You Can't Have a Career If You Quit Every Year
Jul 10, 2023
At least twice a year--in June graduation talks and in January year-ahead prediction speeches--I'm asked to give specific career advice to young people. Especially those aspiring to be entrepreneurs who want to "work for themselves"; and also to discuss which industries, markets, products, and services I believe will offer the most robust prospects for growth and new opportunities. In all honesty, each year this task gets more and more difficult; specifically, keeping a straight face and pretending that I have any special expertise or a high degree of confidence in the accuracy and value of my very sincere pronouncements. Still, I weather on.
Even apart from the fact that the world has never been changing so quickly and so extensively, the sheer glut of data, information, new discoveries, technical developments, and all manner of regulation (or the remarkable absence of regulation in so many new disciplines) makes it almost impossible to stay current across the broad spectrum of tech-centric businesses and to offer arguably informed views and opinions. In some respects, the complexity and the challenges arise from the abundance, rather than the absence, of so many choices.
I can say for sure that the idea that any serious startup founder works for himself or herself is a cruel and misleading fantasy regardless of the title they may give themselves, including "Chief Twit." The reality is that, while entrepreneurs of any age may not have one "boss", they have many masters - their investors, their board, their customers and clients, and their employees as well as too many rules, regulations, and restrictions to count.
It's easy in the face of such recurring pressure, radical change, and profound uncertainty to turn turtle, bury your head in the sand, and to give in to simple and often overwhelming despair. Far too many people are simply tuning out, taking a hike, and turning inward. And it's hard to understand and appreciate all the financial, physical, mental, and familial sacrifices that entrepreneurs make unless you've been there.There's a lot to be worried and even fearful about everywhere, and those concerns are shared by everyone, to some degree. Our political systems have been largely destroyed along with any residual confidence we had in them. Millions of our fellow citizens, red and blue alike, have completely given up on the prospects of our current political systems.
The craven and venal politicians we have cluelessly installed in our governing bodies -- and foolishly permitted to remain for decades without enough accountability -- will never arrive at legislative solutions likely to bring about a better, fairer, and more equitable future for us and our children.But being your own boss is still one of the best jobs out there. And true entrepreneurs are built differently which is some modest cause for hope and even eventual celebration as long as they're supported and encouraged in the right direction. Entrepreneurs aren't fearless; they're fully aware, but frankly undaunted in the face of whatever obstacles lay before them. Sometimes wrong, but never in doubt.These hardy folks who are building new businesses believe that the people sitting and sulking sadly on the sidelines aren't lacking opportunities (or even the necessary skills and talents), they're lacking the imagination and creativity needed to fashion a better future for themselves and those around them. And it's the combined continuing efforts - large and small, humdrum and heroic - of the millions of entrepreneurs that keep moving the world forward. So, it's critical to support and encourage these creators, makers, and business builders in every possible way.Still, we have to be careful and precise in the advice and the encouragement that we offer to the up-and-comers because it's far too easy to lead them astray. I'm not talking about all the hero worship we used to see.
Thanks to Zuckerberg and Musk, I think we may have jumped that particular shark until the next wave rolls in. No one aspires any longer to be the next SBF. And courtesy of Adam Neumann and the lovely Elizabeth Holmes, even the most credulous cretins have hopefully learned to take a careful look at new business opportunities before they leap. A bigger risk today is what I call the "the world's your oyster" problem. It starts with overly supportive and unrealistic parents, and is further promulgated and promoted ad nauseam by know-nothing professors and academics in our colleges and universities. Telling our kids too many times that they can be anything they want to be, or that the "gig" economy is an open-ended and unlimited world of opportunities instead of a chance to work for peanuts in a dead-end industry like 15-minute grocery deliveries or all-night cookie shops -- until their employer of the moment goes belly up -- isn't doing any of them a favor.In fact, the vision of endless optionality - try it, hate it, try something else next week - is painfully counterproductive. Because the message received, regardless of what was intended, is that you can always do something else, that it's wisest to keep one foot out the door, and that hunkering down and committing to actually learning and mastering any job is foolish. It's an a là carte world. After all, these days no company is going to love you back, so why would you invest your time, energy, and emotions trying to a make a go of anything that isn't quick, easy, and relatively painless when there're so many other things to pretend you're doing?A world of apparently cost-free choices is unbelievably seductive, emancipating, and attractive if you're 25 and just starting out in the real world. But the true cost of job jumping and constantly trying something new and more "meaningful" every time the road gets a little bumpy is that your life slips away, you fail to build a foundation for any solid future, and you become less employable every day.
False freedom is a trap or, as Kris Kristofferson wrote, "freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."If you want to be fair and honest with your young employees and your kids as well, tell them that building a career is not so much about having a multitude of options and abundant choices, or the need to rush headlong into something and immediately make a lifelong selection, or about picking a path because it made sense for your parents or your peers. Rather, it's about making thoughtful and serious decisions and then sticking with them long enough to fairly determine whether they're right for you and you're right for them.Ultimately, no one can do anything more than give you their best advice and the benefit of their own experiences -- we can't help everyone, but hopefully in the new year every one of us can help someone along the way.