Don’t Aim for the Goal, Just Remove the Obstacles

If you’re unhappy where you are sometimes envisioning where you want to be instead is a little too hard.  Sometimes you know enough to know you’re unhappy, but not enough to know exactly what would improve things.

This makes goal-setting difficult.  If a clear goal is the key to achieving it, it puts a lot of pressure on you to have one.  I think there’s another way to improve your situation.

Not that clear goals are bad.  I think they’re great if you can have them (and be honest about them).  But it’s possible to make progress even with really fuzzy goals.  What you want doesn’t need to be clear, but what you don’t want does.

Say you’re in a job you hate.  You want out, but out to what?  You (think you) need X amount of income, and it’s not obvious where you’d get it in a better way.  It’s helpful to envision whatever vague idea of what you really want you can conjure, taking into account all the actual costs and tradeoffs.  But when that’s not clear enough to provide a plan of action, go the opposite direction.

Identify one by one the things you really hate about your current situation.  List them out.  Now you’ve identified the known obstacles to a better life (many currently unknown obstacles will crop up later, but don’t trouble over those until you meet them).

Next ask yourself if you can simply stop doing those things.  You might be surprised to find that several things making you unhappy are things you can stop doing right now.  If you can’t, ask what is keeping you from cutting those things out.  Decide what it would take to avoid ever doing those things again.

Now you have your goals.

If one of the things making your life suck is a coworker in the next office over who is profoundly rude and negative all day and you realize the only way to escape it is to quit, move to a new department, work from home, or request a different office, now you have options.  You can weigh the costs of each and decide which course you want to take.  Maybe you decide moving to a new department is the best way out.  But you don’t have the skills required.

Perfect!  Now you have a clear, tangible obstacle to overcome.

Build yourself a set of daily challenges and activities that work towards gaining the necessary skills.  Don’t stress about the long term, ten-years-from-now-you and how these skills may or may not help you reach some fuzzy utopia.  You need the skills now to overcome a real, present pain in the ass.

You’ll probably never figure out the perfect mix of skills to help you get to the lofty neverland of the distant future.  But if you can identify real pain points in the here and now, you can build your self-improvement project around chipping away at them.

Work backwards from where you want to be.  Identify the things keeping you from happiness, then the things you’d need to do to work around, or over, or through those obstacles.  Then build a daily, weekly, monthly schedule targeted squarely at beating them, one at a time.

The stoics say “The obstacle is the way”.  I think for those of us without a really clear end goal, this is phenomenal advice.  

Removing impediments to happiness can be a better form of goal setting than attempting to reach perfection.  Your life might be more like a sculpture than a painting.  Subtraction sometimes yields a better end product than addition.

Sometimes Creating Stuff Sucks

I love podcasting.  It’s been a blast.  But it’s a huge pain sometimes.

Today I interviewed Penelope Trunk, and it was brutal.  She was wonderful.  The interview itself was great.  But my technology threw every wrench at me imaginable.  It was stressful and annoying to duct tape together an episode with all the fragmented sections.

She was cool about it, thankfully, and even gave me twice as much time as originally promised.  But it threw my whole day off.

Five minutes before we began I realized I’d never called someone’s phone via Skype, so I did a Google search and downloaded an app on my phone that records phone calls, just in case.  I barely had time to enter my info and set it up as a backup.

Then I go to dial her and realize Skype charges for calls to a phone.  I had to scramble to enter payment info (thank you Dashlane for quick form completion!).  We got started two minutes late, which already had me frustrated.  I hate tardiness.

Things were going great for 12 minutes, then the call dropped.  We dialed again.  It went well for about three or four minutes and then she couldn’t hear me anymore, though I could hear her.  Drop.  I dialed again and she still couldn’t hear me.  Drop.

I frantically grabbed my cell and called her.  We proceeded for another 18 minutes on the phone when I realized the app only allowed 20 minutes free and I never put in billing info to go longer.  She had to go anyway, so it wasn’t too bad, but still rushed at the end.

I just finished editing four clips into one and adding an intro and outro.  It got done, though the sound quality for the second half of the interview was pretty rough, even though that’s where the conversation was best.

In addition to the sound there were several points where I interrupted her in a pretty bad way.  It’s one of those things I sometimes do as a host and with some people it happens more than others.  She’s confident and straightforward so we kept plugging along, but man, I finished the interview pretty annoyed at the quality of the whole experience I created.

My goal is to make my show really fun and easy for guests.  I want them to shine.  I want them to come back on the show.  I want them to love it so much they forget the time.

Oh well.

I cranked it out anyway and it will go live Monday.  The content is great, even if the process wasn’t.

Sometimes I really get in a groove where my daily writing and weekly podcasting and everything else just clicks.  I really like what I’m producing and the process.  Days like today are a great reminder that, when what Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance” crops up, you’ve got to do your work anyway.

Once it’s done, you can’t look back.  Ship it.  Then put your head down and start working on the next thing.

Thanks Penelope for your patience!

Two Tips for Public Speaking That Also Apply to Work

From the Praxis blog.

I was talking with one of the September 2015 Praxis participants during the opening seminar about public speaking.  He asked me what are the most helpful things for me when it comes to reducing nerves and getting in the zone as a speaker.  I told him the two most important things for me are:

  • Lots of Practice
  • Unique Content

Practice is obvious.  Public speaking, like digital skills, social skills, bike riding, creativity, or confidence, is not one of those things you can become great at by studying.  You have to do it.  A lot.  There simply is no substitute for doing it when it comes to gaining comfort and skill.

The second point is not actually about the content in any objective sense.  I don’t think there are right and wrong content decisions, topics, formats, tones, or structures that will consistently lead to success and enjoyment as a speaker.  When I say content matters, I really mean crafting a talk that is unique to you.

If I asked you to give a 5 minute schpeel tomorrow on the importance of accounting to business success, your first reaction would probably be to spend all night researching accounting and articles about this topic and trying to become as much of an expert as one can become overnight.  You’d feel ridiculous stress, and while giving your talk you’d constantly wonder if the audience would call you out or know more than you and think you a fraud.  That’s because you’ve approached it with the idea that your content must mirror what others have already done on the topic.  The truth is, you’re never going to be as good as they are at giving their content.  You’ve got to deliver your own.

Maybe you know nothing about accounting.  No problem.  Give a five minute talk that is completely, entirely unique to you and your life and perspective.  You’ll be the expert.  No one knows your story as well as you.  You can do this in almost any area if you’re creative.  For our example, you could tell us that you know accounting is important for business success because when you were a kid you had a lemonade stand and you thought you were killing it with your $10 in sales…only because you didn’t write down or track the $12 you spent on supplies.  That’s a story no expert could beat you at.  It’s your story.

When you pick content that flows out of you, that you know and live and breath, and work your topic around it, you’ll feel far more at ease and give a heck of a better talk than if you try to be something you’re not.  Your philosophy, hobbies, friends, upbringing, or any number of things truly and uniquely you are the place to start from when building a talk.

