Coming Soon: Nontrepreneur Nation

Despite how U.S. students continue to lag far behind those in Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan in math and science and score comparable to European students (NYT, 11/14/07), I was never concerned about the welfare of our nation. Even though, for more than a decade, U.S. students typically placed outside the top ten in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Why wasn’t I worried? The U.S. still leads in the number of patents awarded, in its disproportionate amount of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, and in the number of entrepreneurial ventures started each year. The U.S. rewards creativity with programs and prizes such as the MacArthur Fellows Program and numerous “entrepreneur of the year” awards. Confident about our unique culture and emphasis on creativity and entrepreneurship, I strongly believed that our national innovation engine would continue to lead in technology and entrepreneurship for decades to come.

However, recently I have begun to feel as though I am on shaky ground, confronting fears of collapse in our city on the hill. The current crop of U.S. students – what should become the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs – shows strong characteristics that counter the unique culture of innovation on which our country built itself, and our future is at risk.

Evidence of Changing Times
Around me, in various circles of my life, I’ve been seeing anecdotal evidence to bolster this concern.

Last week I came back from a college student conference where I serve as an adviser. The conference was started 22 years ago and typically has 500-1000 students attend each year, and I’ve been involved since 1992. Of late, we have recognized a trend among these student organizers, who are ambitious leaders on their campuses. Over the past five years there has been a change in their mentality. More and more, the student leaders were asking for guidance and hand-holding throughout the effort of organizing this conference. This was a strange experience for us, because previously the student organizers wanted more independence, and were pushing our boundaries. Today’s student organizers generally wanted to be told what to do instead of taking their own initiative – while, oddly enough, sometimes a greater degree of pretentiousness and sense of entitlement crop up.

Last year, I was speaking with a friend who is a school administrator in New York City about this trend I noticed. She agreed with my observation. In high schools, she also saw recent changes in students, where they want more guidance and reveal an increasing fear of failure. She recalled one conversation where she was talking with a student about why this student decided not to take Spanish:

“So why did you decide to not take the class?”
“Because I don’t know Spanish, so I’ll probably fail.”
“Well, that’s why you’re supposed to take it, so you can learn something you don’t know.”

My friend told me that these types of conversations with students – where uncertainty and the unknown are avoided rather than confronted – are becoming more common for her.

Causes for Declining Entrepreneurship
So I began to consider some of the causes for this lack of entrepreneurial spirit among students. I remember raising an eyebrow when in 1996, a few years after I graduated from college, the Educational Testing Service adjusted its scoring because the national average was dropping. A 730 verbal on the old scale would be awarded a perfect 800 on the new scale, and a math score of 780 on the old scale would get 800 on the new scale. Even in today’s new SAT Reasoning Test, a “perfect” isn’t a truly perfect score. I also remember grade inflation starting to happen while I was in college, when some universities began taking “Fs” out of their system. At Harvard in the early 2000s, 90 percent or more of students graduated with honors. And in 2003, The Washington Post’s Stuart Rojstaczer noted that fully half of all grades given at Pomona, Duke, Harvard, and Columbia are “As.”

In Denise Shekerjian’s book Uncommon Genius, she searched for the essence of creativity by following 40 winners of the MacArthur Prize (also known as the “genius award”). Some of the key characteristics she chronicled: the Fellows’ ability to take risks, and how they built resiliency. Resiliency comes from facing your mistakes and failures, and learning that failure is a path to success. Being resilient and able to take risks are characteristics that are also clearly necessary for entrepreneurship, as most successful entrepreneurs have failed at least once. From numerous veterans of Silicon Valley to local hometown entrepreneurs, failure is a badge of honor.

Yet for the past decade, we have been conditioning our next generation of would-be leaders, entrepreneurs, and scientists to avoid risks by letting them opt out of classes or exams they might not ace, we’ve been protecting them from failure with grade inflation, and we’ve been inflating their self-worth with scoring adjustments.

And the result? These actions have been destructive to this generation and to our nation. There have been additional adverse effects from this risk-avoidance approach. A 2004 article in Psychology Today, A Nation of Wimps, states that in 1996, anxiety overtook relationship concerns as the major problem cited by students, and The University of Michigan Depression Center estimated that depression affects 15 percent of college students nationwide.

Just a few weeks ago, I had a conversation with my colleague Dan Wooldridge, a leadership consultant, about the recent entrants from Generation Y into the workplace. He said that companies have had to adjust because this was the first generation parented by “soccer moms” – every minute of their children’s lives have been scripted and scheduled from soccer to piano to church activities to social events.

“The kids are dropped off and picked up and taken to the next event on the schedule. They have not learned how to spontaneously organize or manage themselves, and so when they enter the workplace, they need more instruction, structure, and coddling. Also because their parents have so managed the risks they face and so trying things that might result in failure is absolutely terrifying,” he explained. He continued to state that this group’s strengths are multi-tasking, grew up in diversity, more optimistic than the previous generation, and can be very self-confident.

The parents of this generation have created a competitive frenzy for schooling and an abundance of “high achievers.” At the same time, they have promoted an environment of dependency on a parental figure, which is what I’ve been experiencing first-hand.

Our education system and the latest parental practices are threatening the valuable idea that failure and learning from it can lead to success.

Today, failure is still accepted in our society. But burgeoning undercurrents from our education system and the latest parental practices are threatening this valuable idea – that failure and learning from it can lead to success – which helps fuel our national innovation engine.

I am deeply concerned about the future of innovation and entrepreneurship in our nation, which is so strongly tied to its economic growth. To reestablish ourselves, we need a closer examination of our education system – and possibly wholesale changes in testing, grading, and teaching. For every Mark Zuckerberg or Matt Mullenweg who rises up from today’s generation of students, hundreds of thousands of future entrepreneurs, scientists, and leaders are not able to overcome their conditioning of dependency and doubt. My fear is that we are creating a nation of “nontrepreneurs,” and that because of our eroding entrepreneurial spirit we are losing future contributors to not only the U.S., but to the world.

So – Americans, world citizens – what should we do about this?
Originally published at Insidework

Bernard is Vice President of the Lunsford Group, which is a private holding company consisting of entities in technology, media, research & consulting, health care, investment boutique, and real estate. Bernard also blogs at Silicon Moon.