Because Butterflies Aren’t Enough

 
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By Alex Bruton • November 16 2014 • Innovation by Design Issue 1Share on FacebookShare on Twitter
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[image align=”center” img=”http://theinnographer.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Back-Sweat-and-Breathlessness-1-710.jpeg” /]

 

I stumbled across a great post by Diana Kander the other day{{1}}, and while I don’t think her assertion about the murder (and murderer) of entrepreneurial thinking was supported, the post does a great job of making the case that we should be helping students experience butterflies in their stomachs while learning entrepreneurship. No doubt she’s right that more of that is needed.

[[1]]Read it here: How Higher Education is Killing Entrepreneurial Thinking[[1]]

But we need to go further.

[blockquote align=”right”]As leaders in the field of entrepreneurship education we need to move beyond fostering butterflies to helping new entrepreneurs experience what it’s like to have their backs sweat because of the decent risk of losing something dear to them. And we need to figure out how to give them the gift of experiencing the tears of breathlessness that only come with being truly all-in.[/blockquote]You see, last summer I quit my full time tenured job as a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship to grow my social business that helps people (learn to) innovate. And even though I’d done some good time as an entrepreneur in the eleven years before beginning my academic career and twice during my seven years as a professor, the last few months have given me a very fresh lens on this whole notion of butterflies in stomachs – one that I wonder if Diana might have wanted to express but chose not to because she was speaking to an audience of professors.

My point is that learning on the backs of butterflies is simply not enough. No matter how many butterflies you might experience you’ll be missing some incredibly important learning if you never go beyond that.

As teachers we tend to be good at handing out assignments, and we’re generally not bad at getting the butterflies flying – even in formation sometimes. But as leaders in the field of entrepreneurship education we need to move beyond fostering butterflies to helping new entrepreneurs experience what it’s like to have their backs sweat because of the decent risk of losing something dear to them. And we need to figure out how to give them the gift of experiencing tears of breathlessness that only come with being truly all-in. Butterflies play a role but a much wider range learning modes need to on our minds when designing curricula, and present in our toolboxes as we deliver and assess our programs.

Here’s how I propose we need to think about it.

Getting beyond butterflies for deep entrepreneurial learning

I’ve come to think that there are four modes of entrepreneurial learning; four situations in which we can find ourselves, that each afford and inspire a different kind of learning:

  1. Being bound – by grades or some other commitment you’ve made to learning.
  2. Having butterflies – an increased level of motivation to learn, often due to being outside your comfort zone.
  3. Feeling your back sweat – because you’ve got something pretty significant to lose if you don’t learn enough, fast enough.
  4. Experiencing the tears of breathlessness – which smack you across the head because of a significant success or failure, and which provide deep opportunities for learning.

None of these is better than the other. They’re just different. They afford different types of learning.

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Watch the video:

Beyond Butterflies to Back Sweat and Breathlessness in Entrepreneurship Education

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My point is that being bound and having butterflies aren’t enough on their own. An entrepreneur also needs to learn from feeling their back sweat and from their response to situations that bring on tears of breathlessness.

Here’s how to think about all of this.

1. Being bound

[blockquote align=”right”]”Being bound” to learn is where most entrepreneurial learners spend a good deal of time. It’s the stuff of signing up for a course at a local university. Or a lean startup workshop at your local economic development, tech transfer, or startup organization. And let’s face it, we’re good at this mode of learning in education.[/blockquote] “Being bound” to learn is where most entrepreneurial learners spend a good deal of time. It’s the stuff of signing up for a course at a local university. Or a lean startup workshop at your local economic development, tech transfer, or startup organization. It’s the stuff of taking a masters degree in financial accounting for SMEs. Or taking online courses. Or writing a business plan for your idea. And it’s the stuff of meeting mentors and asking them for feedback on your idea.

And let’s face it, we’re good at this mode of learning in education. It comes about because of our assignments and the grades we attach to them. Sure, the keenest among our students will motivate themselves – because of a commitment they’ve made to gain a new skill or competency they know they’re going to need – but a good many will learn because they want to pass a class, or get a good grade, or get their money’s worth, or satisfy that feeling that they shouldn’t let down a teacher or mentor.

