About the Author: Noam Wasserman Dean of the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, he is the author of Life is a Startup: What founders can teach us about decision making and change management.
A student taking my entrepreneurship A course at Harvard Business School a few years ago came up to me after class just a month into the semester to tell me that he would probably never start his own business.
“Sorry,” I said, “maybe you’re taking the wrong road.”
“Not at all!” he said. “Your course has already changed my marriage!”
Naturally, I asked him to explain.
He said that he and his wife had struggled as newlyweds to create a new life together. They had tried to establish who plays what roles, how decisions are made, and how each can contribute equally to the family.
Originally, for the sake of a fair division of labor, they aspired to equality of effort. Each one rotated cleaning the apartment and cooking from one day to the next.
But in my class, students learn that it’s often a mistake for startup founders to insist on equality with co-founders. In the most successful startups, partners build on their strengths, even if they contribute unequally.
My student soon noticed that some days the prepared foods ended up being burned and the floor, although clean, was still dirty. The husband was better at cooking than cleaning, and the opposite was true for his wife, his “co-founder of life.” From then on, they decided that he would cook and she would clean. No more keeping score.
In short, he applied the lessons covered in our class on how best to partner in a new business to his marriage. And they worked.
What you thought was a entrepreneurship course, the student insisted, was actually a course in life. Or, rather, a course on how to apply an entrepreneurial mindset to life outside the office. It helped open my eyes to the big picture.
I had long seen my job as an entrepreneurship teacher as educating the next generation of founders on how to start a company. But like other business school professors, he hadn’t seen how adopting an entrepreneurial mindset can benefit students beyond the business environment.
Entrepreneurship education traditionally focuses on how to start a business. Aspiring entrepreneurs learn to study the market, create a business plan, and raise capital. But the same characteristics that define an entrepreneur can have value both personally and professionally.
An entrepreneurial mindset consists of certain attributes (skills and attitudes) that are considered essential for success in business. For example, entrepreneurs know how to recognize an opportunity and then use it to their advantage. They have developed a high tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, and the ability to make decisions despite that uncertainty. They’re resilient enough to absorb setbacks (more than 80 percent of all startups fail within the first three years), learn from mistakes, grow stronger from misfires, and pivot quickly to adapt to unexpected challenges.
Entrepreneurs are exceptional at “divergent thinking,” also known as out-of-the-box thinking, which often leads to unconventional ideas. They are also strong at “convergent thinking,” taking a linear, analytical approach to generating a solution to a problem. Perhaps, above all, they can get off autopilot. It is too easy to take for granted that any service or product can, and should, be improved.
Such skills are useful not only for launching an IPO, but also for marriage, friendship, and even keeping a home. The entrepreneurial mindset can be useful in our personal lives, beyond the corporate boardroom and innovation incubator. Let’s face it: life itself is a business enterprise, whether we’re deciding which college to attend, when to marry, whether to have children, and how to pursue our careers. Entrepreneurship can enable you to better negotiate the purchase of your first home and lead a board of directors at your church or synagogue.
By maintaining and developing an entrepreneurial mindset, you can learn to take risks and collaborate with others. You can address tensions, reconcile differences, and achieve collective goals. You can plan for success while building strength from failure.
You are going to live your life 24 hours a day. As you move forward as an entrepreneur, you’ll find that all the skills you’re in the process of mastering between 9 am and 5 pm, whether it’s how to manage time, money, and stress or improve your emotional intelligence, will be just as important. in how you live from 5 pm to 9 am As my student taught me, entrepreneurship can deliver concrete rewards that mean happiness in the workplace and elsewhere. Now I know. And you too.
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