To Entrepreneur or Not to Entrepreneur

Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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35 Responses

  1. You’re on a roll of late, Ethan.Report

  2. Liberty60 says:

    There seems to be an unchallenged assumption in the business and managerial worlds where “entreprenuership” is just assumed to be a superior skill, and more perniciously, one that everyone should possess.

    For instance, think of how many books and training seminars and articles are devoted to entrepreneurial skills and development. Specifically, teaching the skills of salesmanship, instant decisionmaking, networking and the like.

    Valuable stuff, to be sure.
    But isn’t there another component to any successful organization? Where are the books and articles devoted to teaching people how to be reflective, thoughtful, and measured? Where is the organizational value in those who are more solitary, introverted, and self-motivated?

    Entrepreneurs like Mr. Gerber assume that the skill they possess- being a glib, extroverted socially adept hustler- is a universal skill that needs no other component to be successful. So he can’t see the value that a liberal arts education can bring- such as the skill of deep reading, of the ability to focus intensely on a single subject as opposed to frenetic multitasking, the insights that come with thoughful reflection and analysis.

    I’ve heard it said by many managers and executives, that what they crave most in employees is not the specific skill but the work ethic, and mental skills needed to identify problems, make analytic structures, and reach valid conclusions to solve the problem.

    All of which are put to use in say, a doctoral thesis in medieval French poetry.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Liberty60 says:

      Lost in the opposition of STEM majors and Liberal Arts majors is that, in a fully entrepreneurial world, a STEM major is, not a valued employee, but a replaceable part.Report

      • at least thus far in my experience, a lot of jobs requiring technical expertise are not easy to replace for, because the way things are organized, experience with a company’s methods and practices, as well as the niche applications which they deal with, are hard to re-train for.

        You’re not going to find a chemist who has X years experience working with chemicals Y in contexts Z according to the protocols and SOPs of company Biz. Corp.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Ethan Gach says:

          I was being more parochial than that. Between a guy who’s got 10 years building complicated software systems but has no professional experience in language A, and a guy right out of college who’s done a one-person school project in A, the recent graduate

          1. Can at least spell A
          2. Comes much cheaper (especially if he’s somewhere offshore)
          3. Will work 80 hours a week

          The fact the the experienced guy will, even if he needs to learn A as he goes, build a better, more reliable system in less time seems lost on most hiring managers.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            Part of this is that the general rule in software is “Learn nothing from the past, except to overreact wildly to the flaws of the immediately preceding generation”.Report

            • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Mike Schilling says:

              Part of this is that the general rule in software is “Learn nothing from the past, except to overreact wildly to the flaws of the immediately preceding generation”.

              I love this so, so, soooooo much.Report

          • Organizations are extremely adverse to even minimal on the job training, for reasons still unknown.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Ethan Gach says:

              I think it’s the “We hire fresh meat for 25k/year and train them… AND THEN THEY GET JOBS FOR 50k/year AT SOME OTHER COMPANY??? NOT ON MY WATCH!!! WE’LL STEAL THE KIDS SOMEONE ELSE HAS TRAINED INSTEAD!!!!!” phenomenon.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Jaybird says:

                It’s certainly revulsion at the idea that the training they pay for might benefit someone else. Never mind if it’s a net win for the organization or not.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to MikeSchilling says:

                And this applies even in “open source” companies, where the fishing business model is that, of every dozen people who uses your product, one might become a paying customer.Report

            • MikeSchilling in reply to Ethan Gach says:

              By contrast, my first job out of school (decades ago) was with Chevron, and they pushed you so hard to take personal improvement courses (generally people they’d brought in-house to teach time management, business communications, etc.) and do cross-training (I learned how to put out chemical fires, not a common occurrence in our suite of offices) that sometimes it was hard to find time to get my actual work done. And if I wanted to take a DEC or IBM training course, which meant an all-expenses-paid business trip, the response was “If you think you’ll use what you learn, of course.”Report

        • Morat20 in reply to Ethan Gach says:

          Yes, but HR seems to think that they can find a replacement with the exact skill sets of the guy that just left. For cheaper.

          Which has, hilariously and just from personal experience, lead to job requirements that required more experience with the software than was physically possible (5 years for software that had existed for 3), required a hodgepodge of skills that were undoubtably unique (5 years ADA, 10 years OOD, 3 years COBOL, 3 years expert systems, 6 years experience with [insert custom or proprietary software here]), or were otherwise ridiculous in light of the actual job out the back end.

