Teaching Entrepreneurship

Can most people learn the traits to be highly successful in business?

Dilbert creator Scott Adams takes to WSJ to explain How to Get a Real Education. His thesis is in the opening paragraph:

I understand why the top students in America study physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature. The kids in this brainy group are the future professors, scientists, thinkers and engineers who will propel civilization forward. But why do we make B students sit through these same classes? That’s like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money. Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach B students something useful, like entrepreneurship?

The next several paragraphs then go on to refute the the notion that entrepreneurship is taught. He provides a serious of amusing anecdotes showing how, as an undergraduate econ major, he took over a local business, his college dorm, and the college gym through initiative, audacity, out-of-the-box thinking, and shrewd manipulation of people and the rules. Which is to say: Adams was a highly successful entrepreneur at a very early age and no one showed him how to do it.

The suggestions that come out of this are likely still useful:

Combine Skills. The first thing you should learn in a course on entrepreneurship is how to make yourself valuable. It’s unlikely that any average student can develop a world-class skill in one particular area. But it’s easy to learn how to do several different things fairly well. I succeeded as a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world. The “Dilbert” comic is a combination of all four skills. The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person. That’s how value is created.

Fail Forward. If you’re taking risks, and you probably should, you can find yourself failing 90% of the time. The trick is to get paid while you’re doing the failing and to use the experience to gain skills that will be useful later. I failed at my first career in banking. I failed at my second career with the phone company. But you’d be surprised at how many of the skills I learned in those careers can be applied to almost any field, including cartooning. Students should be taught that failure is a process, not an obstacle.

Find the Action. In my senior year of college I asked my adviser how I should pursue my goal of being a banker. He told me to figure out where the most innovation in banking was happening and to move there. And so I did. Banking didn’t work out for me, but the advice still holds: Move to where the action is. Distance is your enemy.

Attract Luck. You can’t manage luck directly, but you can manage your career in a way that makes it easier for luck to find you. To succeed, first you must do something. And if that doesn’t work, which can be 90% of the time, do something else. Luck finds the doers. Readers of the Journal will find this point obvious. It’s not obvious to a teenager.

Conquer Fear. I took classes in public speaking in college and a few more during my corporate days. That training was marginally useful for learning how to mask nervousness in public. Then I took the Dale Carnegie course. It was life-changing. The Dale Carnegie method ignores speaking technique entirely and trains you instead to enjoy the experience of speaking to a crowd. Once you become relaxed in front of people, technique comes automatically. Over the years, I’ve given speeches to hundreds of audiences and enjoyed every minute on stage. But this isn’t a plug for Dale Carnegie. The point is that people can be trained to replace fear and shyness with enthusiasm. Every entrepreneur can use that skill.

Write Simply. I took a two-day class in business writing that taught me how to write direct sentences and to avoid extra words. Simplicity makes ideas powerful. Want examples? Read anything by Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett.

Learn Persuasion. Students of entrepreneurship should learn the art of persuasion in all its forms, including psychology, sales, marketing, negotiating, statistics and even design. Usually those skills are sprinkled across several disciplines. For entrepreneurs, it makes sense to teach them as a package.

The earlier people master these skills, the better. And, certainly, some of these lessons can be taught–although preferably much earlier than arrival at university. But the fact of the matter is that a relative small number of people have the drive, intelligence, and personality to actually live these skills rather than simply understanding them.

More than 15 million people have bought Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Each of the “habits” is insightful and, once understood, gobsmackingly obvious.

  • Habit 1: Be Proactive
  • Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
  • Habit 3: Put First Things First
  • Habit 4: Think Win-Win
  • Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, then to be understood
  • Habit 6: Synergize
  • Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Nonetheless, my strong guess is that the percentage of those who’ve read the book who weren’t already highly successful people and then went on to transform their lives is vanishingly small. I’m sure a lot of people had stunning insights into their own patterns while reading and changed for the better. But the vast majority of readers likely went on just as before, reverting to their hard wired tendencies.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Adams’ proposed curriculum wouldn’t be an improvement on majority in art history or medieval literature. For those not going on to be professionals, college is ultimately about learning to find, process, and communicate information. Organizing around life skills and cross-curricular subjects rather than narrow concentrations may be more stimulating. But we’re unlikely to vastly increase the percentage going on to be great entrepreneurs.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    But why do we make B students sit through these same classes? That’s like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money.

    That’s harsh, but Adams is twigging to where our education dollars are lost … over-training in the wrong ways.

