an educator, I found this “sink or swim” method of learning by doing to be powerful and perplexing. There was no textbook, no checklist and no safety net. Additionally, we were entering an industry in which we had almost no experience or expertise. Ultimately, however, that lack of industry knowledge fueled our success. We abandoned traditional go-to-market strategies, and discovered opportunities that our competitors had neglected or simply did not understand. Our greatest advantage was being able to see the landscape with fresh eyes.
Now, back in the school setting, I believe we have a huge opportunity--and a duty--to introduce entrepreneurship and innovative thinking during the formative years. Studying and practicing entrepreneurship in school allows students to develop an innovative mindset at a time when their ability to see opportunity is still instinctive and the world is still fresh and new. Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel says in his book Zero to One, “Today’s ‘best practices’ lead to dead ends; the best paths are new and untried.” But those new and untried paths will remain hidden unless we teach our students to find opportunity in the problems they will encounter.
Turning opportunity into results requires more than a mindset. Our next step as educators is to instill a skill set for tackling real-world problems and projects. While there are hard skills that can help increase the likelihood of success, the most important skills to develop are the so-called soft skills (i.e. critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, storytelling, empathy). These are the skills needed to bring ideas from inception to ready-to-launch.
Maybe the most important “soft skill” that entrepreneurship can teach students is how to fail. Traditionally schools have been designed to force students to avoid failure at all costs. However, in Creativity Inc., Pixar president Edwin Catmull points out that failure, “is a necessary consequence of doing something new.” Allowing students the opportunity to fail will not only embolden them to try new things, but also convey lessons of persistence and perseverance in the face of adversity.
It’s these three aspects (identifying opportunity, developing ideas, and learning to take the leap and persevere) that if embraced can be the pillars of an entrepreneurship program that not only prepares students for the ever-changing landscape of business and enterprise, but also ensures they will be able to handle the uncertainty that awaits them in adulthood. Hopefully, they will also result in an opportunity to provide an unexpected answer to the question, “What did you learn at school today?”