As I shared these two tips for public speaking I realized how true they are for entrepreneurship, or any kind of work.  You’ll do your best work and enjoy yourself and find your groove and create value the most when you have:

  • Lots of Practice
  • Unique Content

You can’t discover what makes you come alive or what you hate by thinking about it or reading books.  You can’t gain confidence and skill and self-knowledge by listening to lectures.  You can’t find out if your product or idea is a good one by merely polling people.  You’ve got to get out there and test some stuff.  You’ve got to practice.  A lot.

You’re likely to feel a lot of stress if you spend your time comparing your skills to others.  Just because you’ll never be the coder that you’re buddy is doesn’t mean you can’t succeed in the tech world.  Just because you’re not as good a salesman as your boss doesn’t mean you have no future.  Aping their style will only get you so far.  What do you have that’s unique to you?  What do you do better than anyone in your peer group?  What’s something you’ve got that others don’t?

It might be a skill or personality trait.  It also might be something really unglamorous.  When you’re young you often have something very few more seasoned people have.  Time and flexibility.  A low cost standard of living.  Geographical freedom.  Think about how to build on those far more unique assets rather than trying to compete with someone who has a ten year head start on you in something more generic.

Jump in and do stuff.  Do things that are true to you, and where the unique aspects of yourself can do the heavy lifting.  You’ll do better and have more fun.  Whether speaking to a crowd or working on a career.

Doing Work You Love and Being Happy Are Not Necessarily the Same Thing

Would you believe me if I told you that people can be happy doing work they hate?

Everyone wants to be happy.  Well, there is actually some debate about what people want and whether the word “happy” is the the most accurate.  Call it utility, or fulfillment, or flow, or bliss, or the good life, or anything else you like.  I’m going to use the word ‘happy’ to describe an existence that maximizes those moments when you feel proud and thrilled to be alive, and minimizes those where you feel the opposite.  Just give me some definitional generosity, or substitute your preferred word that defines what it is you seek.

Now, most people also think that they want to do work that they love.  That is, they want the way in which they procure the resources needed for survival and material pleasure to be an activity that is inherently interesting and fulfilling.  They do not merely want the hunt to be done for the meat, but they want to enjoy it for its own pleasures.  At least that’s what they’ll tell you.

You might be lying

I think a great many people are lying to themselves and others about what they actually want.  A lot of people want to be the type of person who seeks meaning in their work, but they actually care a lot more about just finding a way to get the resources needed to relax more.  Doing work you love is harder than doing work you can tolerate.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  There is nothing morally superior or inherently noble about wanting to do work that you love, and there is nothing bad about wanting to just get the money you need to work as little as possible.  These are personal preferences, and either approach can lead to a happy life.  Of course, lack of self-knowledge or dishonesty with oneself about which approach you prefer can lead to unhappiness just as easily.

In other words, doing work you love is not the secret ingredient needed to be happy.  At least not for everyone.

There are people who can never be happy unless they are doing work they love.  For them, it doesn’t even matter if they make a lot of money at it.  If those people chase money and status over fulfilling work, they’ll be miserable.

There are also people who can never be happy unless they have a large amount of money, free time, leisure, and a minimum of stress.  For them, it doesn’t even matter much what kind of work they do, as long as it yields them enough money in a small enough amount of time to do what they really love.  If those people chase a meaningful career with all the material and time sacrifices that requires, they’ll be miserable.

Who are you?

The key to happiness is to discover which type of person you are, be honest with yourself and others about what you find, and have the courage to live it.

Let me illustrate this with a matrix.  I love a good 2×2 matrix.  It’s been awhile since the last one I made (in what is still one of my favorite posts), so I decided to conjure up a new one.  My graphic design skills are once again on full display.  You’re welcome for the visual feast.

Doing Work You Love and Being Happy

Let’s walk through each of the four quadrants one by one.  See if you can recognize people in your life who fit them.

Oh, and notice in particular the fact that the amount of money earned is not the relevant factor in any of the quadrants.  You can have rich, poor, or anything in between in any of them.

“I love my work and I’m happy”

The upper left quadrant represents those people who have gone all-in to find work that makes them feel alive every day.  They may be billionaire tech company founders who live and breath their company, or penniless beach bums who spend all day on the waves and scrape together just enough money giving lessons for a burger and a brew.  I know people so passionately obsessed with their work that they’d rather be doing it than anything else.  Depending upon what that work is, they may be very wealthy or very poor.  They don’t much care.  They care about their craft, and so long as they’re doing it, life is good.

“I hate my work and I’m happy”

The upper right quadrant is where people who have accepted the fact that work is not for them hang out.  They’ve also come to grips with the fact that the things they actually do love require a good bit of money and time, and work is required to get it.  They configure their lives to do the minimum amount of drudgery to get the maximum payoff.  I know business owners who have no interest in their industry, or salespeople who would just as unhappily sell something totally different.  They just found a niche where they can get what they need.

They sometimes live the Four Hour Workweek life, and truly put in almost no time to keep the income stream going.  Those with a longer time horizon and ability to defer gratification may put in a lot more hours upfront and endure a high degree of boredom for the payoff of evenings, weekends, or retirement.  I know people who I don’t think would ever find happiness in any kind of work.  They want leisure.  But they’ve made their peace with this fact and put all their energy into being true to that reality, instead of unhappily chasing an illusive form of work they’d love, or feeling guilty for their material desires.

“I love my work and I’m unhappy”

Ah yes, the martyr.  The people in the lower left quadrant are probably the hardest for me to be around.  They self-righteously remind everyone about how they opted not to “sell-out”, but then never stop bitching about the costs they incurred for doing so.  The truth is, these are people who would be happier seeking money instead of work they think the world will see as meaningful.  This is the jazz artist who gets angry every time the Grammy’s come along and some blonde pop star takes home the hardware.  This is the adjunct professor who chose an obscure academic discipline with almost no chance of good money but never stops yelling about the injustice in the fact that no one values what they do enough to pay them big bucks.

The funny thing is, this is a phenomenon found almost exclusively in rich countries.  The unhappy work purists are typically quite wealthy by world standards, but they can never stop comparing themselves to the richest of the rich.  This obsessive tendency to compare reveals their true preference for material wealth over career fulfillment.  They’d be a lot happier if they were simply honest with themselves and, as my friend Jason Brennan suggests, got a job at Gieco.

“I hate my work and I’m unhappy”

Opposite of the previous category, those in the lower right quadrant believe themselves to be made happiest by money, status, and “normalcy”.  But they are wrong about their true desires.  These people chose the best school, the best major, the best internship, and the job with the best title at the consulting firm because everyone around them egged them on the whole way.  Surely a great job, nice house, respectable resume, and good income will lead to happiness, right?  In their case, wrong.

They find themselves hating their work and not really enjoying the material benefits it brings either.  Their weekends are just as dull as the workweek.  As they keep ratcheting up the career ladder they also ratchet up their lifestyle, hoping that the next level and a new car will bring happiness.  It doesn’t.  But because their material quality of life escalates with their income, they feel trapped.  If they happen to realize that they never cared much for money and status as much as meaning in their work, it seems too late.  How could they give up $180,000 a year to start a band or become a chef?  They might lose their marriage, and surely their social standing.