          Don’t even get me started on the hilarity of the screening process. IQ tests? QA with HR reading from a script (which, in all honesty, screws me. I can tell a non-coder is talking to me, and happily turn my answers from jargon to layman — which is probably not going to do me any good if an actual coder screens those answers later. Luckily, happily employed).

          Best programmer screen I’ve ever run into was Amazon’s (at least for big shops). I spent an hour on the phone with one of their software engineer, talking through test problems and scenarios.

          And nobody wants to do job training. No, I’ve never used your particular home-brew software or library. So? I’ve used libraries. All I need is a bit of documentation and I’m golden. But that’s somehow a deal breaker? Good luck finding the guy you want — pretty sure he was the guy you just fired and want to replace cheaper.Report

  3. Mike Schilling says:

    The latter is about how to channel academic curiosity and learning into actual creative endeavors, the former is about how to make a buck in a way loosely related to a subject you once liked. I think we need a lot more of the first, but my suspicion is that Gerber is talking mostly about the second.

    I’m pretty sure I know what you mean but I found latter/former followed by first/second confusing.Report

  4. Bob2 says:

    The technocratic solutions to education usually revolve around glib reformers, writers and people who have never actually done the hard work of evaluating or teaching students and works.
    You’ll find people who actually do know what they’re talking about being relegated to back pages or getting little newspaper coverage because, well, what they’re saying is boring and not new and exciting. Meanwhile, others who haven’t taught get Newsweek covers or promoted to chancellors of various cities, leave before the giant mess they made catches up with them…and then go onto be administrators or chancellors in other cities, and wreck them too, or they get cushy speaking gigs.Report

  5. bookdragon01 says:

    I’ll bet a degree in Chemical Engineering is also a better bet than a degree in ‘entrepreneurship’.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to bookdragon01 says:

      You’ve got another 40 years of booming big oil, no matter what else happens.

      You get a degree in chemical engineering or mechanical engineering with a emphasis on pumping facilities, you’re employed until you die.Report

      • bookdragon01 in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        I have a doctorate in structures, which could, if I was desperate, be used to develop pumping tech.

        My point was that Gerber is selling his class by making an economic argument and specifically saying that a chemical engineering degree has more ‘tangible value’ than a history degree. While there are certainly entrepreneurs who make more than engineers, if the concern is being gainfully employed after graduation, engineering is much better bet than what he’s selling. And, I suspect there are more people with an aptitude for some type of engineering than for entrepreneurship.Report

  6. James Hanley says:

    Excellent post, Ethan. As a liberal arts prof in a liberal arts college, you’re (almost) preaching to the choir when I read this. I qualify that with “almost” because I do think the liberal arts need to adapt to changed times. The question–the tough question–is how they need to adapt. But it’s adaptation that’s necessary, not rejection. It’s still true that the smartest folks are those who can see connections between different things, and that’s the ultimate value of the liberal arts. In fact I suspect that to the extent the liberal arts colleges have failed us it’s because they have mostly become “take a selection of courses from different disciplines” institutions, rather than “study stuff that crosses over between disciplines” institutions. That’s been a natural consequence of institutionalization and specialization of disciplinary knowledge, but it means lots of students don’t actually get the connections between disciplines.

    Of course I could be totally on the wrong track, but that’s my hypothesis, and I’ve been working the last few years on how to make my courses more inter and cross disciplinary. (After all, what discipline isn’t affected by politics in some way?)

    That could be seen as calling for less specialization–in contrast to the current trend–but I don’t know that it necessarily does. It allows for students to still focus on their specialization in History/Stem/Communications whatever, while taking courses that link the subject matter of other disciplines to their own, both broadening their knowledge in the traditional liberal arts fashion, while deepening their own understanding of their own field.

    I could be full of crap, though. I use posts like this one to work out the ideas I’m working on, because for sure the liberal arts colleges are in trouble, and a hell of a lot of them are going to fail, so we have to figure out how we’re going to adapt to still fulfill the value of the liberal arts education while competing against a world of increasingly specialized professional education. Feedback’s welcome, however critical.Report

  7. James Hanley says:

    As a fan of Schumpeter, I’m a great advocate of entrepreneurialism. But damned if folks like Gerber understand it.

