You work hard in middle school so you can get into a good high school. Then you work hard in high school to get the grades, leadership roles and volunteer hours required to get into a good college -- often with the help of private tutors and coaches. Then you go to college so you can take the right classes and do the right extracurriculars to get a "good job" that pays well.
It absolutely takes intelligence and hard work to shine in this environment. But at the end of the day, our nation's best and brightest have spent their first 22 years following instructions and jumping through hoops.
Which is probably why teenagers and young adults are more anxious and depressed than ever. And also why the majority -- literally, the majority -- of graduates from America's top schools do one of six things: finance, consulting, law, medicine, Teach for America or grad school.
Which begs the question: do all these talented young people really fit so neatly into one of six boxes? Or are they simply doing what they've always done, because that is all they know?
According to Andrew Yang, author of Smart People Should Build Things: How to Restore Our Culture of Achievement, Build a Path for Entrepreneurs, and Create New Jobs in America, it's probably the latter.
Think about it. These are kids who have always done the right thing -- right down to the letter. Nowhere in their over-scheduled childhood or their high-achieving adulthood have they had to explore, discover and reflect. Maybe they've never even taken a risk. Never failed. Because that isn't something we explicitly value in the modern school system. Instead, we reward work, grades and obedience.
We encourage them all to follow a very narrow path -- one without much of a view.
Yang has interviewed doctors, lawyers and investment bankers everywhere... and typically discovered below-average job satisfaction. Many professionals expressed a lack of connection or meaning in their work. They said they would like to "do something entrepreneurial" or find "something I'm really excited about." Sometimes they make the jump. Other times, they stay the course... and wonder why they don't like their job more.
Meanwhile, there are hundreds of startups that want to grow. With the right team, they could improve lives all over the world -- both by providing a valuable product/service, and through direct and indirect job creation. But they don't have the budget or prestige to attract the talent they need to make it happen.
Startups do what they can -- but to some degree, job applicants have to seek them out. Which is a problem: risk-taking and exploration aren't traits we've fostered in our gifted youth. Too often, the idea of branching out hasn't even occurred to them. Or maybe they don't see it as "good enough." Maybe they've heard too many messages about what smart people should do.
I won't lie -- I attended my share of info sessions my senior year at Stanford. I also applied for a master's program in psychology, which is what I ended up doing. And I'm glad! I did my research on adult play behavior, and found evidence that playfulness is a skill that a lot of people today lack -- due partly to high-achieving childhoods and overuse of technology. This is bad news. Leisure boredom leads to anxiety, depression, loneliness and other issues. Colleges everywhere are struggling to keep up with surging mental health needs on campus.
(It's also bad news professionally. Research shows that children who played -- and especially tinkered -- growing up are better problem solvers as adults. Which is why I think all parents, children and humans should read Stuart Brown's Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul.)
I cared deeply about my research findings, and wanted to help solve the problem. That's how I ended up at startup called Trubates. It was like Groupon + Amazon -- a "marketplace for deals," rather than a "daily deal site." I thought selling meals, classes and adventures at a steep discount would help people discover new passions and try new things.
Trubates was a small company, so I had a ton of responsibility. By the end of my first month, I personally controlled a $9,000 daily advertising budget. I felt autonomous and responsible. I didn't want to meet my goals. I wanted to crush them.
I made my own hours -- if I didn't show up till 11am, that was fine. As long as I got the work done. The office atmosphere was collaborative, informal and fun. And we were growing! At one point, we had new hires every week.
Sadly, in spite of impressive growth, we didn't get our next round of funding. The space was too competitive. My budget was cut... and eventually, Trubates died. But for nine months, I had a really cool professional experience. I even got some severance, which kept me afloat until I started something new.
And in this universe, things went very differently for someone like me.
I'm lucky that I went to Stanford. I lived in the heart of the Silicon Valley, and was surrounded by examples of people who forged their own path and came out happy, healthy and wealthy. Thousands of companies were founded right off campus, so they were able to send recruiters to my door.
What if you live somewhere else? Startups are startups. Unlike consulting and finance firms, they don't have $50,000 to spend on each of their recruits. They're lean. They're overworked. So how do you find opportunities with them?
Since I like to complement idea-sharing with actionable suggestions, I'm going recommend the following:
- Be proactive. Jot down some topics and problems in which you're interested -- whether it's gaming, the outdoors, medical devices, fashion, cloud storage or clean energy. Then do a search to see what companies are working on that. For example, I have a weird fascination with online dating (even though I've never actually done it). So when I hear about new online dating sites, I always check out their jobs pages. Then, whether they seem to be looking for a writer or not, I reach out -- and I've ended up writing for two different dating sites this way.
- Most venture capital firms share their portfolio companies' job openings on their website. Sequoia Capital's job page lists hundreds of startup jobs, all over the country, at companies like Stella and Dot (fashion retail -- they're hiring both employees and freelancers), POPSUGAR (women's lifestyle brand focused on media, commerce and tech), Sosh (event discovery engine), Square (point-of-sale payment system that works with any phone or tablet), and more. Freestyle Capital also posts openings for their portfolio companies -- including Patreon, an online tip jar for writers, musicians, web comics and other artists. Or try Founders Fund, Accel Partners, Bessemer, Polaris Partners, Flybridge... or whoever. If you don't see anything you like, shoot a resume over to Greylock -- their internal recruiting team will keep you in mind for future opportunities.
- If your job search could use more guidance, consider Venture for America. They provide free job training for a few weeks after graduation. Then they connect you with a two-year position at a hot startup in a low-cost city. Rather than spend half your income on rent, as you would in New York or San Francisco, you'll be living somewhere like New Orleans, Providence or Las Vegas. So you'll be save and learn more than you would at a traditional job.
5. Read Smart People Should Build Things: How to Restore Our Culture of Achievement, Build a Path for Entrepreneurs, and Create New Jobs in America. It's spectacular, and pretty much every grown-up I know who's read it wishes they'd read it sooner. It will do a lot more than I can to expand your thinking about the future.
You don't have to limit yourself to one of six options. Think big. Take a chance!