Knowledge and Honesty

Again, every quadrant has examples of both rich and poor within it.  The two happy categories include rich and poor as well as those who love their work and those who hate it.  The key is not finding the one true path that works for everyone.  The key is finding out who you really are.  Then not being ashamed of what you find and not lying to yourself about it.

Self-knowledge and self-honesty.

Finally, after discovering and being truthful about what makes you happy, go do it.  It’s worth all the costs.


For more on this topic check out the podcast episode with TK Coleman, “Should You Follow Your Passion or Not?

Credentials are Killing the Classroom

(A slightly tighter, probably better version of this was published for the Freeman.)

I’ve been to a lot of educational seminars put on by organizations like the Foundation for Economic Education and the Institute for Humane Studies, among others.  One thing these events have in common is incredibly high quality participants and deep discussions late into the night.  They tend to be multi-day intellectual feasts that leave you as tired as invigorated, and always challenged in the best of ways.

Nearly every time you hear one or more participants say something like, “This is what I wish college was like!”  The attendees are blown away by the caliber of the content, the professors willingness to engage amicably even in free time, and the intelligence and interest level of the other participants.  Faculty and students alike talk about how these seminars are far better than typical college classes.  This is no accident.

The obvious explanation most people give for this quality differential is self-selection.  Those who choose to give up a week of their summer to discuss ideas – both faculty and students – are high caliber and highly engaged.  This is true so far as it goes, but if we stop there we miss something even more fundamental and profound.  After all, college has self-selection too.  Shouldn’t it be full of professors and students who are earnest truth and knowledge seekers of the finest quality?  Yet college is nothing close to this, but for extremely rare exceptions in one or two classes.  Why does the self-selection only produce quality learning in these seminars?  The reason is right in front of us.

It’s because college offers an official credential and educational experiences outside of college do not.

That’s it.  Everything else is minor compared to this causal factor.  It’s easy to see when you look.  Imagine one of these summer seminars if they offered an official, government-approved piece of paper at the end that most HR departments used as a baseline screen, without which you couldn’t get past the first wave of job applications?  A summer seminar selling a magical ticket to a job that mom, dad, and society would feel proud of would be overwhelmed with attendees.  And most of them wouldn’t give a hoot about what they had to do to get the paper at the end.  Demand for faculty would spike, and most of them would do whatever it took to get the paycheck and quickly retreat to quiet corridors where they could be with their books and the few colleagues that actually care.  It would become, in a word, college.

The evidence is everywhere that the credential is killing the classroom.  I’ve guest taught entry level college classes before.  It’s pretty painful.  Most of the students are half asleep, grumpy, forlorn, texting, and generally inattentive.  I like to joke that if aliens from another planet came down and observed a typical class at a typical university and were asked what they witnessed, they would scan the cinder block and fluorescent room, ponder the pained look on student faces, and conclude it was a penal colony.  Imagine their surprise when told these people are not only here of their own free will, but paying tens of thousands for the suffering!

Not every classroom is that painful, but it’s the rule not the exception.  If you need further proof consider the fact that when class is cancelled everyone is happy, student and professor alike.  What other good can you think of where you pay in advance and are excited when it’s not delivered?  That’s because, much to the confusion of most faculty, the good being sold is not their lectures or the knowledge therein.  None of the students are buying that.  Sure, it’s nice if they get a little enjoyment and knowledge out of the deal, but that’s not why they’re there.  After all, if that’s what they wanted they could simply sit in on classes at will without registering or paying.

They are there for the credential because the credential is a signal to the working world that they are at least slightly better on average than those without it.  That’s it.  In some fields the credential is legally required, and in many others alternative ways to measure competence are illegal, so the signal of a degree retains artificially enhanced value.  Even so, that value is fading.

Large institutions form because transaction costs are high with tons of individuals exchanging goods, services, and information separately.  This is why family name mattered so much in times past.  Economist Ronald Coase famously explained the existence of firms using this basic logic.  It works for universities too.  When it’s hard to prove your worth alone, you get a trusted institution to vouch for you.  It’s s shortcut that reduces risk on the part of those who want to hire you.  But each passing year the value of this institutional reputation-backer declines compared to the available alternatives.  Technology has dramatically reduced information costs so it is now easier than ever to be your own resume.  You can vouch for yourself and create results easily seen by others that can speak for you.  It’s Yelp reviews instead of a few food critics determining whose steak is good.  You can build a better signal than what college is selling.

So long as legal and cultural (we might almost say religious) norms continue to see the degree as the primary signal of value in the marketplace the classroom will continue to decline in quality.  When the majority of students are purchasing one good (the credential) but are made to endure another (the classroom) they will continue to see it as a cost more than a benefit, and behave accordingly, sliding through with minimal pain and suffering.

On the flip side the classroom isn’t doing the credential any favors either.  Even though many still lack the imagination to see the alternatives right in front of them, most employers now admit that a degree signals very little these days.  Everyone has one.  Though there are still sometimes significant qualitative differences, most universities sell as many as they possibly can.  Cases of professors passing bad students and universities passing bad professors are well known, and the clout of the institutions is waning.  Even those who still require a degree ask for much more on top of it, because sitting through a bunch of classes you didn’t care about and doing the minimum amount of passionless hoop-jumping doesn’t convey much about your energy, eagerness, and ability to create value in a dynamic market.

A number of my professor friends sometimes chastise me for what they think are unfair criticisms of college.  Yet what I’m suggesting, that the credential be separated from the classroom, reflects my respect for great professors and the value of their style of education.  It is precisely because classroom learning at its best, like I’ve experienced so many times in those seminars, is so powerful and valuable that I wish to see it no longer destroyed and diminished by artificial attachment to a supposed magic job paper.  The subsidies, loans, restrictions, requirements, licensure laws, as well as the parental and societal worship of college as the great economic security blanket have filled the classroom with so much clutter it’s a rarity for quality interaction to occur.

The exciting thing is that a cleavage between the credential and the classroom is happening right in front of us.  It’s not MOOC’s that will fundamentally change college in countries like the US where access to information is already rich.  That’s just a new delivery system for a current good, and one that most American’s aren’t buying anyway.  The real shift is occurring as fewer and fewer employers look to the degree as the dominant signal, and as more and more young people build their own.

When the dust settles I’d love to see every great teacher and researcher doing their thing with eager audiences who are actually there to purchase that unique product, rather than suffer through it on their way to getting something else they really want.  The host of mediocre faculty will lose, but the good ones will win big, both in economic opportunity and quality of the craft.  So will the young customers who wish to learn from them.

Age and Your Option Set

I meet a lot of young people who have the skills, interest, maturity, and resources to do right now the very thing they want to be doing in five years.  Almost none of them realize it, or feel free to do it now.  They feel as though they need permission, or need to be in the “normal” age bracket for it to be in their set of options.

I know some coders who have the skill and interest to work for a software startup.  They don’t enjoy school.  They don’t feel it’s making them a better coder.  They have a job offer right now to go work someplace they love.  They even say that the job offer is exactly the kind they want to get in four years when they finish school, and voice disappointment that it came their way too early.  How could it be too early?  The company wants you and you want them, right now, today!