    I’m fine with teaching entrepreneurship, and I’m sure it does work, but I’d hate to see the idea co-opted as a way to keep the government-education complex growing. How many years do you need a kid after HS to give him an entrepreneurial, general business, start?

    If this is just another way to get 4 years of funding via loans, parents, or grants, fuggetaboutit.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Adams’ advice is 180 diametrically opposed to everything the government and military does. Fail Forward? Fuggetaboutit! It’s a one mistake career. That’s why you have risk adverse people at the top of the Pentagon and bureaucracy. After 30 years, I’ve given up and know that when the bosses talk about ‘innovation,’ most have no idea what they’re talking about. Adams must work in my office because the pointy hair boss is always showing up (as does Catbert, Mordac, et al).

  3. Hey Norm says:

    Glad he discussed luck…something not acknowledged in any of the tea bag dogma. The right wingers have this fantasy about a link between merit and success (and thus wealth).
    Sure…Bob Gates had a great idea. But even he says he benefited from his family situation and the very timing of his birth. Someone born poor who manages to get through college is still less likely to be wealthy than someone who is born wealthy and doesn’t finish college.
    Progressive taxation and the ACA help create an environment for entrepreneurship but the right wingers are against both. Why? Because statistically speaking the baggers were born lucky an don’t give a hoot about anyone not exactly like them. Slash the funds for birth control that might keep a young woman in school, but not farm subsidies.
    I’m glad to see the baggers talking about entrepreneurship…I just wish they would talk about the real world at the same time. Maybe Scott Adams admitting the role of luck will be a start. But probably not.

  4. Ben says:

    I had several ideas in college and grad school that I think could have been pretty good ideas to start a business and get started on the entrepreneurial path. But I was too risk averse. Every time I thought about starting my own business, all my thoughts ended up being, “if I don’t get any business, how will I pay my rent/car payment/etc?” Just thinking happy thoughts and plunging headlong seemed ridiculous to me. I understand that this risk aversion will prevent me from ever reaching the uppermost income levels, and I’ve made my peace with that. Because I believe it will also probably (barring some sort of catastrophic medical issue) prevent me from ever suffering the sort of devastating failure that would cause me to lose the things I do have.

  5. Jason says:

    Hey Norm,

    Glad he discussed luck…something not acknowledged in any of the tea bag dogma. The right wingers have this fantasy about a link between merit and success (and thus wealth).

    Were you reading the same post I was? Adams explicitly mentions that “Luck finds the doers”, that is, that you make your own luck by trying over and over until you succeed. Perhaps that point is debatable, but don’t make what Adams said try to mean the exact opposite.

  6. jwest says:

    Although there are undoubtedly some aspects of entrepreneurship that students would find helpful, the basis of the class would be lost on 99% of those taking it.

    Entrepreneurs are the elite of society, having not only the vision and ability, but the courage to and tenacity to make things happen. Today’s colleges are fine to train the legions of lemmings that entrepreneurs will use and discard as necessary, but the thought that a school could impart the qualities found in people who actually create wealth is a bit ridiculous.

  7. Anon says:

    It’s unclear how to objectively evaluate much of this. For example, take risk aversion. If you sample successful entrepreneurs, and find that they are risk-seeking, that doesn’t mean that any particular person should be risk-seeking to maximize his/her outcome in life.

    For every successful entrepreneur, how many unsuccessful ones are there who did all the right things and had the right attitude (risk-seeking, etc.), but didn’t have enough innate talent or were just unlucky? For those unsuccessful ones, how many years of their life did they waste that could have been better spent going to grade school and building a career in a profession such as engineering?

  8. Hey Norm says:

    Bristol Palin, a teenage unmarried mother, got paid $265k to promote abstinence. I guess luck found her because shes a doer. A perfect case for progressive taxation.
    Luck has many facets. It find the doers, and it finds those that don’t do. Maybe you have heard the phrase “lady luck is fickle”. Bagger Dogma totally discounts luck. Certainly the philosophy of Ayn Rand demands an overestimation of ones own competence to the point of rank arragance…which of course requires one to discount the role of luck.
    At any rate…thanks for proving my point.

  9. jwest says:


    Your comment clearly shows why entrepreneurs are such an elite class.

    Even though someone has the idea, makes the plans and has the courage to risk not only every dime he will ever have, but the life savings of his family and friends and anyone else he can talk into backing him, there is no guarantee he will be successful. Luck enters into the equation.

