Do Important Things

Do important things.  Work on big problems.  Change the world for the better.  You’ve probably heard countless variations on these themes, but how often have you considered that they might actually be possible, and what it would take to get there?  Even more radically, what if you could start working towards such lofty goals right now?  It’s certainly easy to get fired up about such possibilities in the abstract.  It’s equally easy to get discouraged when asking yourself the hard but vital question of how best to make it happen.  There are no step-by-step guides for how to make a massive impact, and that isn’t my goal here either.  Instead, what I want to give you is a framework for doing things that matter. 

As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned the hard way that plans are fragile – as the saying goes, no plan survives first contact.  However, frameworks can be extremely useful – especially when you have outsized goals.   Changing the world is a fine guiding principle, but without any further parameters, this can be pretty confusing.  The best engineers I know have adopted a fluid, but essential framework: Don’t be constrained by what your product can do now; do be constrained to dealing with current problems and current realities.  I would suggest a similar framework for making your biggest impact: Don’t be constrained by what you know now; do optimize on your chances for success in the real world.

1. Be in the right place.  To pre-empt the inevitable cries of protest, yes, there are people doing amazing things all over the world.  However, if you are realistic about making a transformative contribution in any field, you will find that field’s center of gravity.  Of course, certain cities transcend mere industries – New York and Washington, DC are very important cities if you want to do very important things, period.  Silicon Valley is widely acknowledged as the center of the computing world and a cradle of entrepreneurship in general, but not everyone realizes the full extent of what technology has to offer government, finance, and the international community.  Ideally, you want to be interacting with New York, DC, and Silicon Valley at once.  Counterintuitive as it may seem, if you want to accomplish this, Silicon Valley is still your best bet as home base.  The culture is conducive to disruption in a way that New York and DC fundamentally aren’t, and technology is actually the most leveraged way to effect change on a grand scale, even in the rarified realms of policy.  More on that in a future post. 

2. Don't join a company to be a minion.  Few people would admit to aspiring to be a minion, but this is exactly what you’re signing up for with many companies, however selective and prestigious they may appear.  Some of the trappings of a minion workforce are obvious – when interviewing, you will quickly develop radar for which companies prize conformity and prefer young employees to be seen and not heard.  This can be a purely cultural phenomenon, but the root cause usually lies with the nature of the work itself.  Sadly, some businesses are entirely predicated on doing things the way they’ve always been done, even if there is an outstanding opportunity to create more value.  If potentially transformative ideas from junior employees are not merely ignored, but viewed as a threat to business as usual, chances are that company is looking for minions.  

It’s often tempting to view a minion position as a necessary evil, simply the price you pay for the rewards and opportunities to come.  Don’t be fooled.  If you have to be a good minion to get in at the bottom, you will almost certainly have to remain a good minion to rise to the top.

Perhaps the most demoralizing part of being a minion is the sense that you’re fungible.  Many blue-chip companies, especially in management consulting and banking, successfully obscure this ugly realization by famously recruiting the most polished people from the most prestigious schools.  However, just because you possess elite qualifications doesn’t mean you’re not easily replaced.  Think of the Stormtroopers: they are recruited and trained as the best of the best of Imperial forces, and yes, their helmets are awesome, but as anyone who’s seen more than five minutes of “Star Wars” knows, they are ultimately disposable.

3.  Join – or start - a company that supports your ability to innovate and solve problems.  This can take many forms, but regardless of the details, a company that doesn’t care about innovation as a business probably won’t care about innovation as a junior employee.   Banks may find innovative ways to move and securitize assets, but are not in the business of creating value from scratch.  Consultants are too concerned with incremental improvements to do anything truly new.  Large government contractors are in the business of renting labor, not innovating.  A commitment to innovation is hardly sufficient, but it is certainly necessary.  Once you’ve determined a company’s level of commitment, the next key consideration here is how your abilities are supported:

- Do they give you meaningful work?  Granted, you won’t be handed the lead on negotiations for your company’s biggest contract to date, but will you be invited into the boardroom at any point in the process?  You might not have ownership of a major software release, but it would be nice to have ownership over a key section of the code if you’ve shown you’re up to the task.

- Is the company positioned to harness your most innovative work?  I know a talented but extremely frustrated systems engineer.  He’s worked for a major government contractor since college, and had half a dozen patents in his name at the age of 25.  Unfortunately, those patents are just sitting around collecting dust, because his company is 100% focused on operating costs and top line, and has no mechanism for monetizing or productizing new IP.  

- Do they hold you accountable for execution?  Many well-meaning managers think that they’re encouraging innovation, but don’t demand concrete deliverables or a viable action plan before lending their support to a project, leading it to inevitably die a quiet death.  As Ramit Sethi says, think in weeks, not years.  New ideas should be welcome, but only if the originator is allowed to take appropriate ownership right away.

- Are they open to criticism and self-improvement? If a company expects employees to be humble and driven to learn, it should certainly expect the same of itself and its leadership.  I’ll never forget my interview with Dave, one of my first business development hires.  Dave literally laughed in my face when I admitted I was unfamiliar with Getting Things Done!  Fortunately, I forgave his recklessness, Dave is now running one of our largest teams, and Getting Things Done is an essential part of our onboarding process and general approach to efficiency.

Of course, no one company has optimized on all of these facets equally.  There is no such thing as the perfect company - what matters is whether a company is open to being perfected.

4. Don’t join a company because you think you’ll learn a lot...  People will often tell you that you should spend a few years out of college working for a huge, highly hierarchical corporation – particularly in industries notorious for grinding down talented young people - because it’s a “great place to learn”.  This is just silly for many reasons:

- The best way to learn is still by doing things.  For this reason alone, you should go someplace where you can have an immediate and tangible impact. If you can find a workplace where your actions matter, I guarantee that you will learn a ton about your world, your profession, and yourself.

- You may learn a lot, but what will you be learning? Most likely, how to adapt to the processes, politics, and bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of the organization.  Joining an environment that doesn’t appeal to you so you can learn to succeed in that environment is a tragic, but all too common, form of unwitting circular reasoning. 

You may be told that if you put in a couple of years at Firm X, you can write your own ticket anywhere.  However, the skills you learn doing substantive, innovative work generally have far more carry-over to other fields than formulaic and anonymous work for a big-name firm.  In Silicon Valley, it’s not uncommon to see a serial entrepreneur leap from Internet to energy.  This is partly because Silicon Valley attracts people with diverse interests and ambitions, but it only works because the principles of agility, execution, and continuous learning and adaptation apply to any industry.  By contrast, my friends who went into banking and consulting and made it past the entry level are almost all still in banking and consulting. 

5.  …But never forget how much you have to learn.  Given the swagger and iconoclasm associated with entrepreneurship in most people’s minds (especially in the Valley), it might be tempting to conclude that you don’t have a lot to learn after all.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  Actual innovation is an extremely humbling process of trial and error, all the more so if you aspire to any sort of lasting societal impact.  We all have a lot to learn, at any stage, and this is precisely what drew me and so many others to Silicon Valley in the first place.  Of course, the willingness to learn is only the beginning.  The willingness to do something is the true test.  More on that next time…