Whatever the case, some fabulously deep learning can happen as a result of being bound. And I don’t mean to give the impression that this isn’t an important mode of learning. Rather, it’s fundamental and helps each of us grow professionally in sustainable and scalable ways.

But it’s just one of the several ways in which entrepreneurs need to learn.

2. Having butterflies

[blockquote align=”right”]”To get/have butterflies in your stomach” is an idiomatic expression that means you are anxious and have a nervous feeling in your stomach. It means making [students] feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable. I’m going to argue that we’re already pretty good at that too.[/blockquote]The Learner’s Dictionary says that “To get/have butterflies in your stomach” is an idiomatic expression that means you are anxious and have a nervous feeling in your stomach.{{2}} And Diana Kander’s article (linked earlier) says it means “making [students] feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable.”

[[2]]Here’s that entry in the The Learner’s Dictionary[[2]]

I’m going to argue that we’re already pretty good at that too – both entrepreneurship educators and the people who foster it in our communities.

In fact, this is where experiential learning begins to come into play, for example. And might come to life in one of the following forms:

  • Taking part in a very experiential classroom exercise;
  • Joining an innovation tournament;
  • Pitching your concept to a panel of scary looking judges;
  • Writing a business plan for a real client, who you know will accept nothing but the best;
  • Testing your assumptions through the Lean Startup methodology; and
  • Attending a Startup Weekend.

I have little doubt that most entrepreneurship educators do give their students butterflies to help them learn. And compared to many of our colleagues in other disciplines – and according to my students over the years – I’d say we even push the envelope in this respect.

But it too is just one of the several ways in which entrepreneurs need to be learning.

3. Feeling your back sweat

Learning because your back’s sweating is different. I’ve experienced myself as an entrepreneur. I’ve hit on it occasionally as a teacher. And I’m going to tell you about a great example of someone who’s course exemplifies back sweat.

For years now I’ve been a so-called Master Educator at the Experiential Classroom – one of 25 experts teaching some 70-80 entrepreneurship educators every September in how to lead in their communities through teaching entrepreneurship in their high schools, colleges, and universities.{{3}} The keynote at that event is given by Dr. Don Kuratko from Indiana State University, and as part of his address he tells the story of developing a course called ‘The Spine Sweat Experience’. As described in Businessweek {{4}}, Don tells of his dad saying that ‘Until a student goes to bed at night and feels his spine sweat, he can’t understand the whole entrepreneurial process.’ And that’s just what the course does.

[[3]]Check out the brochure for the Experiential Classroom[[3]]

[[4]]Read the article here: Risky Business: Indiana U’s ‘Spine Sweat Experience’[[4]]

In Don’s words: “You make entrepreneurial-minded undergrads take a pass-or-fail business plan course in their senior year where the outcome rides entirely on the opinions of a panel of judges. If the panel likes what they see, the student passes. If they don’t, the student doesn’t graduate—at least not with their classmates in May.”

[blockquote align=”right”]Feeling your back sweat is different from having butterflies because it implies that something very dear to you will be taken away if you don’t learn enough, fast enough. There’s something significant at risk and that can really motivate.[/blockquote]I share this because it’s a good example of how back sweat makes you learn. It’s about having some significant skin in the game – the students won’t graduate with the classmates if they don’t learn. They learn what they learn because they’ve got something pretty significant to lose if they don’t.

I also share it because it’s different from butterflies. Not better or worse, but different. As Don’s students attest{{5}}, the kind of learning we do here isn’t the same as what takes place when you’ve only got butterflies. Feeling your back sweat is different from having butterflies because it implies that something very dear to you will be taken away if you don’t learn enough, fast enough. There’s something significant at risk and that can really motivate.

[[5]]Read it here: Spine Sweat Course prepares IU grad for Shark Tank TV appearance![[5]]

This is where experiential learning begins to soar, whether that’s in the context of a course, a carefully nurtured experience, or one’s own entrepreneurial endeavours.

Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t replace the other kinds of learning we’ve seen – and it’d be damn hard to succeed without having those under your belt too. But it provides a whole new level of learning.

4. Experiencing the tears of breathlessness

[blockquote align=”right”]The “tears” speaks to the significance of these moments of learning. You don’t just have skin in the game. You live day to day knowing that the game could come to an end or change completely because of what the next few hours could bring. Critically, they provide opportunities for learning things that could never be learned by being bound, because of butterflies, or through carefully nurtured back sweat experiences.[/blockquote]When I use the term “tears of breathlessness” I’m talking about something I have yet to see in an educational setting, unless you count stories of people who left school to pursue their ventures. It’s not something that’s easy to make happen in a classroom or co-curricular context. It’s not something most academic chairs could reasonably support. And it’s not something you can get through a course or immersive program in the community.

The “breathlessness” is the result of something negative like your first employee quitting to start a rival company, or something positive like landing a new opportunity that literally changes your life and the lives of everyone around you.

The “tears” speaks to the significance of these moments of learning. You don’t just have skin in the game. You live day to day knowing that the game could come to an end or change completely because of what the next few hours could bring.

And it’s the result of things like these, just to name a few:

  • Having to ask your 80-year old mum for next month’s rent;
  • Raising your first $1 million (or even your first $30,000!);
  • Realizing you won’t make payroll next month;
  • Figuring out that your 3-month rollout will actually take 14 months;
  • Cancelling your food deliveries and closing your restaurant because of a hurricane;
  • Having your website hacked;
  • Watching your product put a smile on your daughter’s face;
  • Facing the fact that your venture of 4 years will go down as your first failure.

These things literally make you breathless and bring tears to your eyes. (I’ve sat quite recently and cried my own eyes out because of one of these.)

[blockquote align=”right”]Allan Hawco, in telling of his tears of breathlessness experience, shares how learning that he had swine flu had him “almost breaking down in tears” and “jumping for joy” – because it gave him more time to deliver on his mission! That’s the breathlessness and the learning’s incomparable.[/blockquote]Founders experience highs and lows like this more often than they’d like to remember.{{6}} Yet they keep going – and this is key because we’ve shifted away from motivation now to people acting fully on inspiration. They’re learning by being fully immersed with no safety net.

And, critically, tears of breathlessness provide opportunities for learning things that could never be learned by being bound, because of butterflies, or through carefully nurtured back sweat experiences.

If you want a wonderful example of someone describing their tears of breathlessness then listen to Allan Hawco [lightbox url=”http://www.cbc.ca/dnto/popupaudio.html?clipIds=2580739144″ width=”100%” height=”100%” iframe=”true”]by clicking here and listening to the period between 23:10 and around 32:20[/lightbox]. He talks of the “heartstopping” success of being given the opportunity to create Republic of Doyle in the first place; of actually falling over in his house out of deep exhaustion; and of being responsible for 120 people but having to let his writing team go; of actually “almost breaking down in tears” and “jumping for joy” when he caught swine flu – because it gave him more time to deliver on his mission! That’s the breathlessness and the learning’s incomparable.

[[6]]Read this, for example: A Day In The Life: The Best And Worst Of A Founder’s Journey[[6]]

So what?

I say no to Diana Kander’s assertion that “higher education is killing entrepreneurial thinking”. That’s likely an overstatement and wee a bit unfair to higher ed as a whole.

[blockquote align=”right”]Of course we should never stop leading into uncharted territory. We should also be pushing ourselves to figure out what the experiences, programs, courses, and assessment approaches of the future might look like if we could provide our students with the gifts of butterflies, back sweat, and breathlessness.[/blockquote]But there is good reason to say it’s not doing enough to foster some kinds of entrepreneurial thinking. We need to go beyond butterflies to also give our students the gifts of back sweat and breathlessness.

In doing so we shouldn’t favour one of the four modes over another. But rather, we need to recognize that they’re all important parts of the learning journey for the successful entrepreneur and that we need to bring them to life as appropriate for our students.

