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September 16, 2011

Why do entrepreneurs drop out of school?

A list of top entrepreneurs will reveal that many do not stay in university for very long. What is it that makes them less likely to follow the usual path?
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:
  1. questioning, 
  2. experimenting, 
  3. observing, 
  4. associating (that is, making connections among disparate ideas), and 
  5. 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.
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.
This is the part I like in particular as Jobs dos the terrible act of dropping out but then gets to experiment with learning because he is just curious. I often wondered what Bill Gates thought of Steve Jobs' speech when he talks about Microsoft's copying ways.
"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 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."
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