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About three years ago, a student approached me before class.

“Mr. Spencer, I heard that you wrote a children’s book.”

I nodded. “I co-wrote it with my wife and then we self-published it.”

“Can you teach me how to publish my own novel?”

I launched into a brief elevator pitch about character development, conflict, and suspense. Afterward, she said, “I get that but I want to know how you actually publish a book.”

I later discovered that this student knew how to write a novel. She had already published five books on Wattpad and had hundreds of thousands of readers already. She wanted to know about lead magnets and funnels and marketing. She wanted to know the best practices for formatting a book and the best copy to write when you submit it to Amazon.

A week later, she shared her plans for the future. She wanted to earn enough money on royalties to pay for college. Afterward, she would work as a paid freelance author while she continued to build her audience. If sales were low, she might just move to Mexico where the cost of living was lower and she could live near the ocean and spend her days writing.

She had this whole thing figured out. She would write serials — short books each month that would run in a two-year cycle. She had read about an author who had seasons for his novels and she wondered if she could do this with traditional books, ebooks and audiobooks simultaneously.


Why Entrepreneurial Thinking Is Vital for Students

A decade ago, this girl’s dream would have been impossible. She would have had to submit her work to a literary agent and then maybe, just maybe, she might have had a shot at being published. Self-published was expensive and looked down upon. But all of that had changed. She could be an author with little more than a laptop and a brilliant mind.

This student was driven. And she was thirteen years old. I found this whole situation both exciting and sad. I loved her entrepreneurial spirit but, on some level, I felt like she should just be able to be a kid. Still, I couldn’t deny the reality of it. She knew what many adults in her world remained oblivious of — that we are moving toward a creative economy where most workers will have to think like entrepreneurs.

I get it. School doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of creating better workers. It’s about critical thinking and lifelong learning. I never want job preparedness to replace things like citizenship or civics or a democratic approach to a classroom. I think philosophy is as important as STEM and that the arts in STEAM shouldn’t be an afterthought.

And yet . . .

Education has always had a vocational element to it. Whether it’s an apprenticeship or a jobs program or a university, people have always sought out education as a means to economic empowerment.

But things are changing. A college degree doesn’t guarantee a job anymore and job security is no longer a guarantee (though there is reason to doubt the whole “changing careers seven times” idea). The truth is that most of the 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 stand out.

We live in an era where robotics and artificial intelligence will replace many of our current jobs. Meanwhile, global connectivity will continue to allow companies to outsource labor to other countries. Students will have to stand out in order to thrive. In other words, even if students in the future don’t become entrepreneurs, they will have to think like entrepreneurs.

As a dad with three kids, I find this reality to be both terrifying and exciting. On one hand, I worry about what a hyper-competitive global economy will mean for them. On the other hand, it is easier than ever to create content, make connections, and choose your own destiny.

Eight Elements for Thinking Like an Entrepreneur

Over the last two years, I have interviewed various 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?”  I’m not so sure that “required skills” is the right verbiage. Over time, I’ve come to believe that it’s less about a set of transferable skills and more about a mindset. This why I’ve started asking, “What does it mean to think like an entrepreneur?”

Certain trends have emerged from these conversations. The following are the most common things I hear:

  1. Creative risk-taking: A willingness to take creative risks mixed with a healthy realism that borders on hedging your bets. This was a theme in a great book called Originals. There is some fascinating research out there about how often the most successful entrepreneurs avoided massive risks that would have sunk their project while still taking smaller, incremental creative risks. Unfortunately, schools still tend to use grading systems that value speed and compliance over creative risk-taking.
  2. Self-direction:  The entrepreneurs I talked to mentioned the value of taking the initiative and owning the process. It’s the idea of being a self-starter. Though most of them actually had college degrees, they all talked about some area where they were self-taught. This was a major theme of last month’s blog series on student choice. It’s the idea that students need to be empowered to own the entire learning process.
  3. Project management: This is similar to self-direction. It’s the idea of being a self-manager. It’s the notion of setting goals, tracking progress, managing resources, and learning how to stay organized in your own system.
  4. Empathy: This was one of the surprising trends that I noticed. Many of them talked about the need to know one’s audience and really feel what they feel and experience what they experience. Few used the word “empathy.” They were more likely to talk about humility or about listening to people. But the idea remained constant. Empathy is critical.
  5. Systems Thinking: Entrepreneurial work requires constant systems thinking. Whether someone is looking at a supply chain or thinking about a market or simply figuring out ways to connect with an audience, entrepreneurs are constantly navigating other systems while learning how to create their own. Schools are, by nature, closed systems. I wonder what it would mean for students to learn how to navigate other systems and develop their own systems while they engage in project-based learning.
  6. Collaboration: For all the talk of the entrepreneurs as lone rangers who simply like being self-employed, I found the opposite to be true. Those who had succeeded typically had a business partner along with a network of like-minded people that they sought out for advice. What struck me is that their description of collaboration was nothing like the group work we see in schools. Many of them worked independently on a hour-by-hour basis. The collaboration was more of a partnership, where they divided up the tasks despite working interdependently.
  7. Divergent thinking: Few of the entrepreneurs talked about creativity, even if they engaged in creative work. Instead, they mentioned learning how to analyze problems from a different angle and find solutions with limited resources. They mentioned the value of knowing how to tweak and change things in surprising ways. They talked about flexible thinking. In other words, they were alluding to the idea of divergent thinking. Many of them described getting into trouble at school when they didn’t do things “the right way.” Many of the women I talked to mentioned the gender socialization toward expecting compliant thinking in young girls while letting boys experiment. It has me thinking that schools need to embrace the idea of divergent thinking when it comes to projects and problem-solving.
  8. Handling rejection: Even the most thick-skinned entrepreneurs I met talked about painful moments when they were rejected in their work. Nobody tells you that you’ll need to learn how to take a punch — or even learn how to handle legitimate criticism. This is important for me to remember, because I hate giving critical feedback. I hate coming across as mean. And yet, this is the reality of entrepreneurial work. You have to learn how to take critical feedback and distinguish between the hate and the legitimate, fair criticism.

