29 May 2006

Things That Can't Be Taught. Or Maybe They Can.

This post is about things that can be taught, and things that can't.

Yesterday I helped to publicise an entrepreneurship event. My post attracted an interesting comment from Hinly, one of my readers:
"Entrepreneurship has been defined as the recognition and pursuit of opportunity without regard to the resources you currently control, with confidence that you can succeed, with the flexibility to change course as necessary, and with the will to rebound from setbacks.

Note "without regard to resources under control" and "change course as necessary"; doesn't sound exactly as a well laid out business plan, does it? The reality is that entrepreneurship, like creativity, cannot be taught; we can only read about success stories, and we cannot account for the failures.

Like Sim's Creative, an entrepreneurial effort is born out of deperation, a do or die commitment. When EDB turned down his application for financial assistance, Sim went to the USA, knowing it was his last grasp at a straw. His story will not be repeated, as the risk/opportunity windows opens only once in a lifetime.

These organizers of "entrepreneurship" courses, trade fairs and seminars are simply con artists peddling another variant of snake oil. The real teachers are those guys who accost you in the streets offer you a free massage with an odd shaped gizmo and end up another OSIM."
I wouldn't put it quite so strongly - but I understand Hinly's basic point. He belongs to the school of thought that entrepreneurship is essentially unteachable; it is perhaps more akin to a bunch of inherent personality traits; that is, you either have it or you don't.

Hinly's point has been made in another Singapore context - the teaching of creativity in the Singapore education system. The basic argument is the same - that creativity is not teachable; it is another example of a "you-either-have-it-or-you-don't" commodity.

Personally, I have lots of respect for human potential. I believe that given the right environment and opportunities, most human beings can learn lots of different things. If given the right environment and opportunities, they still don't learn, then very often the real reasons will not be that they inherently couldn't, but that they didn't want to, or they didn't believe that they could.

I'm quite inclined to believe that entrepreneurship or, for that matter, creativity, can be taught.

I don't discount the "natural talent" aspects of the matter. I'm quite sure that some persons are naturally a lot more entrepreneurial than others. Similarly, some people are naturally a lot more creative than others.

But to my mind, it just doesn't follow that other people cannot learn to be more creative or more entrepreneurial than they otherwise would be. Nor does it follow that a naturally entrepreneurial or naturally creative person cannot be taught to be even more entrepreneurial or even more creative.

As an analogy, a few people are very musical even as little kids, but most people are not. Nevertheless most people, given the appropriate environment and opportunities, can be taught to play a musical instrument quite competently (I didn't say "brilliantly"). Conversely, a highly musical child who never gets a chance to learn to play the piano or the violin will, of course, never know how to play the piano or the violin.

Sometimes I think that the belief that certain things are not teachable stems from a fear of vague concepts. No one seems to doubt that it is possible to teach a person to solve quadratic equations; or to use a computer; or to write a history essay. A quadratic equation, a computer and a history essay are ultimately quite tangible things. If you have solved it, used it or written it, the results are observable and undeniable.

But many people doubt that it is possible to teach a person to be more "entrepreneurial" or more "creative". After all, how can you tell that a person has become more "entrepreneurial" after he has taken a university module on the subject? How do you tell that a person has become more "creative" after taking a course on creativity?

I would only point out that the fact that some things are difficult/impossible to measure or quantify doesn't mean that those things don't exist or didn't happen. (Hmmm, come to think of it, I previously made the same point about God, spirituality and other related things). Schools strive to teach things like "moral values" and "good character" as well, but of course, how moral a student becomes or how much good character he has, after finishing school, doesn't appear to be easily measurable either.

Going back to Hinly's point - perhaps a more sophisticated version of his argument would be that entrepreneurship cannot be learned in a school environment. That view, I suspect, would be shared by many Singaporeans who have gone through the Singapore education system, which has a powerful reputation for rote learning, an overly rigid curriculum, an over-emphasis on book learning etc.