The conveyor belt mindset is so strong in most of us that we are incapable of seeing options in front of us if they aren’t part of the set of options that is supposed to be in front of a 16, 18, or 24 year old.  At 18 your options are among different colleges, internships, summer jobs, or gap year programs.  That’s the norm, and that norm blinds people to the massively larger set of options they actually have.  This blinding is so strong that even when offered something that they hope will be available four years hence, they are unable to see it as a serious, viable option, and they say no to go suffer through something less interesting for four years and untold thousands.

This isn’t just about college.  Our tendency to stick with the age-defined conveyor belt option set society expects is strong throughout life.  I’ve met women who desperately want to stop working and have and raise children, but they feel like they aren’t allowed to until they’ve put in a certain amount of time as a working woman, even though they could afford it today.  I’ve met people who want to play gigs at bars with a band, but they feel that’s the kind of thing an accountant can only do when he retires.

Don’t be blinded by social averages and expectations.  If you want to learn code today, who cares that you’re only 10 and supposed to be doing other things.  If you want to switch careers, who cares that you’re 60 and it’s supposed to be too late for that.  If you have a job offer today that matches what you hope to get after graduation, who cares that you’re only 18.

The conveyor belt sucks.  Get off.  Pave your own path.

What to do When The Game Kills Your Entrepreneurial Dream

I’m putting the finishing touches on several presentations I’ll be giving next week at FEE’s Economics of Entrepreneurship seminar.  I always love crafting a new talk, and I’m especially looking forward to one on how insights from Public Choice Theory can help entrepreneurs.

I don’t want to give anything away, but here are the four options I’ll discuss for entrepreneurs when they face a clumsy, interventionist state that stymies innovative efforts with political games:

  1. Ignore the game
  2. Defy the game
  3. Play the game
  4. Change the game

We’ll see how the talk goes, and if it works I might keep it in the live mix and give it this fall at some events.

My Education and Career Path

I was homeschooled, but in practice that meant playing Legos most of the time.  My mom felt guilt over her failed attempts at creating a more structured learning environment and curriculum.  At the time I thought I was probably embarrassingly behind my peers in “normal school”, but I didn’t much care.  We (my siblings and I) always had lots of chores to do, and I had paid jobs from age ten or earlier (weekly then daily paper routes, golf course, grocery store, construction…).  I had no interest in any kind of intellectual life until I was about sixteen.  Up until then, it was sports, Legos, earning money, playing guitar, and whatever I had to do to get decent grades in my few homeschool classes or textbooks.

When I was 15, I attended a small private school for my sophomore year in high school.  I enjoyed the sports and made some friends, but after years of loose homeschooling, it felt stiflingly prefabricated.  I don’t think I took homework home with me the entire year, since so many classes required almost no attention, I’d do homework right there at my desk.  The whole thing seemed artificial, and I found it absurd that we all followed the same bells and schedule, like cattle corralled through the halls.  I was not too smart for school – plenty of kids there were smarter than me – but too impatient with the lack of individualization.  I was also irritated that it severely restricted the hours I could work.  I decided to quit.

I’ll never forget when I told the music teacher of my decision to leave and enroll full time in the local community college.  I considered him a friend and something of a mentor.  He helped awaken my musical interest and gave me opportunities to sing and play that I was not qualified for, something I’m still grateful for.  But he just didn’t get it.  I came in to class after running around outside in a rainstorm with a few other students and broke the news.  He stared, mouth agape with a bewildered, wounded look in his eyes and said, “College!?  Isaac, you’re not ready for college.  You’re still a kid who runs barefoot in the rain!”  Any doubts I had about my decision vanished then and there.  It was a well-meaning plea, but I took it as a challenge.  I felt he underestimated me, and that was a great motivator.

I spent the next two years taking a full load of classes, packed into two or three days a week, and working as many hours as I could the other two or three days.  I loved it.  I could choose the classes I wanted, make my own schedule, and interact with a variety of people much wider than in the private high school, and even more than at the university I later attended.  Most of the classes were ok, some bad, some good.  The best classes I ever had were business and marketing from a crazy, middle-aged, self-proclaimed capitalist fanboy who ran a successful business but taught for fun.  It was around this time that I awoke to the world of ideas.  It had nothing to do with any of my classes, but for some reason (probably a breakup with a girl) I started picking up books, something I had, with a few early exceptions, hated.

I found myself mesmerized by philosophy, theology, and eventually economics.  My job had me travelling across the state and installing phone and computer cables (pre WiFi), and taking on scary amounts of responsibility, mostly making things up as I went.  My education, which came almost entirely from books I read on my own and late-night conversations with friends at church, the used bookstore, and coffee shops (which were kind of a new thing in Kalamazoo, MI at the time) was moving at breakneck speed.  It was like my whole childhood I was just doing whatever I had to to get by educationally, but the dam broke in my mid-teens and I was in love with the life of the mind.  I also had something of an entrepreneurial spirit and helped start a nonprofit and did a lot of international missions work, which at the time I thought was the best way to make the world a better place.

After community college I continued the work/school split while attending the local, generic, massive state university where I majored in political science and philosophy.  I changed majors several times, but finally settled on subjects I most enjoyed and would let me finish as fast as possible.  I didn’t mind school, but hated the amount of money I had to pay, and just wanted to get the piece of paper that was supposed to be a ticket to a job.  Trying to save money, I went two whole semesters without purchasing a single textbook and still got good grades.  It seemed like a racket.

With the exception of one professor and one TA, none of my fellow students or faculty really aided my intellectual development in comparison to what I was pursuing on my own and with friends outside of school.  I used to walk around an old building downtown and imagine buying and turning it into a real college, where students only bought the items they wanted from the bundle, and where work and classroom were not in competition, but complementary.

Despite never having a single meeting with an advisor, somehow I graduated.  At least I assume I did, since they sent me a certificate in the mail.  I was 19 and I started a business with my brother.  It was something of a failure, with a few high points.  We folded it up after just nine months.  I spent the next five years as a very young and very poor married guy working in the state legislature, then at a think tank.

I loved ideas, and had come to believe the way to make the world a better place was through political and policy change.  But the more I studied and observed the machinations of the political world, the less faith I had in it as an avenue for change.  While at the think tank I took night classes and got a Masters in Economics.  It was a uniquely amazing program, as we used no textbooks but instead read all primary works beginning with Hesiod all the way through Marx and Mises and Friedman.  I drove across the state three hours each way, one night a week for a year and a half during the program.  By the time I was done, my belief in the inability of politics to improve the world had become firmer.  I had little interest in anything besides educating people about the perils of government intervention and the wonders of the market.

My wife and I took a chance on a great job offer running libertarian educational programs in Arlington, VA, a city we weren’t too fond of before we moved, and one that, after leaving I wouldn’t wish on anyone.  The job was amazing.  Over my four plus years there I ran fellowships, seminars, mentoring programs, and raised money.  I interacted with hundreds of bright students and dozens of successful entrepreneurs.  I began to observe troubling trends.  So many young people were stacking up degrees and educational accolades, yet wandering aimlessly, insecure and unsure about their career prospects.  They had degrees and debt, but couldn’t find a job.  Many of the smartest decided, since they didn’t know what else to do, to go to law school.  So many came out the other end with massive debt, no closer to finding a fulfilling career.  (If I had a nickel for every lawyer that told me they wished they hadn’t done law school…)

Meanwhile, in fundraising I met countless business owners who claimed they were always hiring, even in a supposedly down economy, but couldn’t find enough good talent.  Something was amiss.

