You Were Born an Entrepreneur

Have you ever watched a baby with a goal?  They know what they want, but they don’t know how to get there.  They have limbs they can barely control and a variety of toys, tools, and furniture around them.  They collect information by watching others.  They test and explore, flailing their limbs until they invent their own kind of motion to get from point A to point B.  It’s remarkable when you think about it.  None of the adults around them are crawling, but babies find this solution on their own.  They will not be denied.

It takes years in a conformity-based education system to train that kind of initiative out of us.  In fact, conformity was one of the primary goals of the education system when it was established.  Experts believed that people needed to be molded into uniform widgets, then plugged into an assembly line like spare parts, ready to take orders.  It wasn’t a great model then, and it’s even worse for the world today.

Despite the slower economy, opportunity abounds.  Cloud-computing and other innovations have dramatically reduced the cost of creating, collaborating, and starting a business.  The best businesses are struggling to find people who can come in and add value, out-of-the-box thinking, and innovation.  The market is full of unmet needs, but there aren’t enough entrepreneurs to solve them.

Now is not the time to wait around for more jobs to open up.  Now is not the time to wander aimlessly through a status quo education, or sit in classrooms struggling to stay awake.  Now is the time to rediscover your inner entrepreneur.  Break free.  Pick goals, even if they’re notional, and think clearly about the best way to achieve them.  Test different approaches.  Is the well-worn path really the best option?

Why Now is the Time

These are exciting times in education and career training.  The landscape is changing, and everyone knows it.  College degrees are still expected by most employers, but the trend is in the other direction.  Some of the most interesting companies don’t care.  They want something that stands out and signals real value.

Online education is exploding.  It still falls short in many ways, but for basic conveyance of knowledge to the motivated learner, it’s incredible.  Meanwhile, innovators are furiously trying out ways to test and verify knowledge, make it interactive, and enhance the experience.

Young people are listless and frustrated, but not willing to throw in the towel.  More and more are taking longer to make it through college; not because they’re dumb, but because college doesn’t help them discover their passions and hone their skills, even in four years, so they try a semester abroad, a new major, and on and on.  They crave a new, immersive experience.  They want something for them, not for the people who created the system.  They want to be the customer, and have their educational needs catered to; rather than feel like the cog who is used by the system then discarded.

Yet there is hesitancy.  Young people want to try something new, and break the mold, but they’re scared to be too far out there or too different.  They read articles about the declining value and rising costs of college, but they still see degrees listed as a requirement for many jobs, and their friends and parents keep urging them to go, to finish, and if that’s not enough, to try grad school.

Is it a little radical to try something like Praxis?  Yes.  That’s precisely why it’s so valuable.  Five years ago, doing something other than college was risky. In five years it will be common. Now is that sweet spot, where you have a chance to do something just enough on the edge to make you stand out, but not so far that no one understands. This is the time to push yourself just a little out of the comfort zone, be an innovator, and reap the first mover rewards on the job market.

The opportunity cost is low for young people.  The older you get, the harder it is to try something for a year.  It’s always possible, but the mental hurdles become harder to overcome.  Now is the time.

Praxis in the News

A nice story in the Daily Caller about the emergence of higher education alternatives mentions Praxis and quotes me.

“Can new opportunities like Praxis and Gap Year really supplant the traditional four-year degree? Morehouse thinks so.

“It seems radical only because the impractical and increasingly ineffective status quo is so normal,” he wrote. “Really, it’s radically practical.””

It’s been exciting to see the interest since launch, and I’m even more excited to see how the landscape continues to change to the benefit of young learners and job seekers. As I’ve written before, the current approach to life and career prep is as absurd as teaching a kid how to ride a bike without letting them actually do it.

It’s Time for Praxis

It’s here.

When I was 16 I was a sophomore in college and I couldn’t believe how inefficient the whole thing was. I loved many of my classes, especially philosophy. I loved my job, which I worked probably 30 hours a week while taking 15 or 20 credits a semester. The problem was that everything I learned of any value was stuff I taught myself because I wanted to, or because I was working.

My job taught me so much that is of value to me today. It gave me confidence. I learned from classes sometimes as well, but it had nothing to do with making the grade. I did what I needed to get A’s and B’s, and then if I was interested, I also learned stuff from the texts, teachers, or in class discussions. Learning was not necessary to make it through college. Sometimes it happened, but only for those who wanted it. Meanwhile not learning on the job was impossible. If I wanted to keep my job, it happened.

