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Fly Fishing and Entrepreneurship

I am not a born fly fisherman. In fact, I am pretty sure that no one comes out of the womb knowing the four-count cast on a wispy nine-foot fly rod that Norman Maclean writes about in And a River Runs Through It. Rather, a combination of learning and teaching has made me a reasonably good fly fisherman. How do I know? I catch trout, and I help friends and family catch trout. The proof as they say is in the proverbial pudding of rainbows, browns and cut throats.

Like the chicken and the egg causality dilemma, there is the learning and the teaching causality question. I'n not sure which comes first. Does one's desire to learn spark the willingness to be taught? Or does teaching lite the fire for learning? Clearly, both seem to be necessary.

I used to take my two sons fly fishing in Colorado as they were growing up. I would hire a guide and pay about $300 for them to help us catch fish. Sometimes we caught trout, and sometimes we didn't. But it was always a delight to be on the water. As I started to spend more time in Colorado, I decided that I should become a solo fly fisherman able to go out on the water by myself and catch trout. So I set out to be able to do that by combining learning and teaching.

I wanted to do this. So maybe the desire to learn preceded the need for being taught. In any case, I knew that I did not know what I needed to know. Thus, I took a three-day fly fishing clinic that seemed to combine both my desire to learn and the need to be taught. Over the course of the hands-on clinic, I was shown everything from assembling the fly line to the leader to the tippet, to how to tie a cinch knot to secure wet and dry flies, to how to cast the line. Then, I had to experience these things by actually having to do them, under the watchful eyes and experienced guidance of those teaching these basics. But that was not enough. I read books and watched videos. I hired a guide to actually take me on the Arkansas river above Leadville, Colorado to teach me at work on the water and make suggestions for my improvement. Then, I was ready to go out on my own and test what I had been taught and learned. I kept learning by assessing my mistakes and reflecting on my successes.

In other words, I became a fly fisherman.

There is an old argument in the field of entrepreneurship. Can entrepreneurship be taught? When I started teaching entrepreneurship, I would talk with successful entrepreneurs and ask what they thought. The answer then was almost always, not just 'No." But "Hell, No!" Entrepreneurs, they would claim, were "Born." Usually, academics in other established disciplined would argue the same thing. "Just can't teach entrepreneurship," they would maintain. The hidden assumption in this argument is that there is only a small, select number of people who have what it takes to start and build enterprises. That most people simply cannot learn the basics of venture development and do not have the secret sauce (whatever that might be) to succeed at their own enterprises. That only a lucky few have the in-born passion, chutzpa and ability to actually create a successful business.

Yet evidence abounds that lots of people, younger and older, men and women, from all kinds of backgrounds and upbringings do indeed launch and build their own enterprises. And additional evidence shows that people in all kinds of organizations--for-profit and not-for-profit, large corporations and start-ups, governmental and non-governmental--can and do think and act entrepreneurially. How is that possible?

Once, it was argued that management skills couldn't be taught. A good manager was a "born manager." But today of course, teaching management is something we take for granted. At one time, a similar debate raged about leadership. Yet today, we have courses and programs to make people better leaders.

I don't think entrepreneurs are born. The human genome has been mapped, and there is no chromosome in one's DNA stamped with an "E" for entrepreneur. So something else must be at work in the development of entrepreneurs. I'll contend that it is a combination of learning and teaching. One way to think of entrepreneurs is to consider them either "opportunity-driven" or "necessity-driven." In the former, the entrepreneur recognizes an opportunity based on a potential customer's need or problem, and then is driven to find out how to address that need or problem effectively. In the latter, the entrepreneur, perhaps from losing one's job or facing changed personal conditions, finds it necessary to do something to change the situation in which they find themselves. In both cases, teaching and learning come into play.

Every entrepreneur demonstrates "fire in the belly." That is the wellspring of drive and passion that give meaning to one's venture and that spark the need and desire to become an entrepreneur. Rather than ask the question, "Can entrepreneurship be taught?" perhaps a better question is, "Can entrepreneurs learn?" When I ask the learning question to successful entrepreneurs, I get the same response, "Yes, and let me tell you what I want to learn, what I need to learn, and what I wish I had learned earlier and faster." What we know about the entrepreneurial process is this: successful entrepreneurs are exceptional learners who are willing to be taught, if that teaching--from other entrepreneurs, from scholars and even from experience--helps them in their own ventures.

Today, entrepreneurship has not only become the fasted-growing discipline in business schools across the country but also has become part of the curriculae of every college in a university, not just in business schools but also in colleges of science and engineering, schools of fine arts, nursing schools and others. As a result, we now have departments of entrepreneurship on the same level as other departments, such as management, finance and accounting. There are centers and institutes devoted to the study and practice of entrepreneurship. And there are major and minor concentrations of entrepreneurship across a range of academic areas.

The reason for this growth is unequivocal: students need and want the competencies to think and act entrepreneurially. These competencies include the abilities to identify, assess and pursue opportunity, to demonstrate creativity and innovation in addressing challenges, needs and problems, to marshal limited resources, to communicate a compelling vision, to build effective networks and ultimately to create value, in addition to knowing the nuts and bolts of the start-up and growth of organizations. Faculty know a lot about each of these competences, and they have pioneered a powerful way to teach them.


Entrepreneurship education focuses on experiential learning. Because entrepreneurship is about doing something that creates value, the performance-based curriculum of entrepreneurship focuses on what one does and not just on what one knows. Thus, one becomes an entrepreneur by learning (and being taught) how to do an opportunity assessment, how to pitch an idea, how to prepare a lean start-up, how to write and present a business plan, how to do an entrepreneurial audit of an organization, how to bootstrap a new venture, among other experienced-based learning initiatives.

I am convinced that people become entrepreneurs--that entrepreneurship can be taught and that entrepreneurs can learn.

Theodore Gordon, who has been credited as the father of the American school of dry fly fishing (where the artificial fly floats on top of the water) observed, "The great charm of fly-fishing is that we are always learning." So too with entrepreneurship.

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