As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where an entrepreneurial mindset is in ever greater demand, there is no shortage of books and articles that offer to show you the secrets to success. Much of this writing is actually very, very good. The authors offer great tips and provide wonderful examples of those who have made a name for themselves as entrepreneurs, innovators and disrupters.
The one downside to this growing body of expertise is the fact that so many of the entrepreneurs used as examples are the same each and every time — Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc. That’s not to say that these aren’t great examples. That’s not the downside I see. The downside, particularly for the workers of tomorrow, is that by limiting ourselves to these examples, we’re setting unrealistic expectations.
If we start defining what it means to be an entrepreneur and innovator as only those that start huge companies, or have world changing technological ideas, then we’re actually sending a poor message to our kids.
It’s important for tomorrow’s workers to know that innovation is tremendously important, even if the innovation is something small. It’s important for kids to know that even things like bubble gum or parade balloons were once unheard of and unknown. And, that these ideas, in their own unique way, changed the world.
In order for kids to see the opportunities that exist for entrepreneurs and innovators, it is imperative that we don’t set the bar so high that it seems an impossible task. Or make it seem that being innovative or entrepreneurial is a trait found only in a small percentage of humans.
The good news is that the world is full of examples, and the even better news is that there are some really great books that will help lead the way for even the youngest of tomorrow’s workers.
Take Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum, written by Meghan McCarthy, as an example. Walter Diemer, the inventor of bubble gum, worked for Fleer, a family owned candy factory in Philadelphia. But, Walter wasn’t a scientist, nor was he a candy maker. Rather, Walter was an accountant, spending his days adding numbers and balancing budgets. That is until the “experimental laboratory” moved into the office next to Walter’s.
From here, the book describes the successes and failures that Walter encountered on his way to becoming the inventor of bubble gum. Double Bubble gum, to be exact. The book also describes Walter’s “grit,” his continued deliberate practice and unwillingness to give up, making the book a perfect story for introducing kids to the skills that will be necessary in the Future of Work.
Other examples include Balloons Over Broadway, by Melissa Sweet, and Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, by Kathryn Gibbs Davis. Both of these books describe similar processes of innovation as well as an entrepreneurial spirit — the first in the development of balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the second in the design and building of the world’s first Ferris wheel.
While Amazon, Tesla, Apple, and Microsoft are well known businesses and brands; bubble gum, parade balloons, and Ferris wheels are equally iconic in the minds of kids, making their inventors equally relevant.
Why are these stories important? First and foremost, they are proof of what’s possible. Secondly, examples like these provide launching points for discussions about being an entrepreneur. These stories, in particular, provide a context for discussing how new ideas are sometimes received (there was serious doubt, even laughter, about Mr. Ferris’ wheel), or how the road to new inventions is not always smooth (the first batch of gum that produced bubbles, turned rock hard by the next day).
These are tremendously important points for kids to understand. Striking out on your own can be a lonely road. Some entrepreneurs aren’t supported by family and friends. And, the road of innovation can be full of frustrating setbacks. These are the realities, and to be able to share these realities with kids, even at the picture book age, helps set their own expectations of the world around them.
Additionally, its important for kids to learn that innovators and entrepreneurs don’t have to be all about business all of the time. Tony Sarg, the man who invented the giant balloons for Macy’s, wasn’t motivated to improve Macy’s bottom line. His motivation was to help Macy’s put on a parade for their employees — immigrants who “missed their own holiday traditions of music and dancing in the streets.”
There’s also a picture book titled Trombone Shorty, written by the man himself, Troy Andrews. Andrews explains why he innovated a new sound and style of music. As the story goes, Andrews first just wanted to play music. Then, after a time, he wanted to create music that celebrated the culture of his home town, New Orleans. And, by accomplishing that goal, Andrews was able to turn his work into an enterprise — one that now gives back to other kids from New Orleans. It’s an inspiring story, and another one that exemplifies true grit — passion, deliberate practice, and purpose.
Tomorrow’s workers are going to need grit, as well as an entrepreneurial mindset. They’ll face new challenges as jobs disappear, evolve, and develop with the continued adoption of automation and AI. It’s not too early to teach them that we’re surrounded by innovators and entrepreneurs And, even small things like bubble gum, parade balloons, and Ferris wheels have changed the world — maybe in ways that are even better than Amazon, Apple, Tesla, and Microsoft.