What You’ll Be Doing in 20 Years Doesn’t Exist Yet

From Medium.

Imagine telling your parents in 1960 or 1970 that you were going to design video games for a living. Or telling them in the 1980s that you were going to design websites. Or telling them in the 90s that you were going to get paid to create software applications for mobile telephones. Or in the early 2000s that you would be paid to “tweet” 140 character messages.

Chances are, whatever you’ll be doing in 20 years doesn’t yet exist, or at least not in any way you can imagine or describe. Not long ago the idea of work that didn’t require manual labor, or living in a big city, or going to an office was unthinkable. Today it’s ubiquitous.

Innovation keeps moving. That means picking that one clear career destination and forming a perfect path to it is probably unrealistic for an increasing number of people. It’s more important to start with a broad swath of things you’re interested in, get as much knowledge and experience as you can in many areas, and begin to add to the list of things you know you really don’t want to do. Eliminate the bad options. Anything else is fair game.

Do this and develop and refine general, transferable skills like critical thinking, communication, emotional intelligence, and a reputation for hard work, and you will be able to see and seize opportunities. Better yet, you’ll be able to create new ones.

You’ve got to think like an entrepreneur, whether you ever plan to start a business or not.

Ask around. How many people imagined 20 years ago they’d be doing what they do now? Neither will you.

The world can be your oyster. Be ready.

It’s Not About Working for Free, It’s About Being Free

I recently posted about trying to be in a position where you could do awesome work with great people, even if for very low or no pay as it is more likely to lead to better results than doing work you don’t care as much for.

Many people said this was a luxury only the elite or wealthy could afford.  I couldn’t disagree more.  In fact, as I’ve written elsewhere, lack of income can be an asset.  We tend to live up to our earnings.  Those with a less costly lifestyle are more able to jump on opportunities that don’t pay well upfront.  The whole point of the post was that it’s good to be in a position where you are most free to seize on opportunities even if they don’t have an immediate paycheck.  Avoid or reduce debt, cut expenses, maintain a minimalist life, be productive so you can do more with less time, try to save some money, etc.

You may have to or want to work a job you don’t care for and earn money for 60 hours a week but that still doesn’t preclude you from going to that awesome local marketing firm you’re interested in and begging them to do 20 hours a week of work even if they can’t pay you.  I contend that the latter will be more beneficial to you long term than the former, and if you work hard and well might turn into more pay as well.

The post was not about working for free.  The post was about being free.  The freer you are to jump on great opportunities the better, and the more things that make that hard you can eliminate the better.

Hedonism as Life Purpose

“Christian Hedonism”.  I encountered this phrase when I was about 16 and studying theology.  The concept had a big impact and stuck with me.  Whether or not you are religious there’s something powerful in it.

I believe it was a theologian named John Piper who coined the phrase, which made it especially intriguing because Piper was on the opposite side in many debates over free-will and other theological matters I was interested in when I first read it.  I won’t pretend to recall all the details but what I took away from the idea was that, in Piper’s mind, the Christian’s purpose in life is to take delight in existence, and take delight in God delighting in them for being delighted.  God created humans so that he could take pleasure in them, and seeing man take pleasure in life is what most pleased God.

I always associated the idea with a line from the movie Chariots of Fire, where the deeply religious Eric Liddell is chastised by his sister for missing church because he was running.  He said, “When I run I feel His pleasure.”  Not merely that Liddell was having a pleasurable experience himself, but that he felt the pleasure of God as he ran.

C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves describes the deep love that occurs when people are not only delighting in each other, but delighting that the other is delighting in them.

The word hedonism evokes excess, even destructive excess.  That’s a very shallow understanding of the idea.  It is true, if one merely indulges in short-run highs they may be called (and even call themselves) a hedonist.  But I think genuine hedonism, as the satisfaction of desires, is in fact life’s purpose.  The trick is discovering what those desires are and what it takes to satisfy them.  Running is not easy the way drinking a beer is easy.  Running is hard and at least a bit painful.  Yet Liddell (and he is not alone) described a kind of pleasure that far exceeds a mere exciting of the taste buds.