Still, that would be more a reflection on the weaknesses of the Singapore education system, than on the question of whether entrepreneurship or creativity is inherently teachable. In other words, I think that both can be taught - but whether Singapore's educational institutions can successfully teach either of them is a separate issue.


Wayne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Wayne said...

Very interesting. Indeed, I agree with you that entrepreneurship (EP) and creativity (CR) can be fostered (as opposed to the generic term of "teached") within the state institution.

If our school system is incapable of fostering EP and CR, it is perhaps a wider phenomena of the historical culture of control in Singapore.

We can impose the "creative" form upon our education systems (US modular system, Project work for JC, tinkering with A level subjects, O level reform, Chinese reforms, better teaching training etc) but ultimately we have to change our perception of educational outcomes. If we start off with projects or creative ventures with the end goal already predetermined or controlled by the authorities, we can have the form, but we will be hard pressed obtain the substance.

It goes beyond the debate on form versus substance if you look at the level of what Foucault calls "governmentality". With the idea of education a tool of the state to create orthodoxy, how can the overall project for fostering chaos and change be in line with the more important notions of orthodoxy? If we are meant to see things in a linear fashion shaped by a master narrative, can there be space for alternative ideas? Even if there arre alternative ideas, can it be transposed to alternative collective action?

As I have argued for some time, can Singapore survive in an increasingly globalize world without creativity, entrepreneurship and an heightened awareness of politics and society?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

On a slightly separate note, for an example of entrepreneurship, click here, see photo and take note of that little glow of light near the bottom of the photo. Heheh.

TheJourneySoFar said...

This reminds me of a story which a friend of mine who worked in Creative related to me.

Apparently during the Entrepreneur hype. The garmen invited a few top people including Mr. Sim to discuss on how to make Singaporeans more entrepreneur. Mr. Sim's reply was "Don't do anything". Obviously, our control-freak garmen will never allow people to grow up organically, for they must control every aspect of it, so needless to say, this suggestion was never taken up.

Benjamin Ho said...

you've made some very good points. Part of why we often attempt to "quantify" aspects of life which cannot be measured is an indication of the effects of the "technocracy" that we are placed within. you can read more about this in Neil Postman's classic book, "Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technoglogy". The examples he used are uncannily similar to what we see in many post-industrial societies.

Bernard Leong said...

Mr Wang,

I have posted earlier on this issue in
Can Entrepreneurship be taught?

Here is my argument for the issue as extracted from that post:

Not everything in Entrepreneurship can be taught

Most people in this school of thought believe that teaching entrepreneurship is just as oxymoronic as teaching creativity. Some of them believe that an entrepreneur is borne and not made. You cannot teach someone how to be an entrepreneur, because successful entrepreneurs possess traits which defy social conventions. That’s why we know that out of 10 new startups, only 1 survive. Even till today, this rule of thumb seems to hold with the overwhelming emphasis of teaching people to be entrepreneurial.

The entrepreneurs who made it are usually people who bring ideas that are out of the socially acceptable or the business model does not look appealing from first impression. It’s like telling someone in the 14th century that the Earth is round. Entrepreneurs need to do that all the time, by convincing their investors that the earth is round. They will either try to sell you the idea that there is a market for their idea or their method of marketing that will create the need for their product.

Sadly, even as an academic, I will say the same thing that there are just things in entrepreneurship that you can never learn from the textbook. I read books telling me about how to be an entrepreneur. Yet, when I do it, some of the things just do not match the real world. My favourite example is fund raising. Most books advocate fund raising as a process which has to be done continuously to keep the business alive. When I was fundraising, my mentor told me that there is no difference to raise £1K and £100K. You should decide how many rounds of fundraising and just do it in a discrete manner. That will ensure the entrepreneur can get time to do their business. Most start-ups die because of the burden of fundraising. It is human nature not to part with their money even if the venture capitalists and business angels are rich people.

The best part is that when people start to generalizing processes for entrepreneurship, for example, if you are a biotech company, this is the “A to Z” method on setting up structures and processes. I will agree that some of the experience are useful for the entrepreneur. However, the entrepreneur has to be wary about them. He must also be aware whether his business adheres to traditional views in how the industry is run. If you have a business which is suppose to redefine the landscape of the market, it is very likely that the business model for your product is not in existence. You are face with a dilemma. Do you want to come up with a new business model or modify an existing business model to help you to market and sell your product?

