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This post is loosely based on a chapter from my latest book EmpowerThank you to everyone who has helped make it a number one best-seller on Amazon! Thank you to anyone who has left a review on Amazon and spread the word on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat. It’s been so cool to watch people respond to it.

The Formula is Failing

Not long ago, you could follow a formula. Work hard, study hard, go to college, and climb the corporate ladder.


It wasn’t about choice or passion or interests. It was about compliance. It was about putting in your time so that you could make it in the world. And it worked — not for everybody and not all the time — but for enough people that society embraced it.

We live in an era where robotics and artificial intelligence will replace many of our current jobs. Global connectivity will continue to allow companies to outsource labor to other countries.   

The corporate ladder is gone and in its place, is a complex maze. 


Our current students will enter a workforce where instability is the new normal and where they will have to be self-directed, original, and creative in order to navigate this maze.

The Hidden Opportunity

This is a terrifying reality.

And yet . . .

There is a hidden opportunity in all of it. True, the rules of have changed. But that also means students can rewrite the rules.

We often hear that our current students will work in jobs that don’t exist right now. But here’s another reality: our current students will be the ones who create those jobs.

Not every student will create the next Google or Pixar or Lyft. Some students will be engineers or artists or accountants. Some will work in technology, others in traditional corporate spaces and still others in social or civic spaces. But no matter how diverse their industries will be, our students will all someday face a common reality.


Every single one of them will need to think like an entrepreneur in order to thrive in a changing world. They may not invent a company but they will have to invent and reinvent their jobs in order to stay relevant. In other words, they’ll need to be nimble and adaptive.

For this reason, I’ve spent the last few years interviewing entrepreneurs in a wide range of industries. The two questions I’ve asked each time has been, “What do you wish you had learned in school?” and “What are the required skills to thrive as an entrepreneur?”  

Over time, I’ve come to believe that it’s less about a set of transferable skills and more about a mindset. This is why I’ve started asking, “What does it mean to think like an entrepreneur?”

The most common answer is, “you have to be a self-starter.”

In other words, entrepreneurs stand out because they don’t wait their turn. They don’t wait for an opportunity. They don’t hope to be called on. They don’t expect an instruction manual. They are self-starters who turn an idea into a reality into a business. They write their own rules. 

But they aren’t a special breed of people. In fact, as Adam Grant points out, they are just as scared as you and me. But (and this is key), they are more scared of what will happen if they don’t pursue an idea than if they fail.

Students need to be self-starters.

It doesn’t end there. Starting something is one thing. Many great ideas fizzle out within a few months when people lose interest.

There’s an often overlooked gritty and difficult side to entrepreneurship that shows up every time you hear people use the phrase “It’s a grind.” They are usually referring to the hard work of being a self-manager. If being a self-starter is all about sparking innovation in the midst of chaos, self-management is all about knowing how to stick to deadlines and routines.    

Students need to be self-managers

We often use the expression “self-directed learners” to describe a similar mindset. That phrase encompasses being both a self-starter and a self-manager. 


With that in mind, here are seven ways to help students think like entrepreneurs.

#1: Embrace design thinking

Sometimes creative work requires structure. Students often struggle with a completely open process. They rush into creating something new without thinking about planning or purpose and then they’re disappointed with the results. They have a tough time getting started.

Structure isn’t a bad thing if it promotes student ownership. Sometimes you need a framework for your creative work or a road map to help you along the way. You still get to make the decisions but the structure actually amplifies the creative work. This is why I’m passionate about design thinking. It’s a structure that empowers, rather than limits, student ownership.

Design thinking is a flexible framework designed to get the most out of the creative process. It’s used in a diverse range of industries: in the corporate world, in social and civic spaces, and in higher education. The structure enhances rather than inhibits student voice and choice. When students engage in design thinking, they own the entire creative process.

Design thinking works within the standards in every subject. It’s a flexible approach that you can use with limited resources. It isn’t something new that you add to your crowded schedule. Instead, it’s an innovative approach to the work you are already doing — a process designed specifically to boost creativity and bring out the maker in every student.

