An overabundance of elbow grease

My assumptions

What I think students think when they hear the word entrepreneurship:

  • Silicon Valley
  • flip flops and jeans
  • Mark Zuckerberg
  • billionaire

What I think parents think when they hear the word entrepreneurship:

  • risk
  • profit
  • innovation

When I read about teaching young innovators, I get excited for the future. But whenever the next step in the conversation turns out to be “teaching entrepreneurship,” I fizzle. Where does the student fit among the bullet points of these assumptions about entrepreneurship? Where’s the curiosity? Where’s the passion?

“Teaching entrepreneurship” in these terms sounds like something so hollow that it doesn’t belong in my classroom, and for as long as these assumptions (misguided or not) linger, I am uncomfortable with the suggestion that it should.

Here’s how I would like to define entrepreneurship:

  • the happy byproduct of combining optimism, passion, and an overabundance of elbow grease

If schools are going to teach entrepreneurship I want it to start there, not with the leadership or statistics classes that I see praised instead. 

It’s worse than I thought.

Last month I read The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries. Ries has championed the Lean Startup model and demonstrated its value in all sorts of industries across the world. He is a true innovator and I have been enjoying the way that the philosophy he outlines has already started to influence the way I run my small business. And I appreciated that instead of allowing the reader to wade through his own assumptions about what entrepreneurship really is, Reis offers a clear definition at the very start of his book: “Entrepreneurship is management.”

What?! I’m already uncomfortable with places that celebrate entrepreneurship — that is, statistics/ leadership/ risk & profit — in middle and high school classrooms. But teaching a management technique to teenagers? The conversation about teaching entrepreneurship just went from soul-lessly hollow to corporately soul-lessly hollow with the turn of a phrase. Yuck.

So maybe I should teach entrepreneurship.

By taking the stance that “entrepreneurship is management” right away, Ries sets the stage for a thoughtfully executed “how-to” for the rest of the book. And that’s where my first surprise hit: in the Lean Startup philosophy, the goal is not to build or sell as much as possible, as quickly as possible. The goal is to learn. Startups develop into sustainable, profitable businesses not with “vanity metrics” and “success theater” that show incredible growth, not with a “eureka!” moment and one great idea, and not by a singular focus on chasing profit. Reis dispels myths and narrows in on the truth by putting learning at the center of his thesis. Learning is what yields agility and agility is the path to a long-term sustainable business. Learning is the key. Maybe there is a place for entrepreneurship in my classroom after all.

I’ve come to believe that learning is the essential unit of progress for startups. (p. 49)

Validated learning

Reis spends a good portion of the book discussing the kind of learning that matters. He calls it “validated learning.” If the culture (in the company? in the classroom? in the faculty lounge? allow me to start blurring boundaries) is not centered on learning, it becomes filled with “politicians and salespeople” — those who have one idea, can’t unlearn it to relearn a new idea, and so stick to selling you the only idea they’ve got. Validated learning requires planning, effort, and reflection. I think I like this.

Unfortunately, if the plan is to see what happens, a team is guaranteed to succeed — at seeing what happens — but won’t necessarily gain validated learning. This is one of the most important lessons of the scientific method: if you cannot fail, you cannot learn. (p. 56)

Failure and feedback

“Fail early, fail often” is the mantra of California design firms like Ideo and tech startups, and I now see it as a trend for educators to embrace this kind of failure as part of the learning process too. “FAIL stands for First Attempt In Learning” is one I heard recently. I think these catchphrases are at risk of missing the point and instead end up fetishizing failure.

But in a culture that values learning above all and in which iteration is the norm, the word “failure” scarcely applies anymore. “Failure” is really just an indication that you’re not done iterating yet. Could students crave feedback and iteration with the same urgency of a Lean Startup team?

The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else. (p. 111)

The startup’s competitive edge

Build-Measure-Learn: that’s the rhythm of the Lean Startup and the way to accomplish validated learning. Reis delves into lots of techniques that expand on each of these three components in greater detail (minimum viable products, innovation accounting, the 5 Why’s, etc), but the underlying iteration cycle is simple: build, measure, learn, repeat. The part that makes Lean Startups “lean” is how tight the cycle is, how quickly the team gets feedback, and how frequently they can iterate.

