Should you go to college? To business school? What kind of first job is ideal? Which career path will be most satisfying for you and make the most money fastest?
I've been reflecting on this in the past two weeks after reading Taylor Pearson's excellent blog, The First Job Dilemma. Basically he says a career starter has a choice between good pay and high social status (a job with Morgan Stanley or KPMG, for example), or high learning and a steep career trajectory (working for little pay in a small business or new venture). He recommends the latter, which is essentially an apprenticeship where, he says, you will learn far more than at Morgan Stanley. He also casts doubt on the value of a college degree - "your $200,000 degree is actually a commodity".
I sympathize with Pearson's general drift. But my advice is a bit more varied and nuanced. Of course, we are all prisoners of our own experience - and what follows has been mine, as a student, a wage slave, a serial entrepreneur, and as someone who has hired hundreds of people from top universities and business schools.
Is a useless subject at university useful?
A million years ago, I was lucky enough to get into Oxford University, where I "read" - academic jargon for "studied" - history. In those distant days, the education was totally free and they even paid me a grant, which was enough to live on, and a small scholarship - £60 a year - on top. Although history might seem a totally useless subject in the real world, the opposite was true. I acquired the habits of critical analysis, without which I could not have made my way in business. I later went to a great business school, but its contribution to my career was minimal compared to my experience between 18 and 21. That is why I will leave money to my college, but not to my business school. Oxford and Cambridge, incidentally, are still incredibly cheap places to learn and the value for money is astounding, compared to anywhere in the world - better than anywhere, and cheaper than most.
I made the 'wrong' first career choice
My choice was between getting £600 a year as a journalist on The South Shields Gazette, a job without status in the frozen North of England; and a glamorous-sounding job with Shell International, at £1,500 - which in those days was more than a living wage. I didn't hesitate, but maybe I made the wrong choice. Working for Shell gave me money and social status, but was incredibly boring and unchallenging, and entirely pointless. If I had been a cub reporter, maybe I could eventually have got into television, become a pundit or editor, and become famous. Maybe, probably not. But, soul-destroying as it was, Shell taught me three great lessons:
• Big organizations are the enemy of anyone who believes in market forces and business serving humanity. Big business is always ripe for focussing and cost-cutting.
• It is a joy to work for a small business and to find or create a small market segment where one can compete against a big company.
• After two years of Shell, I was inoculated against ever working for a large organization again.
I jumped to a job in a medium-sized enterprise which was part of the Mars confectionary empire - though making pet-food. They more than doubled my pay. I learnt another three things:
• Americans can be weird and long-winded, but they place a premium on learning, and are good at finding new ways to make money.
• The smaller the company, the more fun it is.
• Making pet-food was not for me.
What I learned from business school
• Americans were far more open-minded and welcoming to foreign students than I expected.
• There was something called "entrepreneurship", though like everything else it couldn't really be taught.
• It was possible to go through business school without learning anything really useful about business.
When I left Wharton I was pretty unemployable. But somehow I landed a job at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). They paid a lot of money and they taught me everything useful about business, everything I had never learned before. It was a wonderful deal. The only thing was, they nearly fired me. I managed to resign before they did so, and joined rival Bain & Company, which taught me everything about how to create and run a marvellously profitable consulting firm. After three years I co-founded LEK Consulting, and had the time of my life. The best thing was hiring incredibly bright newly minted graduates, who knew nothing about business but could be trained to be marvellously productive within a few months. During the six years I was at LEK, we doubled in number of staff, in revenues, and in profits every year. It was mainly due to the business formula we had inherited and tweaked from BCG and Bain, and to the intellect of our most junior people.
Ten Things You Need to Know for a Great Career
1. You can only learn something if it excites you and you want to know it. But if that is true, you can learn anything.
2. If you can afford it and get in, go to a great undergraduate college and study what interests you most. Developing your mind is the best career move ever.
3. Do not join a large firm or one not growing fast. Never put social status in the job above its intrinsic interest and what you can learn.
4. Get a job with a firm that is growing really fast - more than thirty percent a year - and that can teach you valuable skills.
5. Only individuals can teach you things. You learn by osmosis by observing a great person at work. Get yourself into an "apprentice" or "protégé" relationship with a great boss. If your boss isn't going places, you won't either.
6. Leave after you have learned all your bosses and the firm can teach you - probably after 3-5 years.
7. Join another great fast growing firm that can teach you something related to what you learned in the first job - probably in an adjacent market or technology - but also something important and different.
8. Leave after three years to start your own business, if you can identify a separate market segment that you can create.
9. Hire the brightest people on the planet, but unqualified and cheap people, mainly from top universities. If you are growing fast and profitably, and can teach them useful things, you can get the very best.
10. If at any stage you are not excited by what you do, or don't like the people you work with, leave and do something exciting and fully satisfying.