A follow-up from my last post on Entrepreneurship Education, Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley: Entrepreneurship – Taught or Born?
Now that entrepreneurial ideas are gradually making its way into the classrooms, I can’t help but notice that there’s a lot of similarities between what’s happening there and what has been going on in the music world for quite a while now. Everyday, the culture of the tech sector is becoming more and more similar to the art world in the sense that it’s beginning to develop a particularly strong interest in youth and youth culture. Some VCs won’t bother investing in anyone who’s older than 30, because they’re seen as being “too old” to innovate and/or keep up with the rapidly changing pace of working in a startup company.
Age is very much a consideration when producers decide on what performers to cultivate and support for their projects. Justified or not, ageism is the unspoken game that many artists have to play in order to get ahead in their careers, where younger talents are usually seen as being better because of their youthful idealism and longer “shelf life”. Experience — ? What good is that? We’re trying to create something new here!
A while ago (in ye olde days of 2010) I remember being both embarrassed and inspired after seeing an article about Susan Levine, a 13-year girl who was starting her own business through crowdfunding and finding out that she was actually way ahead of me in terms of putting together and executing a business idea. I was starting to run into difficulties in my own projects and things were starting to stall, but she kept things going with what seemed to be just pure, unbridled inspiration.
Back then entrepreneurship wasn’t quite as popular of an idea as it is now, so seeing those types of articles were somewhat of an anomaly. Nowadays, though, these stories have become fairly common, and we’re now seeing the rise of the “entrepreneurial prodigy” in the midst of our culture. There’s even a buzzword that they made up: the kidtrepreneur. (ugh)
Because entrepreneurship can be said to be a form of art, there’s something magical and mystical about people, especially young kids, who can do the things that we can’t with seemingly great ease. It also gives us a sense of hope that our culture is still capable of producing brilliant minds and that the future will be bright for the rest of us once these kids grow up to be great men and women. Prodigies are then put on pedestals, given media attention, constant praise, and the responsibility to epitomize what makes our culture so great: They are the product and result of society’s obsession with its own future.
One teacher of mine, however, likened child prodigies with that of a talking horse: Deep down you’re not really interested in what it has to say; you’re just there to be amazed that it’s “actually doing it”. And after watching the initial spectacle of a 9-13 year old starting their own company (or playing a Beethoven concerto), most people don’t know what happens to them afterwards. Fortunately, some prodigies will actually continue to pursue their craft after they get older and achieve success, while others might eventually find something else to do with their lives but talk about their experiences in the arts with great fondness.
There’s a third type of prodigy that noone likes to talk about, however: those that are “normalized” after they reach adulthood. In many cases the accomplishments of a prodigious child is amazing only because they’re “too young” to be doing it — once adulthood is reached, its novelty begins to fade and the public’s attention shifts its focus toward the next crop of talent. For many, the passion that they had for the medium died a long time ago (or was never there to begin with), since many of them picked up their “interest” only as a way to please their family or peers. And during those moments where nobody is watching, they might find it difficult to find their motivation to continue their pursuits.
In cases where this type of thing goes on for too long, some develop a cynical, bitter attitude towards people and humanity in general, putting up a front of pleasantries while secretly loathing the audience in the back of their minds. (Having highly talented people in influential positions who have a distaste for the human race should be a cause for concern, I think.) Many of them develop unhealthy drug habits, self-destructive behaviors, or in some cases taking their own life. Of the lucky ones who managed to escape those types of fates, many of them found the experience of doing art so painful that they sell (or in some cases destroy) their instrument, never to touch it again.
Prodigies are only possible in environments where there’s a strong — often irrational — idolization of a profession, combined with an educational system that allows for its methodologies to be acquired through a formal process. The world of music has had both for a while now, while entrepreneurship, neither, until very recently. As pitching contests and business idea competitions start to become a common occurrence, it’s important for people not to lose sight of the end goal of the process: the creation of a sustainable, long-lasting business model. And more importantly, a leader who actually cares about the company itself.
In recent years the value of winning a music competition has become lessened due to the fact that it has become decoupled from the idea of earning a career. If the goal of entrepreneurial education is to create a bridge to success, then it needs to ensure that its paths actually lead somewhere, and that people are made aware that they’re on it to begin with. These are problems that arise naturally as more people become interested in a certain practice — in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of Hollywood and the music world, the startup community will need to keep a close eye on how its treating the next generation of talent.
What Makes a Good Entrepreneur?
