January 20, 2013

Charles Lawton: Learning the key to sparking entrepreneurial ignition

"Some see the world as it is and ask, Why? I dream of the world as it might be and ask, Why not?"

-- Robert Kennedy, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw

I was engaged recently in a conversation with a friend who was describing the rigors of keeping his start-up business going -- dealing with partners, venture funders, customers, first employees -- when he was interrupted by a call from his wife.

After they settled whatever domestic mini-crisis had arisen, he turned to me and said, "Some people just aren't entrepreneurs." Recalling a Joan Baez lyric, I thought to myself, "Yeah, and 'a savior's a nuisance to live with at home.' "

Of all the resources necessary to grow an economy -- labor, land and natural resources, capital, technological ingenuity -- the scarcest of all is optimism. And it is also the most difficult to deal with because, in the rush of every-day "necessities," it seems so impractical, so naive, so unrealistic.

In his explanation of Maine's slow employment growth and dim prospects for accelerating recovery, Charlie Colgan notes that Maine is not "well positioned" in those sectors of the national economy that are currently leading whatever recovery is taking hold.

This fact makes whatever entrepreneurial spirit does exist in Maine both more "unrealistic" -- meaning far removed from the world "as it is" -- and more important -- meaning necessary for creating the world "as it might be."

Maine's future prosperity, more than that of states that are "well positioned," depends on moving beyond the "way things are." It depends on dreamers who can envision a different world. And that requires us to get used to and even encourage those who are often a "nuisance" to live with at home.

The entrepreneurial spirit is optimistic, hard-working, stubborn, curious, imaginative, creative, driven by personal passion. The entrepreneurial spirit is not very orderly, often impulsive, not terribly respectful of generally accepted protocols, and nearly always unwilling to slog through assigned books that describe "everything about the wasp except why."

The entrepreneur is driven to do, to achieve, to create X, whatever X may be -- a social network, a voice-activated video game, an organic potato of the month delivery system. The entrepreneur is driven not by a job, or by money, or status, or fame -- though she/he may achieve all these -- but by the vision of creating that elusive "X," that idea inextricably connected to personal identity and wellbeing. A mature business meets a known demand. An entrepreneurial business creates a new demand.

Jim Clifton, CEO of the polling company Gallup, says in his book "The Coming Jobs War" that the most important predictor of the future prosperity of a city (he could just as well have said state) is the image of and relationship to free enterprise held by fifth- to 12th-graders. That makes sense, because who is more of a nuisance to live with at home than a stubborn, curious, imaginative, creative kid driven by personal passion completely alien to those who struggle to maintain domestic order?

This, in turn, leads to the inescapable conclusion that the most critical elements of our economic development policy are our middle and high school teachers. A teacher is, or ought to be, a catalyst -- an element that, without itself being consumed, enables or speeds the reaction among other elements in a process. While the term ordinarily refers to a chemical process, it is equally applicable to the learning process. Good teachers transform their students, enabling them to become what they wouldn't have been without the teacher.

Gallop's data show that Maine's limited economic prospects will best be expanded not merely by making reading, writing and ciphering more relevant to the "real" world, but by making learning itself the definition of the "real" world.

From cute babies struggling to roll over and crawl across the room to obnoxious teenagers making music in a garage, the innate drive to engage in the personal challenge of life is the model for our economic future. Our development policies are better focused on empowering that process than on defining and measuring any particular skill, however important we may feel it to be.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at:

clawton@planningdecisions.com

 

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