When Steve Jobs died, the media and the public celebrated his innovative career as Apple’s CEO and wondered about the secret of his success. Here was a figure who had co-founded Apple in his early twenties, and then left his mark on the personal computer, the laptop, the mobile phone, the tablet computer, recorded music, film animation, and other communication technologies that have brought the people of the world closer together. Some commentators even called Jobs a historic figure, not just in business but also in the evolution of civilization. How did he do it?
More specifically, which ingredients of character, talent, skill, and knowledge accounted for the explosion of entrepreneurial genius that erupted from this young man more than thirty years ago? We will never get definitive answers in the particular case of Steve Jobs, because the mysteries of any life can never be wholly explained. But to address the broader question of how entrepreneurs develop their abilities is more than just 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 understand the conditions that favor its development. We also need to make sure that these conditions prevail in places where young people spend their time—most prominently our schools and colleges.
Some of the musings about Jobs’s career seemed off the mark. When he resigned as Apple’s CEO a few months before he died of cancer, the New York Times quoted one of his 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. 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 can 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.
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER
So what are successful entrepreneurs prepared to do? A study of five thousand 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 I could not only hear the best address I had listened to in all my years of attending such events but also catch a good view of our speaker’s fashion sense: his commencement robe was loosely covering his T-shirt, shorts, and sandals. Jobs recounted the story of his brief college experience: he enrolled in Reed College at seventeen, 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 college classes that he found interesting. 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 sans-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. “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.” Because Windows computers copied the Mac, he added, it’s likely that no personal computer would have the elegant typography that they all now share if he had not dropped in on that 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.”
LETTING NO FLOWERS BLOOM
Three of his points help us understand youth entrepreneurship and how it is fostered. First, consistent with evidence presented in studies such as The Innovator’s DNA, persistent curiosity is vital to entrepreneurial achievement. Second, many young entrepreneurs are unable to satisfy their curiosity in today’s schools and colleges, so they drop out. Steve Jobs was not the only one; founders of Microsoft and Facebook and a host of other contemporary business icons have taken this step. Third, there is a vast store of knowledge 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 many other fields.
These three points lead to an inescapable conclusion about our country’s educational priorities: schools are poorly suited for cultivating the entrepreneurial genius 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. Many of the subjects that could evoke interest among the students who find memorizing basic skills dreary—subjects such as art, music, theater, or emerging media technology—have been squeezed out by budget reallocations to make room for yet more remedial instruction.
The intention is to equip students with abilities that make them “employable.” But the unrecognized irony is that the marginalized subjects are foundations for opportunities in today’s economy, including careers in entertainment, communications, design, advertising, and online education. The other unfathomable irony is that some of the people pushing hard for this rigid narrowing of our curricula are wealthy foundation donors who once left school themselves to pursue entrepreneurial success. Learning to excel on basic skills tests was not how these business titans succeeded in the world of free enterprise; rather, it was through vision, passion, and imagination. Yet under their influence, the vision, passion, and imagination are being driven out of today’s classrooms, and the variety of subjects that could capture the curiosity of a wide spectrum of students is being limited.
At the college level, the problem is not so much a lack of interesting classes—most American colleges offer a rich menu across the arts and sciences—but the difficulties that many students have in finding their own uses for what colleges offer. They may be unable to connect with a program of study that moves them toward a meaningful goal they can embrace. Worse still is 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 have only two choices: to grind it out for the sake of the degree, or to drop out to look for something more fulfilling.
Such are today’s 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, as Jobs and many of his contemporaries did. Sometimes—but not always—this step will lead to great results. Under this educational model, the best service a school or college could provide a young entrepreneur is to leave a clear path to the exit.
SCHOOLS CAN HELP STOP THE DRIFT
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 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 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, 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 them to accomplish what they believe in—or, to quote from Jobs’s 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 promise, this could kindle their passions and illuminate paths to success. They and many other young people will not discover these paths without guidance from adults who have a broader understanding of how the world works. Shouldn’t our schools be offering this guidance?