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The Future of Jobs

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We need jobs in America, which means we need to unleash our entrepreneurs. Companies less than five years old have accounted for all of the net job growth in our country between 1980 and 2005. Our job creators aren't corporations, or government, or even small businesses. They are the founders of high growth startups. Creating millions of jobs means having thousands and thousands of new entrepreneurs taking risks and persevering past obstacles to create many more successful startups.

The formula seems simple. And yet there's a paradox. The jobs these startups are creating aren't like the jobs they're replacing. The single greatest challenge facing startups across America today is that they cannot find enough talent fast enough to grow to their potential. We have tens of millions of Americans unemployed and underemployed and yet the most vibrant businesses in our economy are starving for people to hire. What is going on?

The entrepreneurs building our high growth startups aren't looking to hire workers. Instead, these entrepreneurs want to build their companies with more entrepreneurs. They need team members who are motivated more by upside than salary, who are continuously learning new skills without being sent to training, who have sophisticated knowledge of the latest technologies, and who identify fuzzy, unstructured problems on their own and then solve them without being told what to do. In short, they need people who can get shit done.

The paradox is this. We need entrepreneurs to create the jobs our country needs. And yet the faster this occurs, the faster we shift from industrial economy jobs to these new entrepreneurial jobs, which many American are unprepared to fill. Whether we like it or not, in some elemental way, we're all going to have to become entrepreneurs.

Or perhaps I should say we're all going to have to become entrepreneurs again. Our revolutionary founding fathers built the greatest startup in the world. The pioneers who conquered the land set out, took risks, and wagered their prosperity and lives on their ability to produce. Entrepreneurship is central to the arc of American history.

For the last six or seven decades though, we've lived through this historical anomaly, where we were all told that we could simply be workers. If we developed a specific expertise, followed the rules, and did what we were told, then corporations and government would insulate us from risk and ensure our prosperity.

Being a country of workers isn't working anymore. I don't believe in that compact and I think more and more Americans are becoming disillusioned as well.

Change is scary, but regardless of what any politician or pundit tells you, we can't go back. The industrial economy is gone, we've already blasted through the knowledge economy, and we're building the networked economy as we speak. And yet we have an education system structured around an agrarian calendar that's teaching industrial era skills. Our children are taught to memorize facts and rewarded for their ability to fill in bubbles on a numbing array of multiple choice exams. What do standardized tests have to do with the skills that our startups are desperately looking for?

Startups need people who are constantly figuring things out on their own, learning from their peers, and reaching out to mentors for guidance rather than rote instruction. It's not about what they know, it's how they learn, think, and communicate. And despite what many pundits say, it's not simply about STEM skills. Someone who has learned to code but cannot think is less useful to a startup than an English major who can hustle and make things happen.

As I've shared in this blog, I had a unique education, getting expelled from two public schools before high school, graduating from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology with remarkably bad grades, and then passing up college to build two startups before I was 25. The final element of my formal education as an entrepreneur, however, didn't occur in some super cool technology hub. It occurred at an 800-year-old institution.

After leaving my startup in 2001, then watching America go through 9/11, I had something of a quarter life crisis. I had a deep sense that our country was moving in dangerous directions, but I lacked the tools to explain and defend those positions. I began studying the big ideas of prior generations. While I was surfing the web at 3 a.m. one night, I wandered to the Oxford University website. In September 2002, I packed up and headed to England to study philosophy, politics, and economics at St. Catherine's College, Oxford.

Oxford was an intellectual revelation. There were no classes. Lectures were more a suggestion than a requirement. Each week for the next three years, I'd receive a paradoxical question and a list of books longer than I could ever read in a month. I'd absorb as much as I could and sit around in the pub debating the ideas with my friends. Then I'd show up for a one on one meeting with my tutor with a 2,000 word essay in answer to the question. My tutor would beat the snot out of my argument for an hour and send me off with another question and another list of books.

At Oxford, my tutors were upfront about the fact that they considered it irrelevant what facts I knew when I left. Rather, their job was to teach me how to learn rapidly, how to think critically, and how to communicate effectively -- and then leave me to spend the rest of my life filling my mind with knowledge. I had no meaningful exams until the end of my three years. At that point, I sat with a paper and pencil for eight three-hour essay exams that tested my ability to think in the areas I studied. The irony of Oxford is that by spending less time in the classroom with less exams, I rounded out the skills necessary to excel in the emerging economy. Several weeks after I put my pencil down on my last exam I found out that I finished with a First Class degree.

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology gave me a tremendous foundation in technology, but delivered through a numbing array of standardized tests that were the antithesis of critical thinking. Rowing taught me discipline, the endurance of discomfort, and how to lead a team, but it was only a sport. Raising $1 million at 19 and building a startup taught me how to hustle and get shit done, but not how to really impact the world.

It was Oxford, though, which brought it all together and taught me to synthesize, analyze, think in a structured manner, and share the results with others in a compelling way. Of course, there's a reason that Oxford produces more academics than startup founders. The fact that exams still occur with paper and pencil is an indication of how much innovation has pervaded the culture.

To really build a strong foundation for America, it's not about jobs per se. As we unleash our entrepreneurs, we can create plenty of awesome jobs. The real challenge is to educate our children for these jobs. A strong America requires teaching children to challenge authority. It requires making technology central to everything they do. It requires emphasizing the ability to learn, to think, and to communicate rather than regurgitating facts and algorithms on standardized exams. It requires STEM and liberal arts and social sciences and fine arts taught holistically rather than forcing our children into industrial era silos. We need to borrow the best ideas from around the world--from ancient universities to modern charter schools to Khan Academy -- mix them together with strong emphasis on letting students learn by doing and then experiment until we find the models that work for our emerging economy.

We have no time to waste reinventing how we educate our children, but we also have to help those already in the workforce, who are struggling to adapt to the rapid changes in our economy.

Luckily you can already see what the future looks like. The really interesting institutions preparing people for the jobs of the networked economy aren't schools or universities or even community colleges. Instead, entrepreneurs themselves are stepping into the void. If you want to see the future of learning, go to 500 Startups, TechStars, Udemy, General Assembly, Code Academy, Hungry Academy, or the Boston Startup School. None of these existed a few years ago. None of them require you to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt. And all of them teach you not only skills, but more importantly how to get shit done.