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#2: Create Opportunities for Self-Starting and Self-Managing

Students will take initiative when something matters to them. This sounds simple, but it’s actually a challenge. It requires teachers to tap into students’ interests and passions. It involves making the subject accessible enough that students feel that they can take charge. It’s that magical thing that happens when students get so excited about an idea they learn in your class that they pursue it on their own at home.

Carve out time in your schedule where students can self-start on their own learning. It might be an inquiry-driven Wonder Day or it might be a longer Genius Hour / 20% Time Project. It might involve students blogging, where they choose the genre, the topic, and the format.

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But this also needs to be paired with the opportunity to engage in project management. This begins with goal-setting. With a strong sense of what they are doing and where they are going, students begin to set goals. These might be learning goals or project goals. They then monitor their progress and reflect often on how they are doing and what they need to do next in order to improve. 

#3: Provide the Tools . . . But Let Them Choose What Works Best

Sometimes students have an idea of something they want to learn but they lack the tools, resources, or materials to make it happen. But when teachers provide the tools, students are able to take the initiative and build something, learn something, or pursue something that had previously been unimaginable.

Students need to feel the freedom to select the tools on their own. They can select the resources and materials while also deciding on the processing that will work best for them. So, when doing research, they might use notecards or a spreadsheet. When managing their project, they might keep their tasks on a shared document or on a shared calendar. But in these moments, they move from using strategies because the teacher told them to do it and toward choosing strategies because it helps them accomplish their goals. 

#4: Encourage Creative Risk-Taking and Flexible Thinking

Fear is the biggest barrier to self-starting. It might be the fear of failure, the fear of not doing it the right way, or the fear that others might not like your work. So, students end up having an idea of something they want to learn, but they never pursue it. As a teacher, you can battle this by encouraging creative risk-taking.

Creative risk-taking means students will experience some level of failure. There will be mistakes. Things won’t work properly. Students can have the best-developed plans in the world, but ultimately life will happen. But then the internet goes down for a day. A group member gets sick for two days. You have a fire drill and then an unplanned assembly. A few students hit a creative block and suddenly feel stuck. 

In these moments, students will need to solve problems and deal with issues as they arise. Things will break. Plans will change. This is the frustrating side of student-centered learning. It’s messier than a tidy worksheet. And yet, when students are able to tackle these challenges, they grow into problem-solvers and critical thinkers. 

#5: Model the thinking process

Show your students how you are self-starting in your own life. If you’re writing a novel, tell your students about it and share your fears and struggles as well. Allow them to see that self-starters aren’t people with an immense ego or unwavering self-confidence. Let them inside of your head and see how self-starters not only look for opportunities but also create them.

And yet, self-starting without self-managing will lead to a lack of follow-through. This is your chance to model the project management process. Here you take a larger task and break it down into sub-tasks and eventually deadlines. You think realistically about what is needed in terms of time, resources, and concrete actions. I’ve tried using project management framework and handouts but eventually, I realized that each student had a different style of managing details. The real power is in learning the thinking process. It requires students to see the big picture, the details, and the complex relationship between the two.

#6: Affirm It.

Point out when you see students taking charge and self-starting their own learning. It might be something as small as choosing their own enrichment activity when they finish early or finding some geeky interest and running with it.

But when you see those moments of self-direction, celebrate it. Those little habits lead to that self-starting mindset.

#7: Help Them Find a Community.

Self-starters aren’t lone rangers. They are often connected to peers and mentors who help them navigate the process. The same is true of students. At an older age, this might mean a shadowing opportunity or the introduction of a guest speaker. At a younger age, it might mean helping parents or guardians find venues where students can pursue these interests on their own.

This is part of why we included the “Launch to the world” piece of the LAUNCH Cycle. If we want students to think like entrepreneurs, we need them to know what it means to design things for a real audience.

This Requires Real Projects

If we want students to think like entrepreneurs, they need to make things. You can’t learn this type of self-direction and self-management with packets of worksheets. If we want students to develop this mindset, they need to work on projects.

Real projects.

The kinds of projects that matter to them. The kind where they are in the driver’s seat. And that’s why students need to own the creative process.  

Empower Your Students with Voice and Choice

Want to get started with student ownership? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the Empower Blueprint and Toolkit below.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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