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The Future of Work

The Crucial Entrepreneurial Skills Your Kids Aren't Learning In School

This startup founder says that his daughter may not become an entrepreneur, but she'll still need to think like one.

The Crucial Entrepreneurial Skills Your Kids Aren't Learning In School

[Photo: Peet Woodhead, Flickr user Southbank Centre]

At the start of this year, President Obama called for an ambitious, $4 billion investment in computer science education for students from kindergarten through grade 12. The proposal gained the support of business leaders and 27 U.S. governors, but Congress predictably failed to act. In the meantime, countries like Canada, the U.K., Estonia, and Singapore are all adding programming skills to their school curricula.

There’s no doubt these are important steps to prepare the next generation for a future that promises to be exponentially different from the present. But it’s for exactly this reason that kids may need to learn a different skill set, too: entrepreneurship. That doesn't mean fast tracking every high school student toward an MBA; it's not just the hard business skills that count. Instead, it's the far less tactical and less obvious entrepreneurial traits and capacities that may be even more crucial for thriving in the future of work.

My daughter is entering seventh grade this year. If I had my way, a few core entrepreneurial principles would find their way into her studies. I’ve learned these the hard way, struggling over the past 20 years to build an online platform for home improvement products. In my experience, writing code hasn't been the skill I've missed the most. The most essential ones I've had to develop actually risk sounding obvious or cliched. But for entrepreneurs, they don't come naturally, even though they often make the difference, not just between success and failure, but between personal satisfaction and disappointment.

1. Assessing (And Redefining) Risk

In an era of accelerating change, risk is going to be a constant. More and more, success will depend not just on assessing risk but reframing our notions of it. That will also mean revising how we understand what constitutes failure. In this environment, it’s often far riskier to pursue the safe and well-trodden path. Tesla, for example, could have aimed for a smaller niche market like other electric carmakers before it. But it would've more likely landed in the scrapyard alongside now forgotten names like the ZENN and the Aptera.

For children, it’s important to get comfortable with risk early. Allowing students to fail, and then to build on that failure, is key. We’ve inherited a paradigm where success hinges on a single letter grade, yet in the business world, failure is just another point of departure. That kind of thinking needs to find a way into the classroom, and we’re starting to see some innovative approaches in this regard, like the Learning Expeditions concept, which emphasizes an iterative approach toward projects.

2. Embracing An Abundance Mentality

Competition is part of life and business, but the idea that others have to lose so you can win is increasingly outdated. The best entrepreneurs are finding ways to create a bigger pie for others. This is "abundance thinking," and it’s exemplified by companies that focus on creating ecosystems to connect suppliers and customers in order to expand the ways and number of people who benefit. I've tried to model this thinking in my own company; instead of hammering suppliers for savings to pass to consumers, we’re giving them resources and data to help them connect with buyers efficiently.

I think teachers generally do a great job of championing this kind of collaborative approach, but for some reason this spirit is lost when the subject turns to business. And it’s this kind of outmoded "scarcity thinking" that lurks behind some of the greatest business scandals and debacles of our time, from Wells Fargo to the subprime mortgage crisis. (A great primer text in this new school of thought—for schoolkids or anyone else—is Peter Diamandis’s and Steven Kotler's Abundance.)

3. Accepting Radical Responsibility

Every entrepreneur runs into challenges and crises. The problems may not come from inside their companies, but the solutions invariably do.

When the housing market tanked in 2008, our company went from a $50 million run rate to $20 million overnight, and we couldn’t find investors to rescue us. We responded by reexamining every inch of the business for solutions. We discovered that the unique way we collected data could lift us out of the crisis—and that discovery changed us. We still sell flooring and doors, but data is now what drives our business.

How does this relate to kids? When my son didn’t make a soccer team he tried out for recently, he externalized the reasons (a situation that's familiar to any parent). He thought he should've made it and was hurt when he didn’t. So his mother and I gave him a choice: "How badly do you really want this?" We told him he could either use this letdown to inspire him and train even harder—or not. But the outcome would be up to him.

To a certain extent, this is nothing new. A parent's job has always been to encourage their children to take responsibility and tap into their power to change things. This life lesson couldn't be more essential in an entrepreneurial-minded world. It's deceptively simple yet more critical than ever.

4. Using Tech As A Tool—And Only A Tool

Ultimately, learning how to learn is the only safeguard for people growing up in an era of rapid change. Technological skills aren’t.

For decades, programming was the No. 1 high-tech job that was out there. People wrote algorithms telling computers what to do. Now, some say coding is still the top job skill of the future, while others are just as adamant that it isn't. But it's clear that machine learning has improved to the point where computers are now teaching humans as well as themselves. So it's likely that adding coding to the curriculum probably isn’t a panacea for the changes we’re facing.

What’s key is to constantly ask, "What’s next? How can I take this to the next level?" So it's no surprise that some of the top business leaders—within tech fields and without—still espouse one of the most doggedly analog self-improvement activities ever: reading. Entrepreneurs are voracious readers and interrogators whose interests extend far beyond business or their particular technical niche. That was true decades ago, it's true today, and it will likely remain true in the future. That's because the kind of lateral thinking that comes from constantly encountering new ideas helps people make lateral connections—and leaps forward—that they'd otherwise miss.

So how do we start to teach these traits? A new wave of programs is starting to explore some workable options. For instance, here in Canada, Young Entrepreneur Leadership Launchpad seeks to integrate entrepreneurial education into the existing high school curriculum. Over three semesters, students get exposure to leadership principles and mindfulness in business, then incubate their own ideas with mentors and present them to a panel of investors. It's no doubt that integrating approaches like this into the standard school curriculum is a challenge, but it's far from impossible.

My daughter hasn’t decided her career path yet. She’s still dreaming of becoming a movie star. It doesn’t matter to me at all if she becomes an entrepreneur, as long as she keeps that entrepreneurial drive to always improve. And this is perhaps the bigger message: The kind of skills and training that will benefit tomorrow’s students may well benefit all of us, regardless of career paths.

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