What I do think that it can be taught, is simple business finance. A good entrepreneur must have financial prudence and ability to take calculate risk. It is a myth that most entrepreneurs are heavy risk takers. Of course, when I mean financial prudence, it means how to maintain cashflows to run your business and generate revenue. Most traditional family businesses failed because the entrepreneurs don’t know about corporate finance. However, the world is different today compare to the past.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Although I am not an entrepreneur myself, I work in a fast-moving industry where professionals can, and do, manage their careers in what might fairly be described as an "entrepreneurial" manner.

In fact, when I look at Hinly's definition of entrepreneurship:

"Entrepreneurship has been defined as the recognition and pursuit of opportunity without regard to the resources you currently control, with confidence that you can succeed, with the flexibility to change course as necessary, and with the will to rebound from setbacks."

... well, I can think of many individuals in the industry who, although ostensibly employees, would fit very well into the definition. You can think of each of them as their own little corporation, and their current employer is their customer - whom they'll serve very well (until they find a new customer willing to pay even better).

Heavenly Sword said...

"we can only read about success stories, and we cannot account for the failures." (Hinly)

Entrepreneurship courses involve not merely what to do (the success stories), but also what not to do (ie. stories of failure)...

The 'what to do' portion has no boundaries: nobody can really list out all the possible business strategies for an aspiring entrepreneur; creativity is needed.

But the 'what not to do' portion can be illustrated using case studies of what has failed despite using apparently sound strategies. This can/should be learnt. In fact, I think that business education is more about learning what NOT to do. After all, why waste time (and money) making all the same mistakes that others had made before?

That's why business schools like Harvard and Wharton use the 'Case Method' to teach business courses, including entrepreneurship courses. And in those courses, questions of 'what went wrong with a company's apparently brilliant business strategy?' always pop up.

singaporean said...

Like people teaching about investments or how to succeed in life, if these people are half as good as they claim to be, they would be busy doing what they are good at, rather than teaching you how to make more money or get ahead in life.

You dont see Warren Buffett going around conducting seminars so that he can "give back" to society. Meanwhile, c*n-artists like Robert Kiyosaki are working their asses off even though they keep emphasizing their financial "freedom".

Most of all these "teachers" of entrepreneurship were barely entrepreneurs in the first place, and the only reason why they teach is because they are on the government payrolls.

The evil of all these government campaign promoters is that they try to sugar coat entrepreneurship into something wonderful, like a tattoo you can laser erase off, something you must do once in a lifetime, like bungee jumping.

The right statistic should be 19 out of 20 startups fail. Entrepreneurs make lousy employees. If you spent sufficient time as an entrepreneur, you will never fit into a big rigid organisation. And the stigma of bankrupcy can make you suffer for many many years. None of these entrepreneurship promoters are going to tell you the horrors of failing.

Like creativity, the best things schools can do, is to NOT kill it. If the government wants to promote local entrepreneurship, the best things it can do is to STOP discriminating against local businesses.

MNCs, with the help of EDB can get low tax rates, cheap rent/land, and even EDB officers to do all their legwork. If the MNC is competing with a local company, the local company is bound to get massacred. If the local company goes to the government for help, more likely than not, the local company will be asked to leave Singapore to support government projects overseas like Suzhou. All Singaporean companies need, is a level playing field, and the government busily picking winners (Life Science I like, Manufacturing I dont like), but that is too much to ask for I guess.

Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Mr Wang, I just fried a fish... :]

Anonymous said...