The deepest, truest human desires are not satisfied with temporary titillation alone.  Those can be a delightful part of existence, but cannot satisfy the soul’s most powerful longings.  Being fully alive requires some degree of challenge.  It requires some degree of pushing oneself, if even only to fight distraction and carve out time to marvel or think.  That is not to say it is only found in quiet contemplation.  Many of life’s most fulfilling moments are busy, bustling, social affairs.  But it seems true delight is best derived when some effort is required to obtain it.  It requires both connection to self and connection to something outside of oneself.  Simply taking what the stream of life floats us can be a decent indulgence, but it slowly erodes or numbs a deeper sense of meaning.

Hedonism as a conscious pursuit isn’t easy.  The self-knowledge and self-honesty required to take genuine delight in existence, and feel a kind of reciprocal delight being taken in you (whether by another, or by God, or by the universe, or whatever you may call it) is hard won.  It’s easier to let life happen to you and play the critic or the martyr.

With or without a religious narrative, the notion of finding your highest pleasure and pursuing it is powerful.  That seemingly paradoxical combination of the words, “Christian”, and, “Hedonist” has wisdom in it.  The former carries connotations of discipline, devotion, and the eschewing of worldly distractions.  The latter connotes joy, pleasure, and seizing every moment for pure delight.  That combination seems to be where the best life is found.  Perhaps the pursuit of pleasure is in fact a serious affair; as serious as life itself.

You Have to Pick Two

I wrote recently about how you can’t have a growing business, a robust social life, and a great family life all at once.  You only get to pick two.  The implication is that, though everyone wants all three, you get a maximum of two if you want to succeed.  I’m beginning to think the heuristic is not just a maximum, but a minimum as well.  You don’t just get to pick two, you have to pick two.

If you pour yourself fully in to any one of these at the expense of the others, you’re unlikely to find long term success and fulfillment.  If you’re a passionate, single-minded entrepreneur, you need to create space for some kind of social life or family/significant other.  You won’t be your best if you don’t.

Many people accept this notion but mistakenly assume all that’s needed is a balance of time spent on the activities.  As long as I carve out 30% of my time to not work I’ll be balanced because I’ll be with friends or family.  This is far from the truth.  You need time with an interest or hobby around which friends congregate, or family time, but you can’t expect it to happen simply because you set aside time to not work.  You have to be just as intentional with your non-work time as you are with time spent working.  You have to be definite and deliberate in the creation of a social or family life.

Again, it’s not about the number of hours spent on each.  Maybe you’re able to pour yourself into a job with only a four hour workweek.  Maybe you can have a meaningful social life with nothing more than one kite-boarding session a week.  The point is to ensure you have more than one thing on which to put your energy and attention.  One needs to serve as an outlet for things left unexpressed in the other.

I don’t believe it’s really about creating a stark divide or work/life balance either.  Depending on your personality and habits, you may need that in order to do your two things.  Or you may need a seamless synthesis.  I tend to have a much better family and work life when I have fuzzier lines between them.  I love working from home. I’m writing this at the breakfast table with noisy kids all around.  I like taking my kids with me on work trips when I can.  I enjoy responding to emails at all hours, and I feel less stressed and more in the moment with family when I don’t have to put work completely on hold.  You may be the opposite.  Neither is better or worse.  The important thing is to have something outside of work to devote yourself to.

How to Keep the Young and Poor from Succeeding

Let’s face it. I’m not that young anymore. I’m also not poor anymore, and I live a comfortable middle-class American life. Most older, better-off middle-classers like me got where we are through the dynamic market process. The trouble is, now that we’re doing pretty well, that same dynamic process is a threat. I don’t want some young whippersnapper or poor immigrant to outwork me. What if they succeed faster than I do? What if they create more value than I can, and so outcompete me for a job?

Take heart, well-heeled middle-agers. I have a plan. My scheme for keeping younger and poorer people from succeeding—and possibly making us have to work harder to stay on top—is two-pronged: We’ve got to affect both supply and demand.

We need to restrict the supply of economic opportunities. We need to make those opportunities more costly and thus out of the reach of many young and poor. We also need to suppress the demand for jobs and entrepreneurial ventures. We need to make it more beneficial to stay out of the market than to participate in it.

Let’s get to some specifics.