    First, not everyone can be an entrepreneur. Lots of folks just aren’t cut out for the uncertainty of it, and the entrepreneurs still need lots of worker bees, and they need a lot of them to be well-educated.

    Second, most entrepreneurs are going to fail most of the time. The idea that all these people “trained” to be entrepreneurs will be successful and totally rev up the economy is bullshit. A majority of new businesses fail, a majority of new product launches fail. Sturgeon’s Law dominates everything, and that’s not going to change.

    Third, entrepreneurship is often surprisingly low-level. I have a high school classmate who didn’t go to college, but bought a used dump truck (marvelously, a very attractive and feminine girl) and started getting contracts to haul, parlayed her earnings into another, then another, until she had a fleet of dump trucks, and after 20 years sold it for a tidy sum and started an environmental cleanup company.

    The richest woman in the world (at least a few years back) was a woman from China who traded in scrap paper. She figured out that recycled newspaper in the U.S. had greater supply than demand, so she could buy it cheap; that container ships coming back to Asia from the U.S. had vast amounts of surplus cargo space so she could ship it cheap; and that she could shred it and sell it to Asian firms as packing material for goods they were shipping back to America. She became the world’s richest woman from that process. It’s such a simple thing that even a non-business type like me knew about every single element of the chain…but she saw the possibilities in it. Would an entrepreneurial education necessarily help you see that? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s for damned sure she doesn’t have a degree in entrepreneurship, and she didn’t do something that created or tapped into a mystical “new economy.”

    Gerber’s piece is full of buzzwords that sound good, but that he can’t define and pin down. Because once you try to, you find there’s damned little substance to them.Report

  8. Will Truman says:

    I am one of those skeptics of liberal arts majoring, for the most part, but I cannot find much to disagree with in this post. Good work, Ethan.

    I took an entrepreneurship class in college, as well as a number of other business classes. It was helpful stuff. In some ways, more helpful than my technical classes. It’s not like, though, we have a lack of business majors out there.

    I think combining a little bit of entrepreneurship into other majors (particularly the marketing/communication/design sort of thing) would be a good thing. Beyond that, I get a hippie-punching vibe. Or snooty-latte-drinker-punching vibe, if there is such a thing.Report

  9. NewDealer says:

    As a proud graduate of a small liberal arts college (and as a drama major), I give you my applause. Not only that I went to the kind of liberal arts college that lacked practical majors like nursing, business, engineering, etc.

    I think that there are a lot of people who miss the idea that education is not necessarily about economic utility. The point of education is to develop and enhance knowledge, curiosity, critical writing and thinking skills, compassion, curiosity, and a thirst for knowledge and learning.

    When people say stuff like “What are you going to do with a history, music, drama, renaissance studies, etc degree?” I see it as being the product of a small imagination.

    That being said, we can’t ask a huge chunk of our population to go into massive debt for the sake of getting an education and then discovering that they have a hard time getting jobs. A mass educated society is a positive good but it needs to be affordable and not create a crushing despair at loan debt.Report

    • dhex in reply to NewDealer says:

      some of this is the difference between “an education” (pause for dramatic kettle drums) and going to college.

      some of it is a class thing. those practical degrees make a lot more sense when you have less of a hedge for frivolity and a more pressing need for income mobility. an education of the sort you mention is a social luxury.

      some of it is that a BA is simply worth less if everyone has one.

      some of it is that people are really bad at predicting the future, and kinda suck at math to boot; the people who fit into both of those categories are probably far more likely to get a degree in [parody degree path].

      the coming darkness as far as the higher education industry (and it was always an industry, just one that was mostly closed to blacks, jews, women, poor whites, etc for long stretches in the past 100 years) depresses me, as i’m tied to it by marriage and it’s really messing with my style, as it were. i have to be extra flexible, because i might end up in montana or some other place that’s not a major east coast city. (some might argue that this is a side effect of the difference between a job, a career and a vocation; others might say “don’t marry outside your class” because you end up with people of the type who get phds in english literature; i think they’re both mostly right.)

      but the coming crash and ensuing bailout bonanza (be it for the students, the institutions, or both, or mostly a few favored institutions, or trying to pin the entire thing on the u. of phoenix, etc) will be, if nothing else, truly educational.Report

  10. Erik Kain says:

    Ethan, this is a lovely post. Well said, and not a bit too harsh.

