One Saturday several years ago, I spent a morning with my three-year-old daughter exploring tidal flats and tide pools along the coast of Massachusetts some 15 miles south of Boston. Together we discovered sand dollars and hermit crabs, sea anemones and flounder fry, urchins and moon jellies. In the weeks that followed, my daughter made pictures of the sea life we had observed that morning. When asked what the pictures were about, she replied that they weren't pictures of sand dollars and crabs, urchins and jellyfish at all, but were, in her words, "pictures of what those things feel like." Not surprisingly, the pictures weren't anatomically accurate, but each had a vibrancy, an energy, that too many of even the best marine illustrations lack.
Much later I was to learn that my daughter's pictures -- as singular as I thought them to be -- were not, in fact, all that unusual. Most young children, it turns out, display a remarkable ability to create art of breathtaking beauty and originality. And most children lose that ability as they begin to grow up. They develop verbal skills and rely less on images to express feelings of wonderment and joy, insecurity and uncertainty. At the same time, they are taught that there are "correct" and "incorrect" ways to make a picture. They learn, for instance, to color within the lines of an image; that urchins are green or purple, not pink; that good pictures have a foreground, a middle ground, and a background. And as they learn about color, form, and composition, most lose the spontaneity of expression, the uninhibited vision, that made their images so engaging in the first place. Gradually but ineluctably, children lose their ability to see.
This phenomenon is more than the product of a proud parent's active imagination. Some of the most accomplished artists of this century have themselves expressed wonderment at the artistic creations of children and have gone on to explain that one way to view the arduous process of growth for a "mature" artist is as a lifelong struggle to learn to see as children once again. It strikes me that in this process of maturation and loss there is a metaphor appropriate to the creation and management of a business -- a metaphor that couldn't be more topical.
During the past decade, but especially during the past several years, there has been a revival of interest in the entrepreneur. An object of benign curiosity in the 1950s and '60s, today the entrepreneur is the symbol of hope for the restoration of the American economy. In the midst of growing uncertainty about our ability to predict rationally and capitalize on changes in the marketplace -- or perhaps because of this uncertainty -- there is a new orthodoxy emerging, the orthodoxy of the entrepreneur, which would have us believe that entrepreneurs are unschooled, inexperienced, irrational, obsessive souls with a genetic compulsion to create -- not, God forbid, manage -- businesses. This public image patronizes the entrepreneur and trivializes the rigorous process of creating and sustaining growth in any business.
The image also happens to be inaccurate, as I hope this month's cover story -- a composite profile of the chief executive officers of the fastest-growing public companies in the United States -- documents. Consider this: Of the 100 original founders, 76 are still driving their creations' growth as CEOs; 46% of the CEOs hold graduate degrees in business, engineering, or law, and 39% are currently involved in some formal type of continuing education; prior to launching their INC. 100 company, half had managerial experience in a Fortune 500 company. Not exactly statistics that myths are made of, the characteristics of these entrepreneurs seem to suggest that education and experience, the acquiring and honing of problem-solving skills, might actually be assets to those who are creating a business.
What finally distinguishes the entrepreneur may have less to do with intiaition, obsession, and genetics than with a certain kind of vision -- the ability to look, with the clear and curious eyes of a child, at a volatile and uncertain landscape, and see nothing but the bright colors of opportunity. Perhaps a new way for us to think about enterprise in a rapidly changing environment can be found in the metaphor of the entrepreneur as artist, incorporating experience and education into a vision of the world that is, ultimately, childlike -- in the best sense of the word.
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