Restrict the supply of opportunities

The biggest advantages young and poor people have over us are very low opportunity costs and a low-cost lifestyle. This means they don’t have to give up much to work a job, and they don’t need to earn much to cover their expenses. Because of these major advantages, they can work for very low wages, and thus become attractive for employers to hire and train. At low wages, they’ll always find work, and worse yet, they’ll be constantly learning and improving—adding to their stock of human capital.

The obvious solution is to make it illegal to work for low wages. Working for free is absolutely out of the question. If young and poor people could simply offer to work for little or no pay, they’d soon be gaining valuable skills and competing with us for jobs! Let’s cut that first rung off the ladder, lest they climb over us some day.

Young and inexperienced workers don’t have a lot of expertise. They make mistakes. Of course, if they’re allowed to participate in the trial-and-error process of the market, the incentives will soon drive them to develop expertise and be reliable suppliers of goods and services. That would be a travesty for us. We need to keep them unskilled and unreliable. The solution is to create a labyrinthine web of licenses and regulations that make it illegal for anyone but experts to sell goods or offer services. Since we’ve already banned working for low wages or apprenticing for free, it will be almost impossible for these novices to learn from a seasoned expert until they gain the necessary skill. We can make it even harder by adding lots of fees and costly training sessions to obtain licenses.

There needn’t be just one law making low wages illegal or just one licensing and regulatory regime. We need a wide variety of complex and ever-changing barriers. High taxes on productivity and profit, union dues and demands, work restrictions, rigid job categories, seniority bias, massive credential requirements, health and safety rules to cripple upstarts, consumer protection laws to hamper smaller producers, no access to capital or ability to stay in line with the law without costly lawyers and accountants, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

My recommendations are myriad, but they all boil down to a simple principle: Do anything we can to make economic opportunities more costly and rare. This reserves most of said opportunities for us.

Now for the second prong.

Reward non-participation

We don’t want to seem callous and cold toward those less comfortably situated. Indeed, we harbor no ill will toward the young and poor. We just don’t want them to compete with or catch us.

Since we care—and especially because we want people to believe that we care—we can’t be all “stick.” We need some “carrot,” too. It’s not enough to restrict the supply of opportunities, because some people will break the rules or work around them. We also need to suppress demand by offering some sweet incentives for young workers to stay unproductive and uncompetitive. We need to make non-participation in the market more attractive than participation.

First, I recommend a strict policy of forced education for the first few decades of life. We’ve already discussed making it illegal for the young to work or the poor to work for low wages. But we also need to make it mandatory that they do something else, and something that won’t make them more likely to compete with us now or later. We should create giant institutions where we send them all day to follow rules and do what they’re told without question. We don’t want them becoming innovative, or pursuing passions and interests that they might become experts in and thus supplant us in the market. They must only learn what the bureaucrats who run the system tell them to. (Oh, and the people who run the system should only be those who don’t really know much about competing in the market, because we wouldn’t want them passing on such knowledge.)

We can’t just make school mandatory. Many would still play hooky if it cost too much. We also need to hide the cost by paying for the whole thing through taxes and borrowing. We need to subsidize it so much that alternatives can’t compete. We need to weave a narrative about its glory so that no one wants to opt out.

But 18 years isn’t enough. We need to keep these young, hungry individuals out of our way as long as possible. I say we artificially lower the cost of otherwise very expensive degree programs and advanced studies. We can guarantee low-interest loans, throw a lot of grants and subsidies around, and always, always parrot powerful propaganda about the inestimable value of classroom learning. Let’s make the most attractive option—socially and economically—the one that keeps them from the commercial world as long as possible.

The longer we can make the education process, the better for us. Defer, defer, defer the time at which young people start entering the productive sector. The more loans they take on in the process, the better. Maybe they’ll even get married, get a nice house (we can incentivize the buying of expensive consumer goods via debt as well!), and have kids. All of these things are good because they take away one of the major advantages the young have in the workforce—their low cost of living and hence ability to bid for lower starting wages. We want them saddled with so much debt that they have to earn high wages to get by, and thus have to compete with workers who are a lot more experienced for those higher wage jobs. We need them coming out of college looking for salaries that don’t comport with their skill levels. This increases the odds that older workers like us will win.