In addition to my job, I put my savings into a bank-owned house and flipped it with a few guys. I learned a lot and made some decent money. I thought it would cover the next semester’s tuition, maybe a new car, maybe a summer trip to Peru I had planned. Then I was hit with capital gains taxes I was not prepared for. Tuition and parking fees on campus also went up significantly. So did the cost of textbooks. (Luckily, I discovered two ways to get a decent grade. You could buy the text and read it, or you could show up to class. Doing both was redundant. I attended the classes I enjoyed and never bought the texts, and I avoided the boring classes, opting to read the texts instead. I saved a few bucks and many hours.)

Between the taxes and the cost of school, I was frustrated. I felt hemmed in. It seemed doing the normal thing – getting financial aid, doing class but not working – was rewarded, even though the costs were borne in part by those who took no part in it. I didn’t live on campus, for example, but I had to pay all kinds of fees and higher tuition to subsidize those that made campus life a big part of their experience. Meanwhile, going above and beyond was punished. Work hard to earn extra? Pay extra in taxes. Study enough on your own to test out of a class? Pay tuition anyway or don’t get credit.

All I wanted was knowledge – of myself and of several fields of study – and some kind of proof that I’m a reasonably competent guy to show employers. I barely got these, yet I paid for innumerable add-ons and frills that I had no interest in.

I used to walk around downtown Kalamazoo and dream about renovating one of the old buildings and turning it into a real college. A place where you learn what you want to learn. Where you only pay for what you want. Where you learn by doing as much as by thinking. Where theories were tested and applied right then and there.

Today, the frustration I felt with college is widely known and shared. I was in the middle of a growing bubble – one that has reached a fever pitch. Everyone knows it’s too expensive. Everyone knows graduates are barely equipped to do what they want to do. Most haven’t been able to try enough stuff out to even know what they want.

Online education shows great promise. If it’s knowledge you want, it’s out there. In fact, so much is out there that it can be overwhelming. Where to start? What to study? It’s also worrisome to people that they have a hard time proving their knowledge without some kind of certification. And online learning itself is great for theoretical knowledge, but the things we need to succeed in life are primarily learned through practice.

What’s needed is a combination of the best online content, compiled and structured to challenge and expand the mind while showing how it applies in real life, and on the ground experience at businesses that create value. Imagine working through interdisciplinary online courses – readings, videos, podcasts – until you really grasp the topic. Imagine being tested not with multiple choice quizzes or essays, but in conversation with experts in the field through an oral exam. Imagine working full-time with entrepreneurs and small business owners, and seeing and being a part of every aspect of business.

That’s why we launched Praxis. The name says it all. According to Wikipedia:

Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practiced, embodied, or realised. “Praxis” may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas.”

Praxis is here because college isn’t enough. Praxis is here because a growing number of smart, driven young people want more than the factory schooling approach. They want more than internships where they do menial tasks. They want more than debt. They want to build human capital, gain confidence, knowledge, experience, and a network. They want to discover what they want to do by trying it out. They don’t want to pay for a bunch of frills they don’t need. They want to take ownership of their education and life.

It takes courage the break the mold. Thankfully, this is a courageous generation, not content to follow prescribed road-maps and insistent on creating their own path to success. Praxis is for them.

Check it out.

It Goes Both Ways

People have a tendency to put themselves into one role in the market, and vilify the other.  They think of themselves as consumers, and producers are nasty.  They think of themselves as employees, and employers are greedy.  They think of themselves as sellers, and buyers are stingy.  They think of themselves as borrowers, and lenders are predatory.  To condemn any of these roles in the market is to condemn oneself.  We all play every role at one time or another.

Why is it wrong for the price of gas or groceries to go up, but right for the price of your home or the value of your 401(k) to go up?  You’re the “greedy” seller when you post on Craigslist.  You’re the “stingy” capitalist when you shop for the bank with the highest interest rate.  You’re the one “taking advantage of others” when you take a few extra minutes on lunch break or treat customers rudely.

There needn’t be any bad guy.  The point is, in a market we’re all at once buyers and sellers, producers and consumers, borrowers and lenders.  These are functions, not people, and all market participants play these roles at various times.  None of these roles are more or less noble than the other.  They’re all wonderful, so long as they’re all voluntary.  If they’re voluntary, they only come into being when another person, playing the counterpart, agrees to the exchange.  There are no sellers without buyers, there are just people with stuff they can’t get rid of.

Go easy on the one-sided category judgments.  Next time you’re tempted to condemn a company for taking advantage of employees, for example, consider all the employees that take advantage of the company as well.  Consider that both parties have to agree to work together, and both are aware of the ways in which the  other will try to get the most for the least in the deal.

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