Entrepreneurship is when Liberal Arts hit the pavement

At the end of 2015, I randomly came across a PBS special that was debating the value of the growing number of entrepreneurship-based learning programs at Liberal Arts Colleges. I learned about the MiddCore program at Middlebury College from this special. MiddCore is a mentor-driven, experiential learning program where students build solutions to real life problems through developing products or services.

I had mixed feelings when I volunteered with MiddCore in Vermont this January. Such a program didn’t exist when I was in college and in my five years as a VC, I have only encountered two businesses founded by Middlebury entrepreneurs. The program thoroughly overwhelmed my expectations! The students’ ideas and write-ups were among the most well thought out and eloquent I’ve encountered. I’ve spent a few weeks contemplating on why entrepreneurship and Liberal Arts are so complementary.

At the core of both entrepreneurship and Liberal Arts is the application of critical thinking to tackle complex problems. Liberal Arts curricula expose students to multiple disciplines that form the fundamental frameworks/mental models for problem solving. As students acquire this skill set, there traditionally haven’t been formalized platforms to apply it to practical problems in the course of school. During an economics examination in college, I remember a question that asked us to apply the knowledge acquired in class to react to a recent WSJ article. This experience stuck with me because it was the moment I began to think about my education from a perspective of its application to solving real problems. MiddCore takes this experience to the next level. Charlie Munger, a famous investor and partner to Warren Buffet, credits his success to the application of a multidisciplinary approach. He has written several books to explain the merits of his approach. Here are examples of some of the principles he consistently applies:

  • Biology: Genetics, Natural Selection, Physiology
  • Chemistry: Autocatalytic reactions, Bohr Model, Kinetics
  • Computer Science: Abstractions, Algorithms, If-statements, Recursion
  • Economics: Agency Problem, Asymmetric Information, Behavioral Economics, Cumulative Advantage, Comparative Advantage, Competitive Advantage, Creative Destruction, Diminishing Utility, Economies of Scale, Elasticity, Externalities, Markets, Marginal Cost, Marginal Utility, Monopoly and Oligopoly, Network effects, Opportunity Cost, Price Discrimination, Prisoner’s Dilemma, Public and Private Goods, Specialization, Supply and Demand, Switching Costs, Transaction Costs, Tragedy of the Commons, Time Value of Money, Utility
  • Engineering: Breakpoints, Feedback loops, Margin of Safety, Redundancy
  • Law: Burden of Proof, Common law, Due Process, Duty of care, Duty of Loyalty, Good Faith, Negligence, Presumption of Innocence, Reasonable doubt
  • Mathematics, Probability, Statistics: Agent Based Models, Bayes Theorem, Central Limit Theorem, Complex Adaptive Systems, Correlation versus Causation, Combinations, Compounding, Decision Trees, Inversion, Kelly Optimization Model, Law of Large Numbers, Mean, Median, Mode, Normal Distribution, Permutations, Power Law, Regression Analysis, Return to the Mean, Scaling, Sensitivity Analysis
  • Philosophy, Literature, Rhetoric: Metaphors, Similes, Abduction, Pragmatism, Realism, Reductionism
  • Physics: Critical Mass, Electromagnetism, Equilibrium, Inertia, Newton’s Laws, Momentum, Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, Shannon’s Law, Thermodynamics

At Middlebury, I certainly didn’t take the most advantage of exposure to all the different disciplines. I spent too much time trying to teach myself finance. I have repeatedly learned since then that no one has really ever made money from spreadsheets. Multidisciplinary critical thinking overtakes the technical stuff sooner than we think. If you don’t believe me about the liberal arts stuff, at least you can believe Mark Cuban, he’s been there and done that.

One thought on “Entrepreneurship is when Liberal Arts hit the pavement

  1. We could use a Strategic Critical Thinking Reserve about now.

    Re: economic themes, I recently read a good piece on the “productivity paradox.” We take it for granted that technological advancements, operational efficiencies etc. produce better outputs and wealth creation. But efficiencies and refinements often mean only 2 players are required, where formerly 10 were employed. So while advancements are producing greater wealth, they simultaneously (and almost by definition) create redundancies: the “productivity paradox,” sometimes called “creative destruction.”

    The displacement is generally “temporary,” but “temporary” can last a long time — even decades.

    A classic example was the arrival of Japanese autos in the US in the 1970’s. We suddenly had more, better, cheaper, more efficient cars — and the world was turned upside down for a whole host of domestic industries and workers.

    I always thought about this in terms of economic dislocation or displacement, but hadn’t really considered that, in aggregate, more wealth is being created overall, and the resulting slack capacity represents a resource opportunity.


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