A person who 'learns' to be creative, eventually, has no advantage over the naturally-talented. Creativity can only be nurtured, it can't be taught but it can also be repressed by the environment one grows up in. I read before in a science mag that people who are naturally creative are also mostly right-brain dominant, and 'see' things differently as opposed to the left-brain dominant. See, even the genetic makeup is different. However, I believe that entrepreneurship is more a either-you-want-it-or-you-don't matter. Some people are just more inclined to accept a regular wage, climb up the corporate ladder (if at all), and live a 'risk-adverse' life. Unfortunately, these people are the norm in S'pore than the exception. It's also the by-product of an authoritarian government which want its people to be able think out of the box but doesn't realise they are so used to being given directions they can't navigate themselves out of a paper bag.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Heheh. What if I told you that you can be taught to use your right brain more?

Anonymous said...

Although it was quite a while ago of the Ike See aka See Ian Ike case, let me say something objective about it now because I have been very caught up with something else.

The reasons why I think Mindef was right to reject his deferment are quite a few.

1. Firstly they cannot be partial to some people and be made to be seen as promoting special elite classes in Singapore, such as the case of pianist Melvin Tan for instance.

2. The non-musically-inclined layman would not have heard much of Curtis Institute of music. They may have heard much of Ivy League Schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Cambridge and Oxford etc but tell them about Curtis and it would not ring a note in their ears. As Mindef said, they would only allow deferment for "special" circumstances, which means they do not think being accepted to Curtis is "special" enough, it is as simple as that.

3. Singapore really do not have a good history of world-acclaimed violinists and musicians. (I have really never heard of Melvin Tan before he came back to Singapore, I don't think he's world acclaimed enough). And then there are Siow Lee Chin, Lee Huei Min, Kam Ning, Wong Yuuki etc but they have not really made a very significant impact on the world stage in order for many Singaporeans to feel that Singapore violinists are indeed "special". Vanessa Mae doesn't count because although she was born in Singapore under a Singaporean mother and thai father, she left to live overseas when she was four, and now she's holding Thai and British passports. And I have not forgotten of the violin loan scheme initiated by the late President Dr Ong Teng Cheong to whom Siow Lee Chin was the first recipient. She was loaned till dec 2005 a JB Guadagnini worth about 600k after she had a tea session with him telling him of her difficulties in the international world stage because she did not have a good instrument to work with and the next day got a call from him about the good news. But our Singaporean violinists are still not famous enough for them to receive special privileges.

4. It is a national obligation for all Singaporean males to serve NS, unless one is affiliated with a government organisation before one has to serve NS, one may not get much NS flexibility. The parents of all Singaporean males know perfectly clear of their son's future national obligations when they got the gender test results during pregnancy.

5. Musical talents should always start as young as possible, as what Ike's first music teacher said through her forum letter in the papers. And Ike has received many invitations by good music teachers to study overseas but his parents could not(do not want to?) afford the very high costs. So one can also say that the problems faced by Ike right now is because his parents were not dedicated and supportive enough to risk money for their son's talents. They hesitated and dragged on for too long, neglecting their son's talents for so many years. So to be objective, I can say that it is also the fault of his parents that led to Ike's problems right now. They should not have dragged on too long before leading to all the last minute rush for the tryings to get overseas education. I mean to learn music, especially the violin, one must be financially (very)well-supported since young to purchase and learn the instrument properly. But if one requires financial assistance, one should have taken more initiative to seek out (private) sponsors. One must never expect the government to risk wasting a few hundred thousand dollars of tax payer's money on a violin student that may or may not be worth the investment.

Last but not least, are people blaming the government for almost all of their problems, including problems caused by their own lack of dedication and faith for their children's talents and their own financial incapabilities? I mean one cannot expect everything in the world to work their way everytime, one cannot always have their cake and eat it every single time, because the world is not just the person himself, there are also others who share this world.

moomooman said...

Wang, abit loss there about the photo... what is that glowing light and how is it relevant here?

Bernard Leong said...

Here is my response to both you and Heavenly Sword in frying a fish. I just fanned the fires for grilling the fish in this new article from SG Entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurial Popular Delusions & The Molly-Coddling of Crowds

I have extended the argument further in crushing some popular delusions on being an entrepreneur.

The control environment induced by the government is only one part of the equation, but the other part is the mentality of Singaporeans. Most of them are locked in the social contract and are molly-coddled to be one.

