Class of 2013: Don’t Pass Over Chances to be Great

People in my tribe generally recite four questions at a different holiday—at Passover, not Graduation. But every college graduate should ask him or herself four key questions as they sort out plans for their next few or 40 years on the planet… and they should do it soon, before the job hunt starts in earnest.

I never attended my college graduation, oh, some 43 years ago. The Vietnam War was on fire. I had to report early to basic National Guard training, missing all the platitudes, “you can be great” stuff, and more eminently forgettable speeches. I spent my mornings listening to Drill Sergeant Maurice Stokes instead. As a result of my absence, it took a while to figure out my own plan to make a difference after graduation.

I would ask myself four questions over the two years after college. They helped me start early to chart a 42-year entrepreneurial path that has served me a steady stream of disappointments,setbacks, challenges, excitement, fun, and dough. But clearly said pathway is not for every member of the class of 2013.

Ask yourself these four questions to figure out the first miles of your own post-graduation road map:

1. Can I take a chance on greatness now?

There’s no better time than right now to take great risks in order to do something truly distinctive, whether for fun, money, or—even better—to have an impact on the world. If not now, when? Don’t wait for kids, spouses, mortgages, and routines that make it harder later to shoulder risks, disrupt careers, and make a dent in the universe. Do it now, while you can leave your stuff in the folks’ basement, put long-term plans on hold, and do something truly great.

For every Acumen fellow improving the Third World through sustainable innovation, 100 grads apply. The job pays a pittance, places you in a hammock or cot in the Third World for a year, building sustainable nonprofit businesses that improve the lives of local citizens. Teach For America teachers visit places that are almost as bad, in America,trying to improve the quality of education for our own underserved youth.

And startup people, well, do all kinds of crazy things.

2. Am I falling in love or just keeping busy?

Especially in your early post-graduate years—and ideally forever—be sure that, whatever you do truly excites and challenges.

Don’t grab the first offer or opportunity just because it’s there. Now’s the time to be insanely, passionately excited about whatever it is you’re up to. The playing field is as barren as it’ll ever be, and the field is wide open for you to take your time, learn about yourself, and find something truly compelling and exciting to do.

It might be a job, even a great job, or perhaps a volunteer program or startup opportunity. But in these early years, before responsibilities set in, always be asking, “Is this something I’m really in love with?” The pay may be lousy, the benefits likely worse, and the hours could be worst of all. But if you love what you’re doing, the time will fly… and it’s far more likely than any other pathway to guide you to a long-term, fruitful, enjoyable career.

3. Am I all about the money?

I’m not sure about the cab business elsewhere, but I tell my Columbia Business School students that if they’re launching astartup for the money it’ll bring them, they’re better off driving a taxi in New York City more than 99% of the time. The sad truth: Most startups fail. And if you’re doing a startup because it made Mark Zuckerberg and lots of other college students rich, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons entirely.

Startups are stressful, volatile pursuits, and they demand significant sacrifices from the entrepreneurs who found them: little money, less time off, lots of uncertainty, and even more risk. It’s a rare founder indeed who can bury all that stress and uncertainty under a pile of cash proceeds.

Become an entrepreneur because you love the risk, enjoy the challenge, want to be your own boss, and want to lead othercrazy people on an exciting journey. Know that typical startups demand 20,000 hours of work, if not much more: at least five years of at least 80 hours aweek. After all, perspiration is one of the few variables a founder can control, and damn few startups succeed without buckets of sweat. There are no financial guarantees at all, no matter how sure you are of the idea, the market, the co-founders, and your own brilliance.

Startup risks are enormous, so risk it all only when you’re motivated by the kinds of reasons that will get you through the “down times,” of which there’ll almost certainly be plenty. That’s when your excitement, your enthusiasm, and your risk tolerance all combine to help pull you through.

4. Are you an extrovert?

If you’re neither an extrovert nor a brilliant coder, the odds are heavily against finding joy in startup life. Any good startup is built, improved, revised, changed, and “pivoted” over and over again. The best founders embrace not only the uncertainty, but their own passion for “beating on it” until they get their startup vision right. It’s not just the product by a longshot. A startup is a vision that’s struggling to become a business, and only the most curious, outgoing, persistent founder will have the stamina to do what’s really important in making his or her startup great.

As we say in the very front of The Startup Owner’s Manual, founders must “get out of the building,” where customers and facts live, and relentlessly probe their customers to find out just what they want, where they’ll buy it, how they’ll learn about the new product, and much more. Only all those elements combined actually deliver a successful startup business model. Getting there takes what seem like endless trips “out of the building” to probe every aspect of success. If you hate that kind of ongoing interaction, you’ll either be miserable every single day or—perhaps better—fail quickly.

In sum, find the boldest, bravest thing you can do to make an impact on the world and challenge you as much as humanly possible. Do it NOW, when you’re young and relatively free of responsibilities that often prevent risk-taking later in life. And if you’re thinking of founding a company, be sure it’s the right, most exciting path possible for you as you leave your hallowed, sheltered academic home and join millions of folks trying to make a dent in the universe.


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