About the author: Noam Wasserman is the dean of Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business and a former professor of entrepreneurship at the Harvard Business School, is the author of Life Is a Startup: What Founders Can Teach Us about Making Choices and Managing Change.
A student taking my entrepreneurship course at Harvard Business School some years ago came up to me after class only a month into the semester to tell me he would probably never start his own business.
“Sorry,” I said, “maybe you’re taking the wrong course.”
“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 with how to create a new life together. They had tried to establish who plays which roles, how decisions are made and how each can contribute equally to the family.
Originally, in the interest of a fair division of labor, they aimed for equality of effort. They each 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 new ventures, partners play to their strengths, even if they contribute unequally.
My student soon noticed that some days the meals prepared wound up burnt and the floor, though cleaned, was still dirty. The husband was better at cooking than at cleaning, and the opposite was true for his wife—his “co-founder of life.” Henceforth, they decided he would cook and she would clean. No more keeping score.
In short, he applied to his marriage the lessons covered in our class about how best to partner in a startup. And they worked.
What he thought was an entrepreneurship course, the student insisted, was actually a course in life. Or, rather, a course in how to apply an entrepreneurial mindset to life outside the office. He helped open my eyes to the bigger picture.
I had long seen my job as an entrepreneurship professor as educating the next generation of founders about how to start a company. But like other business-school faculty, I had neglected to see how adopting an entrepreneurial mindset can benefit students beyond a 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 very characteristics that define an entrepreneur can have value personally as well as professionally.
An entrepreneurial mindset consists of certain attributes—skills and attitudes—regarded as essential to 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 are resilient enough to absorb setbacks—more than 80 percent of all start-ups fail in the first three years—learn from mistakes, get stronger from misfires, and pivot quickly to adapt to unexpected challenges.
Entrepreneurs are exceptional at “divergent thinking,” otherwise known as thinking outside the box, often leading to unconventional ideas. They’re also strong in “convergent thinking,” taking a linear, analytical approach to generating a solution to a problem. Perhaps above all, they can get out of autopilot.It’s too easy to take for granted that any service or product can—and should—be improved.
Such skills come in handy not only in launching an initial public offering but also in marriage, friendship and even maintaining a home. The entrepreneurial mindset can come in handy in our personal lives, beyond the corporate boardroom and innovation incubator. Let’s face it: life itself is an entrepreneurial enterprise, whether we’re deciding which college to attend, when to marry, whether to have children, and how to pursue our careers. The spirit of entrepreneurship can enable you to better negotiate the purchase of your first house and to lead a board of directors at your church or synagogue.
If you maintain and develop an entrepreneurial mindset, you can learn how to take risks and collaborate with others. You can address tensions, reconcile differences and achieve collective objectives. You can plan for success while getting stronger from failure.
You are going to live your life 24 hours a day. In forging ahead as an entrepreneur, you’ll discover that all the skills you’re in the process of mastering between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.—whether how to manage time, money and stress or improving your emotional intelligence—will be just as important in how you live from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. As my student taught me, entrepreneurship can impart concrete rewards that spell happiness in the workplace and everywhere else. Now I know. And so do you.
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