Ask the average Joe or Jane on the street to describe a typical entrepreneur and you’re pretty likely to hear something about a college dropout with a dorm room startup and a crazy dream. Business owners and studious academics aren’t exactly tightly linked in the popular imagination. But is it fair to take that association a step further? Are lifelong A students less likely to be successful founders?

First, a word of caution about the underlying assumptions of the discussion. Though the stereotypical entrepreneur may be a college dropout, the statistics tell a different story. Most business owners in the U.S. do, in fact, have college degrees (given our tech-saturated world, it’s probably no shock to you that many have advanced degrees in technical subjects), and plenty of high-profile folks in the world of entrepreneurship, from Google’s Eric Schmidt to VC Brad Feld, have argued that if you want to start a business, your best bet is to finish your degree.  

Are M.B.A.'s the Problem?

So why does it make intuitive sense to many of us that being good at school makes it less likely that you’ll be good at entrepreneurship? Part of the blame may lie with one type of schooling in particular: M.B.A. programs, which have developed a reputation in some quarters for stamping out creativity among students.

Here, for instance, is organizational theorist Jim March summing up this view: "My experience with business school students is that those who possess an instinct for joy, passion, and beauty often learn to suppress their expression by virtue of a sense that such instincts are unwelcome both in business schools and in business, thereby making the sense self-confirming." Even some business school professors themselves have publicly aired similar suspicions.

Or School in General?

It’s not just M.B.A. programs that many fear are hostile to the innovation, risk taking, and wild dreams that are at the heart of entrepreneurship. Plain old regular school is pretty bad at nurturing passion, according not only to many who experienced it in its less enlightened forms but also to education theorists like Sir Ken Robinson. His TED talk on how schools kill creativity is one of the most watched of all time. One gets the sense he may have struck a nerve.

But though it doesn’t seem outlandish that the regimented, highly structured world of standardized tests and eight periods a day might not be the ideal environment for nurturing imaginative, risk-tolerant, self-starting entrepreneurs, that still doesn’t get at the nitty-gritty of exactly how classroom learning might extinguish the entrepreneurial spark. Which is why a recent post on the bad habits of A students by Melissa Suzuno on AfterCollege is so fascinating. It lays out five ways good grades train you to be bad in business, arguing that learned behaviors such as expecting constant affirmation, always asking for permission, craving rules, and fearing failure are what erode students’ entrepreneurial abilities.

What’s your sense: Do you have to unlearn many of the habits you picked up in school to be a successful business owner? Share your thoughts in the comments. 


Published on: Apr 16, 2014