    To be an entrepreneur, one needs extremely large, chrome-plated brass balls.

  10. Hey Norm says:

    Jwest is operating in bagger fantasy land. For very steve jobs there are a gazillion normal folks…a lawyer or an architect that starts there own firm, a mechanic that opens his own shop, a mom that has a better doughnut recipe opening her own shop. It doesn’t take super-human sized attachments. But being able to get insurance because of the ACA will be a huge advantage over the status quo…which baggers prefer.

  11. Anon says:

    So, by Jwest’s definition, someone who loses the life-savings of his family and friends is more admirable than a hard-working average Joe who takes care of his family, saves his money, not a smooth-talker, not a schmoozer, etc.

  12. jwest says:


    Perhaps you have trouble following most conversations, but you seem to really have trouble following my comments.

    The mom who has a better doughnut recipe and wants to open her own shop is just as much an entrepreneur as Steve Jobs, and she will need just as large a set of balls to carry through with her plans. These are the people who make our economy work, who employ all the risk-adverse and who the liberals which to punish at every turn because they envy their success.

  13. Anon says:

    These are the people [entrepreneurs] who make our economy work,

    As opposed to the millions of other people who are not entrepreneurs? They are just leeches, right? So, fire all managers, accountants, civil servants, secretaries, bankers, engineers, administrative staff, machinists, technicians, etc.

  14. jwest says:


    You hire and fire the leeches as required.

    The point is, no one would hire them in the first place if it wasn’t for people who risk everything starting businesses.

  15. Hey Norm says:

    Disagreeing with you, or thinking there are more complexity to an issue than you do, doesnt mean i cant follow what you are saying. I do have trouble following nonsense.
    If our donut lady is making the economy run why do baggers want to stack the deck against her? Ryans Tea Bag Manifesto will raise her taxes, make it harder, if not impossible, to get insurance, and by abolishing Medicare and Medicaid eliminate any kind of safety net In case she fails…like many entrepreneurs do simply because of bad luck.
    Baggers want to preserve opportunity for those that already have it. Grown-ups want EVERYONE to have opportunities.

  16. Hey Norm says:

    According to jw anyone who works for someone else is a leech. This is why the baggers are not equipped to govern a diverse nation. Their world view I’d so child-like it’s laughable.

  17. michael reynolds says:

    It’s not an either/or. There are people who take risks and people who prefer not to and both are necessary. There’s no moral hierarchy. If we had an entire race of risk-takers our ancestors would have eaten every berry they saw and fought every animal and we’d have died on the savannah a long time ago.

    By the same token, we’d still be on the savannah if some risk-taker hadn’t thought, “You know, I make good spears, maybe I’ll go into business.”

    One is not better or more necessary than the other.

    And nothing makes me roll my eyes like self-pitying entrepreneurs whining that they aren’t loved enough. Man up.

  18. DC Loser says:

    @Norm That’s because TBers are rent seeking leeches who believe in using government via their lawyers and lobbyists to stymie competition with ridiculous barriers to enter into true competition. They want to be paid both coming and going, just like the Wall Street types. They believe in Win-Win for themselves and Lose-Lose for all the suckers out there.

  19. jwest says:


    The opportunities are already there for everyone. What you’re looking for is more equality of outcome, which will never happen.

    Hey, I’m not knocking those who place security above everything else. These are the people drawn to large corporations, government and tenured academic positions. They are willing to trade the chance for success for the warm fuzzy feeling of an entity that will tell them what to do, when to do it and promise to care for them for the rest of their lives.

    Some people want that. Others don’t.

    What is sad though, is when these same people who didn’t want to take risks start complaining about how the few winning risk takers are making so much more money than they are. For some reason, this seems unfair to them. Although they have never spent a sleepless night (or year) wondering how they are going make payroll, keep up with the competition, comply with all the regulations and still put shoes on their kid’s feet, they feel they are entitled to similar rewards.

  20. Cynical Traveler says:

    Adams’s article begs the question: it presumes that entrepreneurship is a preferable path for students who won’t excel at the top of another realm of study. I find that premise doubtful on its face – you don’t need to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry to contribute, and contribute substantially, to the field. I would also note that Adams hasn’t really even taken his own advice: cartooning was a personal interest of his. It then becomes difficult to turn around and tell others that they shouldn’t pursue what they enjoy as a result. Because that is ultimately what he is arguing: that middling students should be pushed out of their chosen fields in favor of an entrepreneurial set of classwork.