Anonymous said...

You know what really kills creativity? Censorship!

I remember Roystan Tan and some other film maker's films like "15" and one on the censorship board (cannot remember the name), were banned or censored on the grounds of triad themes and tatoos.. poking fun at the censors, disrespecting authority.. even GCT came out to say something to support the censors..

with this kind of environment, no wonder the creative landscape is barren.

PC said...

My take on this is that there are 2 facets to entrepreneurship and creativity : one is the "actual thinking" itself and another is the "doing".

In the science of Neuro Linguistic Programming (think, loosely, of Anthony Robbins), the concept of modeling is very much emphasized. Here, if you want to be like Warren Buffet in terms of investment prowess, you study what he does, how he does it, and you model him. Similarly, if you want to be like Sim Wong Hoo, you could perhaps study his early years, the classes he took, the things he did (both rightly and wrongly) technologically, how he reinvented both himself and his company.. and so on.

In essence, such a study (and the subsequent implementation) forces one to think and work in a different way, to learn new approaches to handling challenges. It forces your mind to get out of its comfort zone and forces you to act out of your comfort zone. Approaches such as De Bono's six hats and six shoes also do that.... the hats method being tailored towards thinking and the shoes method towards action.

If one chooses to follow these processes, one cannot help but become more creative. Like a gym program, you become mentally stronger, limber and more flexible. You find that you're able to do more and be more. With the increased mental dexterity and new mindset, you're more inclined towards taking more risks...

Voila! You've learnt to be more creative and entrepreneurial!

Anonymous said...

"...the Singapore education system, which has a powerful reputation for rote learning, an overly rigid curriculum, an over-emphasis on book learning etc."
I have a problem with this statement because the MOE seems to have gone overboard in swinging to the other extreme. Students no longer memorise the timestable, Mandarin lessons do not include passage memorisation, literature students are no longer encouraged to memorise key passages of the Shakespearean plays, etc. Worse, GEP students are told to throw away the recommended text books, depending instead on "worksheets" prepared by dubious outsourced suppliers. There's no sin in book learning, it just has to be complemented by understanding first. The greatest joke is this "teach less, learn more" mantra. The human brain can only grasp a percentage of the knowledge it is fed, the more data it ingests, the more the wealth of information will grow. That's why the man who reads 100 books is more knowledgeable than the one who read only 10. You can't possibly claim you know EVERYTHING about the Matrix, when you haven't even seen the movie.

Anonymous said...

wats wrong with rote-learning?
hasn't done students from china and india any harm.
by teaching less students become more creative?
it confounds me.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I think some amount of rote learning is quite important actually. However, in the past there was just too much emphasis on it. Perhaps, as Mark suggested, that has changed now.

As I see it, reducing the traditional syllabus does not in itself lead to creativity. What it does achieve is reduce the time spent on mastering the traditional syllabus.

Time is then freed up for students to try other things. Those things could be, for example, "creative projects" or it could be things like sports or social work or music or field trips or industrial attachments or CCA etc.

The difficulty is for schools to acknowledge that although rote learning traditionally takes up so much time in school, a large chunk of all this rote learning is essentially useless.

For example, if I were still sixteen years old, I could probably come quite close to telling you, in perfect order, all the 111 elements that make up the universe, as arranged in the Periodic Table. It is quite important to know all that, in order to score an A1 for Chemistry.

As a 16-year-old, it took me a lot of time and effort to memorise all that. However, that knowledge is completely useless to me today. In fact, it was completely useless to me as soon as I handed up my last Chemistry exam paper. Even if, for some obscure reason, I need to know today where chlorine or gold or helium is located in the Periodic Table, I could simply refer to a book. No practical purpose is served by the fact that I had memorised all of those, plus the positions of 108 other elements, when I was 16 years old.

Lived Nomed said...

Mr Wang,

To be or not to, that is the question. Check this out,
Nomed Letters

Best regards,
Lived Nomed

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...


The glow of light - it's a drinks stall.

Good business, yes?