My views on changing the world were shifting too.  Education as I thought of it – convincing people to change their worldview – seemed insufficient.  I began to observe areas where change happened, it seemed to have a great deal to do with entrepreneurial innovation.  You could spend your life trying to convince people the Post Office is inefficient or immoral, or you could invent FedEx or email.  I got the itch to disrupt the status quo as an entrepreneur.

A culmination of desires I had in college and opportunities, skills, connections, and worldviews I’d developed since came together.  Cliché as it sounds, I went for a walk on the beach and had an epiphany.  A single word, “Praxis”, popped into my head.  I could almost see it in bold letters floating on the horizon.  A relentless flood of ideas filled my mind, and I ran to my car and drove home as fast as I could to type it up.  I was going to create an alternative to the university system.  Better, faster, cheaper, and more individualized.  I wanted to create a new class of entrepreneurial young people.  I wanted to seize the best online educational material, organize it, add a powerful credentialing signal, and combine it with work experience at dynamic companies that couldn’t afford unproductive interns.  I was tired of seeing young people languish and drown in debt.  I was tired of seeing business owners struggle to find good workers.  I was tired of seeing so many entrepreneurial opportunities and so few people with the confidence to pursue them.

Thus Praxis was born.  It’s kind of the incorporated version of my philosophy on education.

While living through the various phases I was only sometimes conscious of these things, but in retrospect I can draw several lessons from my educational and career path:

  • Free time is more valuable than planned time.
  • Work is more valuable than school.
  • Responsibility and ownership at an early age are irreplaceable.
  • College is what you make it, but nearly everything good you get from it can be had better and cheaper elsewhere.
  • Your education belongs to you, and no institution can give it to you.
  • Discovering what you hate is more important than finding out what you love. As long as you’re not doing things you hate, you’re moving in roughly the right direction.
  • Seeing geography as a constraint is a major impediment to your educational and career progress.
  • Your personal philosophy and educational and career path should feed each other.
  • Wandering and experimenting are great, but not at any price. Meandering through an educational path you’ll be paying off for a decade or more is different than dabbling in a free class or internship that will only cost you a few months.
  • Don’t fear how you compare to your peers.
  • If the interest isn’t there, don’t put energy there. But when it is, go all the way.
  • You always get more out of things you choose over things you’re made to do. Find ways to have more of the former, and fewer of the latter.
  • Work ethic can overcome knowledge deficit, but not the other way around.
  • Mentors can be great, but they can also hold you back. Don’t take them too seriously.
  • If the process isn’t fun, you’re doing it wrong.
  • If the process isn’t hard, you’re doing it wrong.
  • You’ll be doing it wrong at least some of the time. That feedback helps you figure out how to do it right.
  • Push your imagination to see yourself as capable of great things. Continue to do this.

The few regrets I have for the path I took boil down to one: I wish I had more confidence, and earlier, about going my own way.


Excerpted from The Future of School


*If you are a teen or you have a teen that’s interested in entrepreneurship, creative thinking, and out of the box living, check out the Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course!

Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course

Gains From a Radically Different Daily Structure

The other day I was in line at a Chipotle in Chicago.  It was around noon on a weekday, so the line was almost out the door.  It took 30 minutes.  It dawned on me just how wasteful and unhappy the whole situation was.  Why should we all wait so long to get food when an hour or two later the cooks and servers would be waiting around with few customers?

The same is true for traffic during rush hour, parking on the weekends, and prices during vacation.  The absurdity of the suffering we all endure and the economic and psychic cost of all this waiting, planning, and crowding is hard to measure.  But it’s real.

It all stems from the same source: the regimentation of life.  Every kid goes to school at the exact same time every day, stays for the same number of hours, leaves at the same time, and has the same days off.  More variation exists in the working world, but not much.  The bulk of producers clock in at roughly the same time every morning, eat lunch in unison, and head home en mass.

The odd thing is none of this is necessary for a growing number, possibly even most of us.  How many jobs require someone to actually be physically present between the hours of 9 and 5?  Why the heck do kids need to sit in clumps of same aged children for identical hours to be forced to study the same things in the same way?  We can work from almost anywhere.  We can learn from almost anywhere.  Most of us have the tools, the freedom of movement, and the resources.  Why don’t we see a diversity of daily schedules?  Why don’t more people treat Tuesday as the weekend?  Why don’t more people do all their errands during the day and their work at night?  Why don’t more people abandon regular offices or classrooms altogether?

There are some benefits the the regimen, but not enough to justify the costs we endure.  These practices continue primarily because of a mindset.  We have status quo bias.  We feel guilt or confusion at the idea of not being present 9-5 at work or 8-3 at school.  It’s an obsession with externally defined roles and goals at the expense of outcomes and value created.  What do we want and need to learn or create or earn?  How and when can we best do it?  Those are the important questions and the answers, if we are honest, would vary widely and look little like the routines most of us subject ourselves to.

Imagine a world where kids freely explored, worked, played, and learned on their own terms and timelines.  Imagine a world where people of all ages worked when and how they worked best.  Imagine a week not punctuated by any regular rush hour or weekend or meal time.  Certainly patterns would emerge and some schedules would be more common than others, but absent our rigid adherence to an outdated schedule, supply and demand would be regulated by the money, time, and headache of peaks and troughs, and the market would smooth out and have smaller ups and downs.

The value of such a shift would be immense.  Think of how many hours people would not be sitting in traffic if few had to show up at the same time to the office or school in the morning.  Think about the hours and money that would not be spent during peak times for flights, hotels, parking lots, and Disney World tickets.  Think of the immense subjective value enhancement by not enduring the throngs.  Little if any of these major gains would show up in GDP measurements.  In fact, it may hurt GDP.  Less spending on the same goods.  Less need for parking structures, etc.

We are seeing a slow but steady move in this direction, which is part of the reason I’ve argued that GDP is a dated and increasingly useless measure of anything valuable.  Let’s speed up the process by asking “Why not?” instead of “Why?” about radical new structures that make us happier.  You let your kids unschool?  Why not.  You work remotely?  Why not.  You take the day off to go to the beach in the middle of the day?  Why not.

It might not be doable for you in any big ways, but I bet there are some stressful patterns in your life that are relics of a bygone era and can be shed with little difficulty.

Writing and I Might Need to Get Counseling

I’ve developed a complicated relationship with writing.

I’ve been blogging every day since February, and prior to that had been blogging anywhere from 2-7 times per week over the past three years.  The surprising thing about writing regularly as a discipline is how much my relationship to the practice has changed.  It’s like a marriage, with honeymoons, dips, plateaus, and every other vicissitude imaginable.

So where do things stand now?

