“Fail fast; learn fast.”
It’s a mantra that we’ve heard repeatedly over the past decade, especially as startup culture has entered mainstream consciousness, but a part of me has always wondered how many of us actually take it to heart. In my own entrepreneurial career, which has included both spectacular successes and failures, I’ve been forced to face my mistakes and grow from them as quickly as possible. However, I’ve also seen how easy it is to fall into a rhythm and get stuck in a professional rut.
So a few years ago, when my company was approaching its 25th birthday and my kids were moving away to college, I started to ask myself: Can we transfer that mantra to higher education to create entrepreneurially minded students who eventually become highly effective professionals?
To answer that question, I returned to my alma mater, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and started a conversation that would change everything. That conversation evolved into UMSL Accelerate, a university initiative in which students learn from teachers with decades of real-life entrepreneurial experience in order to move further in their careers at a faster pace.
Business as Usual Is Over
When we look at higher education coverage in the media, we can see a common theme: It’s broken. Student debt is at an all-time high, and it seems degrees, in and of themselves, are becoming less valuable as companies seek candidates with proven experience and applicable skills. In fact, the World Economic Forum found that, by 2020, problem-solving, creativity and negotiating would become the most in-demand skills by employers.
In short, higher education is ripe for disruption.
So when I approached the dean to discuss my idea for UMSL Accelerate, I knew that, if nothing else, it had to be action-oriented. I wanted to focus more on mastering and applying soft skills than memorizing and regurgitating theories. It was counterintuitive to the current system, but the timing was right and the university’s leadership team was on board.
Our goal isn’t just to pump out entrepreneurs. In fact, we know that not everyone is meant to start a business. The same mindset that makes a good entrepreneur, however, also makes a good employee. Whatever their ultimate goal may be, the real-life wisdom and experience students gain by learning to think like an entrepreneur gives them the skills they need to achieve it.
Fostering the Entrepreneur Inside
Possessing an entrepreneurial mindset doesn’t mean you have to be your own boss. It just means utilizing your creativity, experience and emotional intelligence to solve problems, learn quickly and spearhead new ideas.
For some people, that does mean starting their own business or creating their own niche, but for others, it means switching companies, reaching for that promotion or pursuing a new career altogether, even if they may not be completely confident about doing it. If you’re considering a career leap of faith, take these three tips into account:
1. Be deliberate.
Entrepreneurs are great at “leap” innovation: identifying a problem and working to solve it. But they also understand the value of mitigating risk because most are lacking both time and money. In the same way, whether you’re considering quitting your job or interviewing for a position that seems slightly out of reach, you need to mitigate your risk by mapping your vision against a set of achievable benchmarks.
So ask yourself: Can I hire myself for 10 hours every week to pursue my next big thing? Can I commit $100 a month to develop new skills, do research and further my goal? Sticking to this process gives you discipline, accountability, and enough skills and resources to give you a sizable advantage. It will also help you fight the impossibly strong inertia that keeps us on the path of least resistance.
2. Learn to crawl first, then walk.
I understand the urge to sprint toward your goal all too well, but it’s absolutely critical to give yourself a reality check. You don’t want to quit your job if you don’t have something else lined up, so learn to crawl first, then walk.
I always encourage my students to learn all they can about the entrepreneurial mindset, and then go and enjoy a career. Get some real-world experience, deal with difficult people, develop professional instincts and build up your network. I can’t stress enough how critical it is to engage with your professional community. It will be one of your strongest assets in finally seeing that big, hairy, audacious goal come to fruition.
3. Run when you’re ready.
Once the time is right—you’ve built up a solid network, fostered important soft skills, done the proper research, etc.—you can finally run toward that goal you’ve been eyeing.
This same formula is how I was able to successfully launch UMSL Accelerate. Once I decided it was a good idea, I crawled toward it by exploring possibilities with university leadership. Then, I walked a bit by hiring myself out to the university as a part-time consultant. When the initiative gained enough traction for me to work on it full time, I sprinted toward making it a reality and started hiring other faculty members to round out our staff.
Being an entrepreneur is no longer a profession—it’s a way of being. I set out on my own career transition from entrepreneur to educator so that I could push entrepreneurially minded students to move further faster. You, too, can pursue your next great career endeavor by applying the lessons of entrepreneurship today.