As I think about this list, I am reminded of the value of design thinking . When students engage in design thinking , they learn how to navigate systems through the entire process. They work collaboratively, but they also have to take initiative and self-manage. They own the project management process. They learn how to think divergently and take creative risks while also realizing that revision and rejection are part of the learning process.

I get it. Design thinking isn’t a magic bullet and entrepreneurial thinking isn’t the only thing that matters for students. However, there is value in learning how to think like an entrepreneur and design thinking is one of the best ways to cultivate that type of mindset. It teaches them an approach to thinking that’s different and that way of thinking, that entrepreneurial mindset, is what they take away from them at school. And if it works well, what you end up seeing is a group of students ready to tackle the world.

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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


  • Christopher Jerome says:

    John, I couldn’t agree more. Entrepreneurial characteristics are excellent qualities for all people whether they go out and start businesses or not. They effectively combine critical thinking AND valuable character traits that bring general success. Takings risks, working hard, making decisions, working with people, and all the other benefits you mentioned are things everyone can use to better themselves in learning and life. Thanks for the read.

  • John,
    Spurred on by a district that has allowed me to push forward with the design thinking train I’ve been engineering for almost a decade and encouraged by the work you, A.J., and so many others (Don Wettrick, especially) are doing in building entrepreneurship, I’ve started a class in Design Thinking, Innovation, and Open Source Learning. This is our pilot year (actually, it’s just a semester-long right now), but from the faces and reactions of the parents at Meet the Teacher Night this past Thursday, and the engaged, amazing work of my empowered students in just our first four days, I’ve no doubt this “proof of concept” will be enough to warrant at least one class, if not more, of a full year of this kind of work.

    I’m blogging about the class, at least once a week, at my blog, “Only Connect: Education and Design–Thinking, Doing, Being.”

    Check us out when you get a chance.

    And most of all, thanks for all your work on your blog. I seem to be tuned to the same cognitive wavelength as you as just a few weeks ago I was looking at ways to help my students curate information in the most useable ways for the purposes of my English and Design classes. (Have you ever seen the ios App, “Curator”?

    • One last thing, John. Going back over your post (cause I’d like to use it with my students next week, along with the one you’ve done on curation), I note a similar strand of thought you and I have. We recognize that education has, if we want to be reductive, three main purposes: Civic, Economic, and Personal. I used those three goals as part of a paper I presented at the Industrial Designers Society of America Education Symposium, Boston 2012. You might find some of the synthesis I did there useful in your work..or not. You might have “been there” already. Nevertheless, knowledge not shared is like silver in the mine (to paraphrase Ben Franklin).

  • Danielle Brown says:

    I really enjoyed this read, John. Thank you for bringing more light to the fact that our students today will be forced into the creative workforce simply based on the fact that artificial intelligence will be taking over mindless jobs. I’m still seeing the skills being forced upon students that do not engage them or captivate their curiosity. I love how you broke down the need for a new mindset in our school systems, not just regurgitating a set of information. I have been reading Wagner’s book, “Creating Innovators” and have been inspired by the idea of giving more freedom to the learning process in order to allow our students to make mistakes, learn from them, and persevere with divergent thinking. The real world will most certainly require this mindset as we move towards an even more competitive, tech-savvy reality. Thank you for your insight!

  • Nicole says:

    This has further provided some ideas and clarification on the tools and processes we are putting in place with our Middle School students. Divergent Thinking is a term I feel would benefit m6 students to explore further to analyse and investigate from critical thinking. We are slowly beginning to see students demonstrating risk taking and tracking their own success with student voice moving forward. We will explore this post further with student didcussiion to unpack where we can take our learning this term for their targeted audience.

  • Connie M Scott says:

    I am an elementary teacher with 27 years of experience, and I have never been satisfied with just teaching the curriculum and going home. My restlessness drives my family, colleagues, and myself a little crazy, but I would not have it any other way. That being said, my newest idea is to set up my classroom into “guilds” with students joining a guild that connects them with their passions, interests, and abilities. The word “guild” came to mind as I was listening to “Creative Schools” by Ken Robinson, and I was trying to figure out how I could make my classrooms more engaging for all of my students, not just the ones who are “academic.” I am considering having the students help me come up with guilds for artists, scientists, musicians, scientists, mathematicians, readers, writers, etc. They would choose a guild and justify why they chose it. The guild would then come up with a product that focuses on their chosen discipline and explain how they could pull in the other subjects to get it done. At this time, I am just trying to catch my thoughts as they keep flying around in my head, but I would love feedback from others who have the “designer mindset” that I so desire. Thank you!

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