I like writing.  In fact, I love writing.  I need it.  It’s still hard, but I have this unshakable faith that I never had before.  I know when I sit down and start typing, something will come.  I never fear for lack of content.  The knowledge that as long as I sit down, face the page, and hit that first keystroke I will get something written is wonderful.  So as an inward-focused self-development project, writing and I have a good thing going.  It’s when third parties get involved that things get complicated.

I’ve posted before and I still maintain that I write primarily for myself.  Still, I love it when my stuff gets a lot of traction, shares, and views.  I’m a slow learner, but I’ve recently hit on a few elements that dramatically increase the level of attention a piece can get.  That’s the source of the complication between writing and me.  Do I just sit down, hammer away at the keys, and wait for the Muses to reward my discipline with inspiration, or do I deliberately construct content to include elements that will gain wider reach?

I have no ethical worries about “selling out” and don’t look down on marketing or even those who’ve mastered the art of click-baiting.  I don’t think there’s anything more or less pure about writing to get read, as long as you’re honest with yourself about your intentions and don’t feel shame over it.  I love the constant give-and-take game that creators and consumers of content play, trying to understand and anticipate each other.  I think good marketing does not harm a product, but actually creates value.  I am impressed by those who really grasp that the game is less about creating content than it is about structuring it.

Still, writing for reach doesn’t come as naturally to me and I only occasionally enjoy it.  I hate posts that have images attached to them for no reason.  Why does a stock photo of people on an escalator make the ideas better?  Most people prefer images with everything, and I don’t look down on that.  I like titles that are a bit ambiguous, but most people want a big, clear “pop” up top.  I vaguely understand it and oscillate between stubbornly refusing to try and happily playing around with small tweaks that appeal to would-be readers.

When I first began blogging no one read any of my stuff.  That was the second hurdle to overcome.  Before I started writing I had to overcome the fear of being misunderstood or disliked for my sometimes radical views, but I quickly learned the more common and more difficult reality is that no one is offended because no one is reading.  I came to terms with a small audience and writing and I really focused on our relationship in private.  I do not pretend to have a massive audience today, but readership has steadily grown and with increasing frequency I write a piece that gets widely shared.  The thing that makes this hard on my relationship with writing is that the most popular pieces are rarely the ones I care most about or think are my best stuff.

I’m beginning to be able to penetrate the mystery a bit and see what makes some pieces more popular than others, but most of those characteristics aren’t elements of my writing that I find most fundamental or unique to me.  If I allowed myself to indulge in artistic self-pity it would feel like the world is telling me, “Just be less like yourself and you’re work will get more attention”.  It’s not nearly that simple, nor do I think that I could magically master massive reach by “selling out” or any such nonsense.  It ain’t easy to get traction even if you’re trying.  There is just a tiny tug-of-war going on between me and writing about how to proceed in our partnership.

Do I continue to use our encounters in co-creation as a form of therapy and self-reflection, or do we agree to turn toward the wider world and produce things that connect?  Not that I can flip a switch and do the latter easily.  But how much should I try?

For now I’m going to try to have my cake and eat it.  I’ll write for myself every day.  But I’ll also try once or twice a week to let audience-consciousness guide a few of my choices.  Call it an experiment.  I need to know if I’m avoiding writing with the audience in mind because it’s really not me, or if I’m avoiding it for the same reason I used to avoid writing altogether, because it’s hard and scary.

5 Reasons to Take a Crappy Job

If you want to be really good at whatever you do I recommend getting some crappy* work experience while you are young.  Mop floors, work a cash register, haul junk, install drywall, dig ditches, clean bathrooms, or some kind of job that has no pre-existing skill requirement.

Let’s not get too romantic.  I don’t look down on people who haven’t ever had a crappy job, nor do I look up to people who don’t like it but have never moved on from one.  Still, there are some take-aways a crappy job provides that are just hard to get any other way.  Here are a few things you’ll gain.

You’ll learn that attitude is everything

Benefits of Bad Jobs
These guys were onto something

There literally is nothing else.  When you’re working a crappy job you can’t expect things to suddenly get more exciting or rewarding on their own.  Without the faintest hope of a fortunate change in external circumstances, you are forced to come to terms with what’s true for every job: attitude trumps everything.  The difference in a good day cutting 2×4 studs and a bad day cutting 2×4 studs is whether or not you begin with a smile and a whistle.  I’m not kidding.  Try not being happy while whistling!  Customers will be rude, things you just swept will get dirty again, it will rain while you’re trying to read the smudged instructions on the rented Ditch-Witch.  Your laughter might be the only thing that saves you.  This lesson will serve you well when you’re doing work that’s not crappy, because then the stakes only get higher and bad days can seem catastrophic if you don’t know how to deal.

You’ll learn to focus on product

Titles and family income and educational attainment and physical beauty don’t mean much on the clean-up crew.  When you’re bagging groceries nobody gives a hoot how good you are at tennis or how many extracurriculars you have.  There is little scope for unearned favor and politicking in a crappy job.  You shut up and produce.  Want a raise?  Get more done.  Make more customers happy.  Be faster than your coworkers.  Never show up late or miss a day.  Work overtime.  It’s too easy in some of the more complex and interesting jobs, many of which are several steps removed from the end customer, to forget what it is that actually generates the money to make the place go.  You can slip into a mindset that overvalues cleverness and social gamesmanship and overlooks value creation.  That won’t happen when you’re stocking shelves or emptying sticky beer bottles into the dump truck.  You want to move up, you’d better create more value.

You’ll learn that you can be great

There are a lot of people who have mastered the techniques of crappy jobs and can really fly through.  There are even some who genuinely love the jobs.  But let’s be honest, most of the people you’ll work with at the landscaping company aren’t the type you’d want to work with later in life.  In crappy jobs the majority of people you’re surrounded by are always looking for the path of least resistance, being sneaky about hours, indulging in fruitless gossip, pilfering snacks from the break room, and sometimes worse.  When the skill bar is low, you get some unsavory characters who come in and out.  The best part about this is that it won’t take you long to realize that, with a little effort, dedication, and basic people skills and integrity, you can rise to the top and be one of the best employees.  This is a good feeling.  I’m convinced that the path to greatness for most people comes not when they suddenly realize how much potential they have, but when they realize how little everyone else seems to try.  Here’s the secret: this doesn’t change when you move from the grocery store to the Fortune 500 company.

You’ll learn what you want to avoid

The Benefits of Crappy Jobs
If only your work days were this glorious

If you’ve always been in the officer’s quarters and never with the enlisted men and women, you won’t know exactly what you’ve got.  In fact, you may even long for the romantic ideal of menial work in your weaker, more stressed out moments.  “If only my biggest concern was the blister on my heel”, you’ll think to yourself, imagining working the chain gang with Cool Hand Luke.  Everyone who has ever worked a crappy job and moved on will laugh at you.  Sure, they can reminisce about it, but they would never trade intellectually engaging, creative work for it.  They see it as what it is, the first rung on a ladder of personal development.  Working a crappy job helps you realize that you’ve got bigger dreams than just earning enough money to live.  It will motivate you to do more, to build your skill, knowledge, and network outside of work so you can jump into something better.

