Shiny Object Syndrome

Jeff Koons - The Tulips

Jeff Koons – The Tulips

This week I received an e-mail recommending a blog post “Entrepreneurs and Astronauts” at the blog Just Visiting authored by John Warner, a creative writing instructor.  The e-mail stated:   “A take on the “shiny object syndrome” (i.e. people gravitate to the shiny object…. Which presents a new challenge of making objects stay shiny…).” The writer of this e-mail knows my strong belief that innovation and entrepreneurship are core to preparing 21st knowledge workers for the global economy.  I welcome the opportunity to be a part of a public dialogue about whether innovation and entrepreneurship for Millennials are shiny objects that distract them from traditional career paths. 

Warner wrote, “Apparently the Millennials want to be entrepreneurs, they believe their educators should help foster this desire.”  He acknowledges that Millennials might be pursuing entrepreneurship because of the experience that Boomers had with lay-offs and corporate downsizings.  “In a lot of ways,” he continues, “there’s little difference between Millennials wanting to be entrepreneurs and Boomers wanting to be astronauts. It looks like the coolest thing out there.” There is a more profound reason behind their interest: they want to control their future.  They want to understand how they can use their intellectual capital to create meaningful jobs for themselves and others, as well as make a contribution to a better world by solving real-world- problems through innovation and entrepreneurship. My research also informs me that while many Millenials believe entrepreneurs are cool, every activity that appears to be entrepreneurship is not necessarily so. The activity could merely be an act of creativity with only a desire to satisfy an intellectual curiosity.  (See my posts “Seeding the Future” and “The Quest.”)  For Yale students, innovation and entrepreneurship are a way to challenge, rethink and reimagine the expectations, hopes and aspirations that inform the traditional career path of students who attend an elite university.

Growing up at a time when astronauts were perceived to be superheroes instilled in Boomers a sense that anything was possible.  Dream it and you can make it happen.  The dream to land a man on the Moon or to land an unmanned aircraft on Mars, for example, were founded in someone’s vision about what is possible, rather than a distraction by a shiny object.

Interest in innovation and entrepreneurship is not a shiny object that will dull in time.  Rather, we are witnessing a fundamental shift in how the educational elite prepare to become 21st knowledge workers.  Several decades ago there was a fundamental shift in the relationship between capital and labor.  In its early stage this shift mainly impacted blue-collar workers.  In the latter stage of this shift white-collar workers were also negatively impacted as lay-offs, downsizings and technological advances changed the character of work.   In some respects, interest in entrepreneurialism is a reaction to the changed relationship between capital and labor.

The author of the e-mail that inspired this post stated that the challenge is to make shiny things stay shiny.  Warner acknowledges that “The other question of whether or not colleges and universities should do more to teach entrepreneurship is outside [his] expertise and well above [his] pay grade.” Yet he goes on to give his opinion; his sentiments lead him to conclude that “entrepreneurship isn’t something that can be taught.” For him “It may be akin to teaching creative writing. There’s a set of skills that instructors can attempt to convey, but ultimately, success hinges on things like drive and inspiration. These may also be skills, but their development relies on self-motivation.”

In a post titled, “Are Entrepreneurs Born Or Made” I wrote that entrepreneurship can be learned. Whether it can be taught is a larger question: Are there enough qualified people to teach this subject matter?  There is a school of thought that believes entrepreneurialism is an innate trait or instinct, and merely needs to be activated. There is another school of thought that believes entrepreneurialism can be taught and learned.  Lean startup movement adherents believe entrepreneurs can be made.  Eric Ries the titular head of this movement and author of The Lean Startup stated “Startup success is not a consequence of good genes or being in the right place at the right time.  Startup success can be engineered by following the right process, which means it can be learned, which means it can be taught.”

T.H. Huxley stated this notion well: “The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability.  Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land.”