It does not matter how fast we can build. It does not matter how fast we can measure. What matters is how fast we can get through the entire loop. (p. 271)

A parallel cycle

I see a thrilling parallel between the Build-Measure-Learn cycle at the center of the Lean Startup philosophy and Think-Make-Improve, the cycle outlined by Gary Stager and Sylvia Libow Martinez in their book Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Both cycles thrive on iteration, both care deeply about authentic feedback on authentic products, and both place learning at their core.

Build-Measure-Learn. Think-Make-Improve. The steps aren’t in the same order and the authors don’t use the same words to label them — but the underlying philosophy, I think, is pretty similar.

I am already on board with Think-Make-Improve and the constructionist pedagogy; I believe in learning by doing and the value of context before content. So when I push my students to work through that cycle more and more quickly, when I encourage them to chase their passions, when I suggest that maybe some day they can get paid to follow their dreams — does that mean I am teaching entrepreneurship? (And is it even possible to teach entrepreneurship any other way, divorced from the context of students’ dreams and passions?)

Wordsmithing to a resolution

In the end, maybe my negative gut reaction to “teaching entrepreneurship” is tied to the word “entrepreneurship” and its connotations — and not the idea. Maybe the problem is that “entrepreneurship” is an anachronism. Today’s small business owners don’t need venture capitalists, we have Kickstarter. We don’t need to mortgage the house on a PR team, we have Twitter and YouTube. We don’t need to quit our day jobs up-front to see if our trinkets might sell, we can open a store on Etsy.

Even though I sound conflicted about the place of entrepreneurship in education, this summer I have been working to establish a small business or not-for-profit organization with a group of teachers, students, and recent alums based on our work together this year. Maybe it’s just the word “entrepreneurship” that’s nagging me.

So help me try on a few new terms. I don’t teach entrepreneurship, I teach bootstrapper-ship. I teach work-isn’t-work-when-it’s-more-fun-than-sleep-ology. I don’t teach young entrepreneurs, I teach feedback-hungry dream-chasers.


When I noticed the connections between The Lean Startup and Invent to Learn, the parts of me that are Computer Science teacher, STEAM teacher, and small business owner were thrilled. But the part of me that is a Latin teacher knew that something was missing. And then I read in Reis’ epilogue:

Our productive capacity greatly exceeds our ability to know what to build… We have the capacity to build almost anything we can imagine. The big question of our time is not Can it be built? but Should it be built? (p. 273)

…and the loop was completed. I think that the language of entrepreneurship and innovation is making its way into the classroom because part of our role as teachers is to prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist. And on a macro-level, that call is more pressing than ever: the traditional economy itself is changing and new economies are emerging. Students will not just be valuable in the workforce by maximizing efficiency; they will in fact need to create value.

And so as education joins the effort to look ahead into our non-linear future, and as I prepare for a year in which I will not be teaching Latin, I am particularly mindful that what will be always grows out of the context of what is and what was. Our future innovators and bootstrappers will need to understand the values of both poetry and prose; they will need to spark change with an eye to what is Unchanging; they will need to measure what they can in their feedback cycles but respect the larger context of what is immeasurable.

That sounds like a tall order. I’m looking forward to a great year.


6 thoughts on “An overabundance of elbow grease

  1. Hi BC,

    I enjoyed this piece, and suspect it will be a very fruitful line of thinking for you and your students. I have two comments to add:

    1. Including non-profit entrepreneurs in your list of examples to consider may help to disconnect the “entrepreneur = profit-seeker” (and “entrepreneur requires venture capital”) perspectives from your reasoning on this subject. I’m thinking of the people who wrote the geolocation-based program for aid workers in Haiti (I think it’s this one: There are lots of examples of this, both globally and locally.

    2. Instead of thinking of “management equates to corporatism”, think of yourself in front of a class as a manager. You have an objective that you want to lead your team through in a way that helps them first learn and then internalize a method of reaching a goal. That’s really what any effective manager (or teacher) does. You’re building a culture in which people learn. And I think entrepreneurship is similar, it’s building a culture to maximize learning across a team, but led by an entrepreneur with a vision and some solid management chops to keep the team moving in a coherent direction.