You’ll learn that the worst case isn’t so bad

Yes, this post is about crappy jobs.  Yes, I just said there’s nothing romantic about it and if you work one you’ll probably want out.  All true.  But it’s also true that these jobs aren’t so bad.  You can only really know this if you’ve had one.  This knowledge will come in handy when you are about to launch your startup and you have no idea if it will fail.  Failure will loom as a haunting spectre, crippling you with indecision.  What will happen if I’m wrong and this thing fails?  That’s when the memory of your crappy job will be like a warm blanket.  You’ll smile and realize that the worst case isn’t so bad.  So what if your business fails?  So what if no one will hire you afterwards?  The worst that can happen is you’ll downgrade to a small apartment and mow lawns or ring up customers.  You’ve been there.  It’s not death.  That’s as far as the fall can go.  There’s comfort and courage in that.

*I’m painting with a broad brush here.  I realize that these jobs are not crappy at all to some people.  I do not mean to insult.  I quite enjoyed most of my crappy jobs while they lasted.  My goal is for you to imagine a job that you think would be crappy.  Something you know you don’t want to do for the rest of your life, something that doesn’t require much skill to start with, and something that no one will be impressed by at cocktail hour.

The Two Things That Trump Talent

One of the big secrets in the professional world is that talent is not the most valuable thing to clients, employers, coworkers, and investors.  I’ve written before about a skill that beats talent every time.  I’m going to expand on that a little bit today.  A combination of two traits will win out over a lot of talent.

Hard work and self-esteem.

Hard work is the ability and willingness to do whatever it takes to get things done.  Be the person who never misses a deadline, never drops the ball, never requires additional prompting, never needs to be checked-in on, never induces worry.  It doesn’t mean someone who just  generates a lot of meaningless activity and sweat, and brags about the all-nighters or the amount of effort.  The key here is the word “work”.  The kind of hard work that will beat talent is really hard-won results.  Work needs to mean valuable outcomes, not inputs.  Tangible value created.

Self-esteem is a deep connection with ones own value and meaning, derived from something other than external circumstances or the approval of others.  Those who can win over a room and keep it aren’t the ones who crave attention or approval for their self-worth, or those who naturally have people skills, but those who don’t fear looking foolish or failing because their self-esteem is much deeper than the opinion of others.  They don’t need to win to feel valuable, they want to win and believe they will because they already feel valuable.

These two traits are very connected.  People are a lot less willing to work their butts off if their identity is wrapped up in external validation.  Working hard – really hard – means being vulnerable.  Being a little too cool to break a sweat shields you from potential embarrassment, but rolling up your sleeves and diving in ratchets up the risk of failing, because people may really pity you or think less if you fail when you were trying your hardest.  Those with low self-esteem experience failure as catastrophic, so they rarely work at 100%.

The good news is, unlike some talents or personality traits, hard work and self-esteem can be built.  You can deliberately cultivate and improve on both of them.  The sooner you stop looking at external measures for your sense of worth, the easier it will be to throw yourself into something the results of which may be judged by others.  The sooner you dive in to your work and resolve to consistently produce, the more you’ll gain a sense of worth from your effort and the less you’ll care what others say.  They feed each other.

Stop worrying about how you stack up talent-wise and become unshakable in your self-esteem and unequaled in your hard work.  These two things supersede all the rest, and will result in the rapid accumulation of opportunity, experience, and yes, even other highly valuable talents and skills.

The Advantages of Having a Family While Running a Business

The Advantages of Having a Family and Running a Business at the Same Time
What better motivation is there to succeed, use time wisely, and not feel defeated?

It’s no secret that being an entrepreneur is stressful and time consuming.  It requires not just physical but immense mental energy and brings pretty severe emotional swings.  Sometimes it involves emails or phone calls or travel at all hours of the day all days of the week all year long.  It’s also financially unpredictable.

All of these things suggest that having a family while starting or running a company is a bad idea.  I often tell young people that if they have a startup idea they should pursue it sooner than later, because the risk, stress, cost of failure, and available time will only get worse over time and after a spouse and kids.  Still, lots of people do it.  I’m doing it now.  Despite the very real ways in which a family makes entrepreneurship harder, there are some powerful advantages too.


I’d rather be with my family than doing just about anything else.  This is a huge advantage.  When you’re starting a company and seeking funding, partners, employees, customers, and allies there are an infinite number of things you could do at any time.  Networking event downtown tonight?  Maybe you’ll meet someone there and make a decent connection.  The thing is, 80% of the events, calls, emails, and activities won’t be that valuable.  When you are a time billionaire (as my friend TK calls it), the opportunity cost is low.  You might as well go to the happy hour.  Something might come out of it.  So single entrepreneurs do it.  Over and over again.  They hit so many conferences and meetings that the line between what’s valuable and what’s a waste begins to blur.  They can get distracted and burned out on things that don’t really enhance their core value proposition or product.

When you would rather be with your family anyway, you develop a very high bar for any reason to do otherwise.  I’m not going to drive downtown and spend three hours sipping cocktails for a 30% chance of meeting a person with a 20% chance of introducing me to someone with a 10% chance of investing 5% of what I need to raise if it means not getting to watch Finding Nemo with my kids and tuck them in bed.  It raises the cost of wasted time and sharpens your ability to distinguish what’s really worth it.  You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule.  Being an entrepreneur with a family dramatically raises the stakes and makes you a lot better and quicker at identifying your 20% activities and ignoring the rest.  Saying ‘no’ is one of the most important skills an entrepreneur can learn, and having a family makes you a little better at it.


When you’re running a venture, it’s all you think about.  As it should be.  Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham says, “It’s hard to do a good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower”, and he’s right.  But things don’t always go well.  Sometimes they downright suck.  You lose a client, a deal falls through, your website launch is months late, you face legal battles, you can’t get a meeting with an investor, or any number of other hurdles real or imagined.  If you’ve got nothing but your business, these can destroy you.  If your venture is failing you feel like you are failing.  Someone who feels like a failure in life is not going to create a winner in business.

Having a Business and a Family at the Same Time
What were you saying about not having a good life?

It’s times like these when a family is the most amazing psychological strength I’ve found.  Crumpled in a real or metaphorical heap on the floor feeling like you just got your ass kicked by the world and all is lost, you look up at two cute little girls having a tea party and asking you if some imaginary tea will make you feel better.  How can you not smile?  The number of times I’ve laughed at myself for feeling like I just can’t win is countless.  Every time it’s because I consider my family and wonder how I could ever feel desperate.  Who cares if the businesses struggles or fails or I have to go work another job to make ends meet?  If I accomplish nothing else in my life besides raising these kids and spending time with my wonderful wife, who could ever call that a waste?

This perspective is healthy and needed.  Yeah, you want to be your work and throw yourself 100% into it.  But you also want to be more than your work.  Families have an amazing way of helping you see that you are.