We’ll need to address those too old or too poor for school as well. We need basic income guarantees, food stamps, and all manner of welfare to cover the costs of low-income life such that no part-time entry-level job could pay quite as much. Again, we need to make not working worth more than working.

The best part

Here’s the best part: By the time these young and poor find themselves unable to compete, with costly lifestyles and loans to maintain and little skill or experience, they’ll be older. They’ll join our ranks. They’ll lobby for even harsher restrictions on those even less experienced and less well-off than they are. They’ll demand to get the low-skill jobs they’re qualified for, but demand the pay be raised to high-skill wages. They’ll make the list of degrees and credentials they’ve accumulated the new barrier to entry to artificially raise their market value. They’ll help us perpetuate the very policies that caused their plight!

As with the first prong, these are but a few examples. Ideally a massive and shifting bundle of incentives to not enter the market as a producer can be put together: education mandates and subsidies, tax incentives to spend rather than save and to purchase education rather than other goods or business tools, housing and healthcare as long as you don’t work, and rewards for any activity that makes one less likely to try to compete with us in the market.

These policies will subtly turn the attention of nearly everyone away from value creation, innovation, and serving customers—all of which might threaten our dormancy. It will turn everyone’s attention and energy to fighting over the details of these policies and programs, to who gets which slice of the artificially limited pie and at whose expense. Some of us can really take advantage by running for political office and dividing up the warring interests we’ve created by promising them more restrictions and subsidies.

Above all, with both prongs of this strategy, we need a narrative that calls these policies noble, compassionate, and wise. We need them to be perceived as humanitarian aid to the young and poor, not as ways to keep them from succeeding. We need to make these programs universal values in themselves—regardless of the outcomes they produce. Who could oppose better wages? Who could oppose more education? Who could oppose more loans for homes or college? Who could oppose work rules and consumer safety regulations? Middle-aged, middle-class people certainly won’t, if we know what’s good for us.

We cannot abide an America in which plucky newcomers outperform us at every turn. Join me in securing our future.

Originally published in The Freeman.

What Does a Degree Signal?

There are plenty of critics of college.  It’s not uncommon to hear prominent pundits challenge the prevailing narrative that everyone should go to college.  Many contrarians say that too many young people are going to college, not too few.  They say that higher education is well-suited for the smart, hard-working, above average types, but too many mediocre students are attending.  They say it works better when only the best and brightest attend.  I think most of these critics have it backwards.

A degree is a signal.  It is well established that higher education’s primary value, and hence business model, is as a sorting mechanism rather than a forming mechanism.  Sure, you learn and change and gain things through the typical four year experience.  But all of those things could be had without being a registered student.  The only reason people keep paying to make the experience official is because of the signalling value of a transcript.  Given this fact, it follows that the signal would provide the most value for the marginal students, and the least value for the smartest, hardest working, highest achieving (not merely academic achievement, which doesn’t always mirror what matters in the world outside the walls of the classroom).  In other words, college is far more valuable to an average person who is content to put in less effort it than an above average talent who is very ambitious.

Considering how widespread the granting of degrees is, and considering the talent level of the typical college classroom, the degree doesn’t signal much.  It signals that you are average.  You’re like most other people.  If you’re at or below average, it can be valuable to have a way to let people know this.  If you’re above average, you want signals that demonstrate that you are, not merely those that lump you in with average.  Look around a college classroom and remember; what you’re purchasing is a signal that says, “I’m about the same as these people.”  For many of the sharpest, hardest working students, a degree signal greatly undersells them.

So much so that degrees have actually become a reverse signal in some circles.  In the venture capital world, it’s not uncommon for investors to count skipping or dropping out of college as a big plus for founders they want to invest in.  Entrepreneurs who have the courage to pursue their vision in the face of social pressure signal something really powerful.  Some of the most interesting people and opportunities in the world want an answer to the question, “Why did you go to college?”, rather than why didn’t you.  If you’ve got drive, creativity, and smarts above average, why did you choose the relatively easy, prevailing path?  Why did you wait four years to get started on the really good stuff?

Like most critics, I agree that college is not for everyone.  Where I disagree is that I think those who benefit least from it are those who are smartest and hardest working and most able to do more without it.  College is a least common-denominator signal.