Anonymous said...

I'm in business myself. I don't see myself as an entrepreneur, but a businessman. The 'E' word carries too many connotations, e.g. creativity, social good, risk-taking, whatever.

I'm in business to make money. Hey in case anyone has forgotten, that's the basic aim of a business. It's hard , there's the fear of failure, the stress, the uncertainty.

But there's the satisfaction of building up a company, and the financial rewards. Besides, I don't take orders and regulations too well. I couldn't fit into a corporate job.

I'm not sure what there is to teach about doing business. To me, there are 3 vital ingredients for success:

1) attitude
2) common sense
3) luck

Taking the above example of Sim and Creative, he was lucky in the sense that his Soundblaster came at the right time. He had a never-say-die attitude, and went to USA instead (which I would argue is common sense, because it's the biggest market for his product).

Looking at him now, I'd say he has had no luck with his subsequent forays into CD-ROM drives and mp3 players. People underestimate the role of luck in success.

So can entrepreneurship be taught? I'd say that there's nothing to teach, but it could certainly be encouraged. Not by the government, but more importantly, by family and friends.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...


Suppose I wanted to know more about how to be an entrepreneur. Would be there anything useful I could learn from you?

It would be very surprising to me, if your answer is "no, absolutely nothing". I'm quite sure that there would be a couple of things about entrepreneurship that you, or someone like you, could teach me.

If there are a couple of things you could teach me, then certainly there would probably be a couple of things you could teach 5 or 6 people like me, or perhaps 15 people like me, or 25, or 60 ... or more ...

.... and that's when we start to see why it's possible to have a school or university course about entrepreneurship.

singaporean said...

The danger with teaching entrepreneurship in a school setting, is that everything gets simplified into a fixed formula, easy for public consumption.

Fixed formula on business plans, how to make them, how to pitch them, how to approach VCs.

The truth is, there are many paths to starting a succcesful business, and the business plan is essential only to the dotcom era entrepreneur pitching to dotcom era investors.

I dare say, the easiest way to start a successful business, is to work twenty years in the industry, save a hell lot of money, and then steal all the best customers and employees and start your own business.

This is unethical, and a real entrepreneur needs this capacity to play hardball without losing credibility more than a good business idea, and this is the true reason why many successful Singaporean managers who can be successful business owners fail to make the switch: they lack the vicious edge. Our business culture is too clean.

Of course, one cant say that there is absolutely nothing one can learn from an entrepreneurship class, but I believe that a person with the entreprenual fire can better spend their time as a salaried employee than sitting in a classroom listening to old stories about someone else's past glory, or worse still, getting discouraged by some passe entrepreneur insisting that your business plan is full of mistakes committed by others in the past.

When Bill Gates founded Microsoft, he was working on the wrong product. If someone was brilliant enough to convince Bill Gates of his error, he would have missed out on his admission ticket to the table to con IBM into licensing a product he didnt have at that time.

It may sound cliched, but I'm not I hear it often, but an entrepreneur cannot afford to make too few mistakes.

Anonymous said...

hi mr wang,

Let me first make a disclaimer that I'm still learning the ropes in business. But assuming you want to find out more about starting a business from me.

What I'd be able to do is to share my past experiences with you, which is specific to my products at that particular time. But replicating what I did will not guarantee you success.

The impression I get from hearing successful businessmen (and con-sultants) is that everything seems so neat. They had this step-by-step formula, followed it, and they succeeded.

Truth be told, I just tried different tactics and see which ones worked. It's common sense, really.

So I'd maintain that I won't be able to teach you anything. At least, nothing concrete that you were expecting.

But I'd certainly encourage you to at least give it a go.

Also, I agree with singaporean's comment that our business culture is very clean. I don't have (and don't want to have) a ruthless streak, but I have to be aware of how people can take advantage of me and take steps to prevent that.

Bernard Leong said...

Hi all,

I just did a new post about the problems with the snake oil companies.

The Pied Pipers of Singapore Entrepreneurship

That post if by right, I should dedicate it to Hinly for inspiration.