No matter how type-A you are and how many sleepless nights you’re willing to put in, you’re still human, and humans are lazy.  We prefer lounging to working.  Sometimes we disguise lounging as working and fill our time with activities that don’t add real value because the valuable stuff is hard or boring.  Especially after the early build and launch phase, the dip comes and it’s really hard to push yourself to do a bunch of crappy tasks to keep things moving forward.  If you have no family, and therefore very little time or financial obligation, you can easily pivot to a new job, pick up some side work, or sleep on a friend’s couch if your lack of effort should result in lack of income or delayed success.  You can wait to work hard until the moment of inspiration comes, no matter what day or hour it strikes.  When you have a family, these are all much harder to do.  If it’s 2:00 PM on a Friday and you agreed to hang with the kids for the evening beginning at 6:00, and then a long-promised family camping trip will consume the weekend, you have no choice.  You’ve got to make the next several hours count.  You’ve got to do the hard work no matter how little you want to.

It’s not only the financial incentive and desire to provide stable quality of life and time availability to your family, but also the desire to provide an example.  You want your kids to be excited by the opportunities life provides.  You want them to work hard.  You want them to see that you never gave up on your vision and you always buckled down and made things happen.  Especially if you work from home as I often do, you want your kids to get a feel for what it’s like and see your relentless focus and drive.  Alone in an apartment, it’s easier to justify a break for binge-watching your favorite show (I sneak that in after the kids are in bed.  What? I’m not a machine!).  Worst case, your venture fails and everyone still thinks you’re cool for trying it.  With a family failure is more costly, and that can be a great motivator.

Don’t Fear

While being entrepreneurial as a mindset and way of life is open and available to everyone, starting a business of your own is definitely not for everyone.  But if you feel that fire burning within and think it’s too late for you because you have a family and can never compete with single and childless founders out there, you’re wrong.  There are a great many entrepreneurial wives, husbands, fathers, and mothers, and we’ve got some advantages that those without a family don’t.

Make a List of the Jobs You’ve Had

The other day I was thinking about the various things I’ve done to earn money, skill, and experience from about age 8 or 9 onward.  I tried to come up with a complete list and found it to be a really fun and enlightening exercise.  It was rather encouraging and exciting to see how little of a pattern there is, and how nothing like a linear path emerged.  I’ve found that at every unknown juncture, worries about a job have been overblown.  I got married very young and returned from my honeymoon with a mortgage to pay and no job.  The thing that has worked best for me is just to keep working, even while looking.  I did every random, laborious job I could, and it always eventually led to more interesting things.

It’s a cool exercise, and has led to some fun stories with the kids. (Kids are always so fascinated by their parents past failures, hardships, and embarrassments).  Give it a try!  Here’s my list, probably missing some, mostly but not perfectly chronological, and with plenty of overlap:

  • Snow shoveler/leaf raker/lawn mower
  • Weekly ‘Flashes’ delivery
  • Babysitter
  • Dog walker
  • Paper delivery (this one continued for years)
  • Construction/excavation grunt (paid in Gatorade and Swiss Cake Rolls)
  • Golf course grounds worker/pro-shop/concessions/grunt/bathroom cleaner
  • Grocery store carryout and shelf stocker
  • House framer/random cut/cleanup guy
  • Telephone and data cable installation (eventually managing field operations)
  • Guitarist/vocalist in various bands (sometimes I even got paid!)
  • Co-founder of international humanitarian nonprofit (unpaid)
  • House flipper (it was pre-2007…everyone was doing it!)
  • English teacher abroad (unpaid)
  • Medical clinic assistant abroad (unpaid)
  • Electrical worker
  • Co-founder and field manager for datacom startup
  • Landscaper (because the above wasn’t making too much money!)
  • Landlord
  • President of taxpayer advocacy group (unpaid)
  • Legislative intern (unpaid for two weeks)
  • Legislative assistant/aid
  • Legislative “Chief of Staff” (“Staff” included me, one other employee, and an intern)
  • Political Science teacher
  • Creator/director of “Students for a Free Economy” program at the Mackinac Center
  • Random marketing/educational consultant (occasional side gigs)
  • Policy Programs Director at IHS
  • Speaker/lecturer (paid and unpaid)
  • Writer (mostly unpaid, but some steady paid gigs)
  • Education Director at IHS
  • Copywriter (side gigs, paid and unpaid)
  • Sales (some commission-based side-work)
  • Major Gifts Officer (fundraising) at IHS
  • Praxis

Why I Started Praxis

I didn’t start Praxis because I think college is bad, or because I want to convince people it is.  I didn’t start it to be hip and trendy and “disruptive”.  I didn’t start it because I want to point out problems with the world.  I started it because I want to create value for individuals.

There are a lot of young people hungry for valuable experiences and not finding them.  There are a lot of young people unhappy with the education, career, and life options they see before them, searching for something more.  Praxis exists for you.

Praxis is more than a program or a company to me.  It’s the embodiment of a mindset and a way of life.  It is a tangible way to help people live free, self-directed lives.  It’s a community and a set of resources and ideas and businesses and participants built around the understanding that no conveyor belt can lead you to the life you want, and no structure you don’t choose and create yourself will bring you fulfillment.

Praxis is a concrete opportunity, not a vague notion.  It offers an interesting, challenging, amazing job and an interesting, challenging, amazing self-guided educational experience, all with a relentless focus on deliverable results.  It’s a recognition that your life will be determined by the quality of your product more than the pedigree of your paper.  It’s a way to remove the fear and doubt and strictures of the linear ladder to imagined success.  It’s a way to reveal and fan into flame the deep human love of adventure, play, possibility, and experimentation.

I don’t believe doing things you don’t like and hoping it leads to unspecified things you do like is a recipe for success.  Praxis pushes you to define what you don’t like and what you do, to learn what you’re good at and what you’re not, to identify definite outcomes you wish to achieve and definite causality between those outcomes and your desired next step.  Praxis does not ask you to learn things or perform tasks in the hope that it will get you work experience, we give you that work experience from the start.  You cannot separate learning from doing.

Praxis is a recognition that, wherever you get your paycheck, you are your own firm.  The future does not belong to those who follow orders, but those who solve problems with creativity.  The future belongs to entrepreneurs, whether founders or builders within firms.  Entrepreneurial thinking and acting cannot be learned from study, but must be practiced.  Praxis exists to put those eager to learn it into environments right now – not tomorrow, not after more study and certification – where they can be around and become entrepreneurs.

Praxis exists to offer a valuable service to young people who are searching for a way to build their confidence, skills, experience, network, and knowledge.  Praxis is built upon questions like, “Why not now?”, and “Why not me?”

Praxis is about that powerful combination of big picture dreamers and blue-collar doers.  It’s all the imagination of Silicon Valley startups with all the work-ethic of Midwestern small businesses.  It’s grit plus grind plus greatness.  Praxis is the realization that the most radical thing you can do is often the most practical, and that the most practical thing you can do is sometimes be radical.

Praxis is an idea.  The idea is simple.  Find the best way to get from where you are to where you want to be.  If we can help you do that better and faster with a great job that comes with a great education and community, jump in.  If not, we’ll still be rooting for you every step of the way.

I didn’t start Praxis to make enemies or to make friends.  I started it to create value.  I started it because the idea was so powerful I had no choice but to bring it into the world.  I started it because theorizing about ways young people could build their lives wasn’t enough.  I started it because it’s fun, fulfilling, and harder than anything I’ve ever done.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Break the mold.