    Good stuff! Thanks for sharing it.

    Tom C.

    • Great feedback on both points, Tom. Thanks so much! I have been wrestling with “social entrepreneurship” for a little while too, trying to understand what it really means, and wondering if that doesn’t deserve a category of its own. (And sometimes thinking it is perhaps even a contradiction in terms: isn’t the rapid pace of iteration in this model a stark contrast to the sluggish pace of the bureaucracies and red tape that are part-and-parcel of non-profit organizations?) And I appreciate your point on management too — you’re right to call me on it.
      Thanks, as always, for reading and for your thoughtful feedback. Much appreciated!

      • I don’t agree that “…the sluggish pace of the bureaucracies and red tape…are part-and-parcel of non-profit organizations…” In my experience, for-profit organizations can have a significant advantage over non-profits, in that the political/decision-making structure must work rationally (eventually, anyway) if a profit is to be made. Non-profits can and often do have arbitrary political structures based more on personalities or other factors rather than organizational effectiveness. Of course, this is also a generalization and certainly not true of all for-profits and non-profits, but I’ve found it to be a fundamental truth.

  2. Hi Colin,
    Thanks for pointing me to this post. Love the thinking out loud! I haven’t read the The Lean Startup, but can certainly see the similarities that you have pointed out. The use of the word “learn” in that book, however, is much different than in ours. It appears they are using the word “learn” to mean the iterative process of improving the business. In Invent To Learn – learn means the personal act of acquiring knowledge. That said, the iterative process is one that I believe helps people learn. Can businesses learn? They can certainly change practices in the hope that outcomes such as profit, customer satisfaction, etc. change. They can change collateral materials such as marketing messages, branding, etc. again in the hopes that they “win” – whatever that means in their eyes. The people in the business can learn, but I don’t believe that businesses “learn”.

    So what is entrepreneurship? I’m not sure I know. If I was in the classroom, I would want to know that before I could claim that’s what I was teaching. I hear that in your musings. I think that the use of the word instead of the more common word “business” implies that there is some emotional aspect of teaching kids not just the hows of running a business, but the attitude that modern entrepreneurs are supposed to exemplify – as you say, the “urgency” aspect of being an entrepreneur. I really do wonder if you can teach things like passion or persistence (“grit” has become the new holy grail), for example.

    I’m more of the opinion that these kinds of emotional connections can’t be taught, and certainly not in an out of context way. Students may show passion, or be engaged, but to me, that’s an outcome of being involved in personally meaningful work. When students do work that is meaningful to themselves, to others, to their families, their peers, and/or the community, they have a far greater chance of being engaged in what they do. If they are a part of of a community that values them and values their work, they are much more likely to persist in it and to develop a sense of connectedness and urgency about completing the work. They will want to add things, improve them, and to share it with others.

    I don’t believe you can teach kids passion – you have to allow them to do meaningful work that deserves their passionate attention. You can’t directly teach kids empathy, kindness, or urgency with rallies, worksheets, or by showing videos. That’s not to say that teachers can’t create assignments and environments where these are nurtured. And that’s certainly not to say that teachers are irrelevant. Teachers bring expertise to the table when they can steer kids in the right directions, ask key questions, seize teachable moments, and create a climate in the classroom where enthusiasm, passion, empathy, etc. are rewarded authentically.

    The most important thing we can do for young people is give them the opportunity to exceed our (and their own) expectations, and to develop the capacity to solve problems that haven’t been invented yet. Is that the message of The Lean Startup? Perhaps – but I’m not sure that the word “entrepreneur” is really enough for a teacher to figure out how to do this in the classroom. It’s too tangled up with concepts of profit/loss and “winning” in an economic or social status way.

    • Thanks so much, Sylvia, for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate it! I think we agree on many counts here, and it’s an interesting process to untangle questions of content vs context, of direct and indirect outcomes, and of the language we use in both education and business realms.
      Thank you for the work you do — both in the big picture and in your attention to nuance. And thank you again for taking the time to read and share feedback!

  3. Pingback: The fail whale, reimagined | They Call Me BC

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