When I was young, I remember hearing a talk by Yo-Yo-Ma that left a particularly big impression on me. While in school, he apparently had a teacher who told him to stop playing his instrument and experience life outside of the practice room. So for a few years he didn’t touch his cello and instead found himself pursuing other interests and activities unrelated to music. And when he finally “came back” to what he was doing originally, he said that it had made all of the difference in the world.
There’s something in Yo-Yo-Ma’s playing that’s different from your average child prodigy — call it “expression”, “character”, “musicality”, if you will — but what’s there is an intentionality that can’t be faked. From observing his performances and career, it’s obvious that he’s passionate about what he does for a living and there’s nothing about him that seems to hint otherwise. And that, in itself, has made him successful both as a professional and as a person.
Below I made a list of personality traits that I compiled from hearing people talk about what makes a “good” entrepreneur. Surprisingly, many of these are the exact same lines used to describe what makes a “good” artist as well.
- Honest with themselves, and others.
- Prefers action over talking.
- Enjoys reflecting on past events.
- Strong work ethic, ability to be extremely focused.
- High tolerance for embarrassing themselves, making mistakes in public.
- Takes initiative for getting feedback, never takes criticism personally.
- Immune to discouragement.
- A compulsive, almost irrational tendency towards optimistic outcomes.
- Realistic in their short-term goals, objectives.
- Enjoys creating order out of chaos, and visa versa.
- Extremely high tolerance to uncertainty, risk.
- Likes working with people.
- Likes working alone.
- Truth seeking, while seeking to change it.
- Likes doing a lot of different things, learning about a wide variety of subjects.
- Strong passion for their craft and ideas.
You might notice that there’s nothing about money or fame mentioned here. There’s nothing wrong with wanting either, although everyone agrees: they’re not what makes or breaks an artist. (Money follows passion, as it is said in both lines of work.) I’d say that the first few on the list are probably the most important since it’s those traits that allow people to get better at whatever they’re doing. Success normally requires all, or at least most of these traits listed above because that’s what creative jobs usually entail. Without them, I think it would be very difficult to function as an effective founder, artist, or even as an intrapreneur.
You might also notice that lot of these ideas might seem self-contradictory and somewhat schizophrenic, at least on the surface. But before you spend thousands of dollars medicating or sending your child to therapy, it might be good to consider the possibility that they might either be an entrepreneur or an artist. Although I do suspect that a lot of parents would rather think of their child as being crazy rather than dealing with the fact that their kid might turn out to be “one of those” people.
For parents who are overly supportive, the danger of compiling a list like this is that some will mistakenly believe that these traits can be “acquired” through an educational system or mentor. Not so — formal training can give the means and methods, but can’t implant intentionality or creativity into someone’s personality. The recent upsurge in interest in entrepreneurial ideas was the direct result of the global economic crisis and massive job losses of 08′-09′, not because there happened to be more classes being taught in those areas. Necessity is the mother of invention, but necessity comes from the world, not from school.
Hence, Yo-Yo-Ma made the right choice in deciding to take a break from his instrument; some people have too much creativity and not enough technique, but he probably had the opposite problem where his technique was perfect but at the time didn’t have any idea why he was playing his instrument. In order to understand what that meant, however, it was necessary for him to “get out of the building” and interact with real people. He was lucky for having a particularly wise teacher who managed to see what the “real” problem was with his playing style, and probably wouldn’t have gotten to where he was now without his advice.
When you get down to it, both music and startup companies “express” the same thing — the beliefs and values of its creator. And anyone who thinks that turning a creative idea into a tangible reality is a good career decision is bound to be a little bit crazy. But there’s nothing worse than watching something “force” themselves into this craziness, as if carefully studying the list above and developing mannerisms around them would make it more real. Entrepreneurship is something that you either like or don’t, and it’s usually recommended that you find another line of work if you’re not into it all the way. (It’ll probably pay better, be more stable, less stressful.)
If all of this sounds bizarre to you, it’s likely that you haven’t seen what happens when you try to create an inter-generational (i.e. educational) system out of the creative process. The culture of the “prodigious child” is a byproduct of the combining of these two worlds, and its results are often very mixed. I don’t have a scientific study on hand, but personally I haven’t seen any evidence that prodigies have a higher chance at long-term success than those with average to above-average talent. In the end, hard-work, reliability, and dedication always wins out over unfocused brillance — and these types of successes can be achieved even if you’re not necessarily the “best” person in the room.