Somebody out there had better get on figuring out what kinds of learning environments, activities, and reliable assessment approaches lend themselves to fostering true tears of breathlessness.

And the challenge with this will be that if an employer or teacher were to build the perfect learning environment in which people can truly experience the tears of breathlessness, then they could quite justifiably be had up for creating abusive conditions. No HR department or academic chair could reasonably support the stuff that causes tears of breathlessness. That kind of learning has to be voluntary and, because of its nature, only happens if the entrepreneur is truly inspired.

Important questions that fall out of this for educators are how do we sufficiently inspire students to make those leaps, guide them as they go through it, and design the environments that help frame and deepen the learning when it happens?

Of course we should never stop leading into uncharted territory. We should also be pushing ourselves to figure out what the experiences, programs, courses, and assessment approaches of the future might look like if we could provide our students with the gifts of butterflies, back sweat, and breathlessness.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Alex,

    Thanks to Doan Winkel (@Trep_Ed) I have read your excellent blog and also Diana Kander’s earlier blog. Doan and I have known each other for some years. We are both renegade enterprise educators, though he has an academic background whereas I am just a old businessman!

    I thought that you might be interested to hear about how I try to give butterflies, uncertainly, back sweat and breathlessness to my BSc Business Enterprise (@Buckingham_BBE) #ub_bbe students at the University of Buckingham (@UniOfBuckingham) in UK.

    I run, what I believe to be, the world’s first Undergraduate Venture Creation Programme at the University of Buckingham, see: http://www.buckingham.ac.uk/business/bsc/businessenterprise

    You can find out information about university Venture Creation Programmes (VCPs) around the world here: http://www.vcplist.com

    The University of Buckingham is different in many ways, for example undergraduate students study during 4 terms of 9 weeks each year and as a result they can graduate in just two years. They have the same contact time as undergraduate students at UK state universities who study for three terms in each of three years.

    In addition to achieving an honours degree in just two years, my students MUST start and run their own business, as an integral part of their honours degree. Within 4 months of starting the programme in January my students are pitching to “Buckingham Angels” for up to GBP5,000 (US$7,500) seed-corn capital to establish and run their business. You can see two of them with butterflies here: http://on.fb.me/1a5rxrc and click on the photo to see more!!

    It is more difficult to get photos of back sweat and breathlessness, but I can assure you that my students certainly feel that they have suffered from both. After several years working with my BSc Business Enterprise (BBE) students I also know that the BBE programme encourages them to grow up and start to understand that starting, running and growing a new business is hard work and needs not only passion, but also tenacity!!

    My students must pitch their business idea within 4 months of starting the BBE programme and if successful they then start and run their own business, whilst continuing to study. This provides them with a back sweat and breathlessness and thus develops their entrepreneurial thinking, but the students also have a second deadline. If during their first pitch at the end of May they fail to persuade “Buckingham Angels” to finance their start-up, then they only have until September to re-pitch a revised business idea, a new business idea or persuade students who have been successful to let them join their business. However joining another business has never happened! If they are not running a business by the end of our summer term they cannot continue on the programme, even if they have passed all their assessments and exams!

    Admittedly the BBE programme is just not as risky as starting and growing a business in the outside world, but my graduates and I do think it is the nearest they can come to it and achieve an honours degree at the same time.

    Although the programme has to be quite small as it is very “hands-on”, it has attracted 86 students from 26 countries since January 2006. If you would like to get more information about our BBE programme and what our graduates have done, please contact me.

    Finally, you might like to have some information about the University of Buckingham. It was the UK’s first independent (private) university and has had a Royal Charter to award degrees since 1983: http://www.buckingham.ac.uk/about/history The University has never received any state funding and so it has had maintain the quality of its academic provision whilst also satisfying its “customers” (students and their parents). The university has therefore had to be entrepreneurial and it has gone through its own back sweat and breathlessness to develop into the very successful higher education institution that it is today. For example the university has just launched the UK’s first independent (private) Medical School.

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