    As someone working in the so-called “gig economy” I am actually quite positive about what it could mean, especially for professionals and creative types, but it’s hardly going to be much use to the majority of people until A) we get a much better internet infrastructure in place and B) we implement some sort of actual universal healthcare system.

    Meanwhile, I would bet good, hard money that most people in said gig-economy are college graduates.

    All this anti-liberal-arts stuff rubs me the wrong way, in any case. We should be working toward increased access (i.e. free college) rather than go the route these sorts are pushing for. Then we should increase standards and open up more avenues for non-academic education (i.e. the Finland approach) so that people don’t just use college to get drunk and party.

    Rather than just entrepreneurship classes, however, I think we should have more education earlier on about practical things like basic financing and economics in high school.

    But I’m just rambling at this point. Excellent post.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to Erik Kain says:

      I sort of have an interesting generational inbetween take on the gig economy.

      At 31, I am kind of in the purgatory between Gen X and the Millennials. This means I know a lot of people with old school traditional type jobs of salary, health insurance, and vacation. I also know a lot of young people who seem either resigned or absolutely fanatical believers in the new gig/freelance economy. Maybe a lot of it is bravado but many people in their early 20s seem to think that gigging and lateral moves is going to be their existence. Meanwhile people my age seem to have more despair at the old system going away.

      I think beyond universal healthcare, we will need some kind of universal vacation policy like Europe has. As a long but steadily employed temp myself, I am scared to take a vacation.Report

  11. James Vonder Haar says:

    The article isn’t very good, and your criticism is well-founded, but I do think there’s a kernel of a good idea in there. I went to a small liberal arts school, graduating a year ago, and while I suspect that I’d be just as adrift with any other major, it’s absolutely been my experience that my upbringing didn’t really prepare me for important aspects of the modern economy. Both of my parents were lawyers, and most of my education seemed to be predicated on that sort of life path. Get into a narrowly technical degree program, graduate with good grades, get the job you’ve been training for. It’s a significantly easier and stress-free life than the entrepreneurial one- and also one that is impossible for all but the most talented of millenials. It’s the reason why, despite bleak employment prospects, kids keep throwing themselves into the grinder of law school. It’s the only thing we’ve been prepared to do.

    It’s not like we can’t adjust to the new economic realities, or that millenials are completely dependent on those who came before them for guidance. But it’s been a pretty painful transition for me and my peers, and I think we could probably be doing a better job of preparing the post-millenials for a job market that requires more self-promotion and daring than it used to.Report

  12. mclaren says:

    You almost certainly mean “drivel” rather than “dribble.”
    Other quasihomophones to watch out for: too instead of to, and instead of an, their instead of there, etc.Report

  13. J.L. Wall says:

    Excellent post, Ethan — except now you’re encroaching on what used to be my (and Rufus’) territory.

    Someone has perhaps already said this — but aside from all that you point out, there’s a lack of understanding that a business/entrepreneurship/pre-professional major might have some need for — or stand to benefit from — a dose of the liberal arts in his/her curriculum. They offer (or ought to offer) opportunity, if nothing else, for self-critical character development in their own distinct way. The liberal arts don’t make money, and that’s the only measure of educational value. (We’ll ignore that Dear Alma Mater tended to advise pre-law students to stay away from a “pre-law” curriculum — to increase their chances of getting into and succeeding in law school. And that most of my classmates from the Classics department there are doing things other than academia — and making a nice hourly rate at it, too.)

    I’m resigned to the growth of pre-professionalism on college campuses — especially given the rising prices and entrepreneurial attitudes of the ever-expanding administration(s) — so to agree with James, the liberal arts need to look to adapt. There will always be a few who, like me, wanted a liberal arts curriculum for its own sake — but some soul-searching on the part of educators in the liberal arts is necessary. Not strictly to make them/ourselves relevant to the entrepreneur — but to help make/allow him or her to realize that the liberal arts are already relevant to them.Report

  14. wardsmith says:

    Ethan this has been a great post and I would like to reply /as/ an entrepreneur in some depth, but I have a torn tendon on one of my fingers and can’t type worth beans with two fingers taped together so will collect my thoughts and perhaps try a guest post when I heal. There’s a lot of meat on this bone of liberal education yet to chew.Report