For nearly a century, we have been caught in a dichotomous world in which we learn when we are young, and work and produce when we are older. We stop learning when we begin work and rarely work and produce when we are learning at a young age. This needs to change in the twenty-first century. The importance of continuing education in a world that is rapidly changing and requiring increasingly new skills has become quite transparent. In this article, I discuss the second transformation that is required - encouraging young learners to become problem solvers - entrepreneurs in other words.
The World Economic Forum surveyed the chief Human Resources Officers of leading companies and released in The Future of Jobs report, the top ten skills that will be essential for jobs in the future. These are: (1) Complex Problem Solving (2) Critical Thinking (3) Creativity (4) People Management (5) Coordinating with others (6) Emotional Intelligence (7) Judgement and decision-making (8) Service orientation (9) Negotiation and (10) Cognitive flexibility.
There are many reasons for inculcating an entrepreneurial mind-set at an early age. Entrepreneurs are problem solvers. The current education system focuses on academic learning that few are able to connect to the real-world around us. A focus on problem solving approach can greatly enhance learning. This is because the entrepreneurial mind-set is creative and often connects the dots between different types of knowledge and uses resources from various different domains. Successful entrepreneurship relies heavily on teamwork. Working in teams develops important social skills such as negotiation, persuasion, conflict-resolution, patience, empathetic recognition of complementary skills in others, and learning about desires and motivations of other team members. Finally, working in a team teaches you about your own limitations which you can either learn to overcome either by improving yourself or by leveraging the strengths of a diverse set of people who are different from you. At the same time you learn to conquer envy by inculcating a sympathetic joy in the success of others as you work together on solving a meaningful problem.
Is this a tall order? Are we expecting too much from our children? Aren’t the children already crumbling under the intense academic pressure of competitive exams in high schools, for college admissions tests, and sometimes also for competitive civil service jobs? The sad reality is that this system of education creates a very tiny fraction of our youth who go on to become successful doctors, engineers and civil servants but leaves the large majority of them under-skilled and grossly under-prepared for meaningful jobs or a business career. Estimates suggest that most youth spend an additional five to ten years of training and learning on the job to become truly productive. That is a colossal waste of human capacity and resources.
Entrepreneurship thinking does not mean that all youth must solve big problems. They can begin by trying to solve problems they have faced themselves or they have seen their friends and family face in day-to-day life. It is often useful and motivating to begin by examining what aspect of their lives makes them angry or sad. This is the beginning of entrepreneurship.
“There are many reasons for inculcating an entrepreneurial mind-set at an early age. Entrepreneurs are problem solvers”
The next stage is to consider what a good solution would look like if resources were not a constraint. Economists call this the first-best solution. Thinking of solutions without constraints often leads to creative ideas, even if they may appear infeasible at first glance. One could then try and understand which are the binding constraints that prevent that solution from getting implemented. Sometimes entrepreneurial thinking generates surprising insights and one often discovers that a constraint that appeared to be binding at the outset may be overcome by a creative twist.
Then comes an important phase called design thinking and customer validation. The idea is to develop a quick but working solution, cobbled together by whatever resources are available or could be summoned, and get feedback from customers or the end-user. The idea may fail but failing quickly and learning to pivot to a different solution is an important skill that teaches that important lessons are learned from failures. We also develop patience and resilience.
A great source of entrepreneurial ideas are indeed buried in the failed trials of other entrepreneurs. The ideas that failed in the past may succeed now when re-examined with fresh thinking. Perhaps some ideas failed because the timing was not right. Perhaps, an idea that failed in one context may brilliantly succeed in another context. One learns that sometimes it takes a long time and many trials before one finds a successful and implementable solution. What better time to learn the importance of learning from failures than in one’s youth?
Bhagwan Chowdhry, Professor of Finance, Indian School of Business (ISB), Research Professor, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Started teaching career at UCLA Anderson, Bhagwan gathered 31+ years of experience till today and he has learned while working because of a team of indigenous faculty colleagues. He has worked with students for projects which has created a difference in the world.
Bhagwan Chowdhry has experience as a lecturer and visiting faculty in renowned institutions which include University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Stellar Development Foundation. With his working experience in editing for a plethora of finance and economic journals, he has a number of economic and finance papers published.