    I also agree with Joyner that most of these skills are not teachable. A significant tolerance of risk is probably at the top of the list; a solid idea is another (how many start-ups require skilled scientists to provide this seed?). Many, many companies are filled with the ranks of failed entrepreneurs, which is the overwhelming majority of them.

  21. michael reynolds says:

    I love tea partier’s notions of entrepreneurship because it never extends in their minds beyond a very limited definition.

    You want some entrepreneurship? Take a look at the arts. I’m a writer. I haven’t had a paycheck in 23 years but I’ve managed to stay in the high brackets. I have no employer, no employer retirement plan, no guarantee of a job, no unemployment insurance. I have no idea what I’ll be earning in any given year. I sometimes spend 6 months on a job that may end up paying me zero dollars.

    Which is why tea party types so admire all the writers, artists, directors, dancers, designers etc… who make up the amazingly productive and overwhelmingly liberal arts community.

  22. Hey Norm says:

    Never mentioned equality of outcome…that’s your bias. You called me a leech. I can’t take you seriously.

  23. jwest says:


    As self-sufficient as you are, I’m amazed you don’t lean more to the right.

    I’m a big fan of the arts. Many don’t see actors, writers, singers and dancers as being “productive”, but personally I believe they fill an essential role keeping not only the entrepreneurs, but the masses amused and entertained.

    It’s important that we have something to take our minds off of keeping the economy running once in a while. Even people like Norm who’s only task in life is the punch the time clock twice each day benefit from a taste of culture the arts bring to him.

    Michael, you should rightfully be proud of your accomplishments.

  24. michael reynolds says:



    But Hollywood and publishing are two of very few industries in this country that are dominant world wide. Our cars may not make it across the ocean, but my books are in every major country on earth.

    Let me give you a little lesson in entrepreneurship, if I may. I’ve sold something like 35 million books. Let’s say the average retail (some paper, some hard, some book club discount) is $6. That’s 200 million dollars. Only about 7% net goes to me. Which leaves, round numbers, 186 million that went to creating jobs in industries like retail, trucking, paper, oil refining, etc…

    Let me know when the average right-wing tea partier’s muffler shop or pizza parlor gets to 200 million and creates as many jobs as that entails.

    The reason we successful entrepreneurs — in Hollywood, in New York, in Silicon Vally — are so often liberal is, I guess, because we know we’re lucky, and we know we owe something to civilization, and we don’t think just because we have a good life that we need to be bitter, angry and resentful Galt wanna-be’s.

  25. jwest says:


    Let me know when the average writer produces 200 million gross and I’ll cede the point.

    You’re correct that most muffler shops and pizza parlors don’t hit those numbers, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that those entrepreneurs needed to exhibit the same go-for-broke spirit that the larger companies did in order to get to whatever their sales are.

  26. michael reynolds says:


    Yes, they do have to be entrepreneurs, and I honor them for it. I just don’t think they need to be praised, kowtowed to, or pitied because they pay taxes. And I don’t think the person who makes the mufflers on an assembly line, or prints my books, is a second class citizen or should be derided or belittled.

    Entrepreneurship is not necessarily “conservative” as evidenced by people like Jobs, Buffet or pretty much anyone in the arts. And it doesn’t have to be accompanied by either hubris or self-pity. If you want to be an entrepreneur, go for it, enjoy, just don’t turn it into an excuse for looking down your nose at working people, or for getting some tea-party rage on.

  27. Drew says:

    “You want some entrepreneurship? Take a look at the arts. I’m a writer. I haven’t had a paycheck in 23 years but I’ve managed to stay in the high brackets. I have no employer, no employer retirement plan, no guarantee of a job, no unemployment insurance. I have no idea what I’ll be earning in any given year. I sometimes spend 6 months on a job that may end up paying me zero dollars.”

    You were saying something about stop whining and manning up??

  28. Drew says:

    I think Adam’s prescriptions and James comments are spot on. If I’d have listened to much of the advice I have gotten during my career I’d still be slogging away as an engineer in some lab or production floor. A noble profession to be sure, but not what I wanted. Adam’s has it spot on.

    And Reynold’s mindless observation aside, what the Tea Party people really want is to get rid of the asymetrical risk/reward profile: You lose, “sorry, but thank you for your money, time and effort.” You win, “great, give us the money, we’re giving it to someone else to buy votes.”

  29. michael reynolds says:


    You are the single biggest cry-baby I’ve ever seen.