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Hey, Young Entrepreneurs: Shake the World

The author of a new book argues that young entrepreneurs often misconceive risk, leading them to fret and dally when they should be boldly dabbling.
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"The future of business is pure chaos," declared Fast Company this week, elaborating with a quote from DJ Patil who, among other pursuits, researches weather patterns at the University of Maryland. "There are some times, when you can predict weather well for the next 15 days," says Patil. "Sometimes you can't predict the next two hours." The article concludes: "We've entered a next-two-hours era."

How should budding entrepreneurs approach this incredibly volatile situation? The article has plenty of ideas. So does James Marshall Reilly, the author of new book, Shake the World: It's Not About Finding a Job, It's About Creating a Life about navigating the perpetually shifting ground on which young people must build their careers these days.

Holding an undergraduate degree in English and several years experience as a touring musician, Reilly ended up founding The Guild Agency Speakers Bureau and Intellectual Talent Management. How did he locate such a nontraditional path to success? Were others out there exploding received career wisdom to forge inspiring careers? To find out Reilly interviewed folks who have achieved amazing careers, from Tony Hsieh of Zappos to Doug Ulman, CEO of Livestrong. The result is Shake the World.

What Reilly discovered in these in-depth interviews were career paths that defy prediction. The thoughtful strategizing beloved by old-school career counselors does aspiring entrepreneurs little good, Reilly found. Instead they need to learn to dabble, experiment and most of all redefine their understanding of risk.

"I've almost had to deprogram myself in terms of how I view [risk]," Reilly said in an interview. “Failure, risk, these things usually have negative connotations. I reframe risk as unbridled opportunity.” He explains what he means at greater length in the book. Recent grads with big dreams and uncertain futures often think of themselves as "high-beta stocks," he writes:

High-beta stocks are simply the shares of companies whose stocks trade with above-average volatility--and like the twin peaks of a two- humped financial camel, these stocks carry both above-average risk and, potentially, above-average reward. If you are a recent graduate, looking for a job, or simply trying to decide what to do next, you might believe that you are akin to a volatile high-beta stock--an awkward-looking mammal burdened with both extraordinary risk and, if you can just make all the right choices, potentially unlimited reward. And that's exactly why periods of career transition, like graduation or changing jobs, can be so stressful. We don't want to make the wrong choice, yet the right choice is often impossible to identify.

As a result, many young people just entering the job market make a mistake when they take stock of themselves. They think they are a two- humped, high-beta, high-risk--and only if they play their cards right-high-reward camel. But...where is the uncontained risk then? Where are the dreaded margin calls and those high-beta decisions you might want to avoid along your career trajectory? Where are the naked shorts of the job market? They are certainly coming later in your career, when you actually have something to lose. But when you are young and starting out? The simple answer is that there is only one fatal high-risk decision.

Selling yourself short. Why? Because you are already starting out at zero. When you begin at zero, there is nowhere to go but up.

Instead of pursuing our dreams as young people, we’re often just trying to avoid imaginary pitfalls or conform to a predictable, mythological career path. “When we come out of school, we’ve been told by our parents or our peers or our guidance counselors that there’s this traditional path. You go to college, you major in something and you immediately go into or try to go into a field that has something to do with your major,” says Reilly. Forget anxiously trying not to put a foot off this path and simply get out there and dabble without a narrow goal in mind, he concludes:

I think if we reframe risk as taking these little chances, makingthese little bets, that’s the way to do it. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket but dabble. You don’t have a mortgage. You might have some student debt so understand your financial situation, but when you’re young is the time to explore. That’s something we don’t do enough of.

Whether you’re planning a business, where to move next or what to cook for dinner, if we go in with an expected outcome, for the most part, we’re going to end up either being disappointed or “failing” because the outcome is never what we imagined it to be. The ability to iterate and improvise as you go is an essential tool because things are never going to go the way you want them to. It doesn’t matter if you’re Richard Branson or a kid just out of college. Things don’t happen the way they’re blueprinted to happen, and that’s a great thing.

Do you agree that young entrepreneurs should develop their ability to productively dabble without a firm outcome in mind?

Last updated: Jan 10, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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