A World of Kramers

Nobody knew what Kramer actually did.  He was always doing something, but it remained a mystery how he obtained the resources to pull of his schemes, let alone pay for rent and food.

Kramer had a brand.  He was the crazy, out of the box guy who’d help you overcome a problem in an unconventional way.  He was a fringe entrepreneur and occasional activist.  He was relentless in pursuing whatever was his latest fancy.  He somehow made a living just being himself.  This is increasingly possibly, even for less quirky types.

I can think of at least a dozen people I know personally who somehow live a good life, despite the fact that I’m not really sure where their income originates.  It’s so easy now to sell a product, start a business, market and distribute ideas, and connect with partners, customers and investors.  It’s entirely possible to draw a circle around the stuff you care about, become the guy or gal who’s known for doing and talking about that stuff, and with enough hard work, get a living out of it.  It starts by giving your audience things they like.

If you’re known for providing something others value – even if it’s just good jokes on Facebook – you can generate a following.  You can offer to write a book, if your fans will pledge the money via Kickstarter.  You can ask for donations to keep producing whatever it is you produce.  You can sell your services to people all over the world with very low transaction cost.

Before long, apartment buildings could be full of people who don’t commute to an office every day, but instead spend their hours doing an assortment of bizarre and interesting projects.

A Law Colleges Love

I’ve often wondered why so many people go to college instead of learning on the job by offering to work for free for a company they like.  Turns out, it’s not that easy to work for free.  In most cases, it’s illegal.

Consider the absurdity of this setup.  Young people are supposed to do something to enhance their earning potential.  Without any knowledge or experience, they do not produce enough value to be worth hiring in most promising career areas.  So they’ve got to do something to gain skills.  Since they’re not worth paying, and it’s illegal to have unpaid workers, they can’t get on the job experience.

It’s supposed to be illegal to have unpaid workers because we wouldn’t want poor, unskilled people being taken advantage of.  Instead, they’re directed to college, where not only do they not earn money, they must borrow tens of thousands just for the privilege of not being paid.  They have limited choice as to what skills they learn, as a huge number of courses and credits are required in areas of little interest to them.  It takes at least three or four years to finish.

When they do finish, it’s often the case that they are only a little more valuable to employers than they were before – and much of that is a product of them being four years older and more mature, not any particular knowledge gained.  Most of the needed skills still must be learned on the job.  Most graduates have no idea what kind of job appeals to them or what they excel at, because they spent time in classrooms, not at workplaces trying different things out.

There are, of course, complicated work-arounds.  Non-profits and degree granting institutions can setup legal unpaid internships in some cases, and some businesses can do certain types of apprenticeships, on the condition that they create no value.

Let me repeat that: as long as unpaid apprentices do not help the business in any way – better yet if they destroy value – it’s possible to have one.  You think I’m joking, but read this language, pasted directly from the SBA website where they list the guidelines for a legal, unpaid apprenticeship.  This is number four in a list of six criteria:

“The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded”

We want young people to learn how to create value, but certainly not by actually creating it!  We want businesses to create wealth, but not if trainees do it!

You reap what you sow.

Education and Bike Riding

If the goal of education is to prepare young people for living, then an ideal program would look very different from most of what is now called education.

Earlier this week I wrote about the need for children to have a free space within which to grow in tastes, talents, will and ideas before they feel the full weight of a world that will try to mold them. This free space is there that they may grow strong and ready to handle the world, not to keep them from it for life. If education is meant to play a similar role – a partially simulated reality to prepare students for the “real world” – it seems a highly successful education would have two features we almost never see:

1 – It would be incredibly short

2 – It would be very hard to tell when it ended

If the goal is to prepare for life – i.e. to make education unnecessary – the faster the simulation can transition into the real, the better. And if living well is the aim, it would seem odd to spend a lot of time learning how in a simulated world and then abruptly be sent out into the real world without dabbling in it with increasing frequency until it began to replace education.

Imagine if we taught kids how to ride a bike the way we try to teach them how to have a career. We’d start by showing them pictures of a bike when they’re young. We’d teach them to say the word bike, then spell it, then write it neatly. We’d have them draw a picture of a bike. We’d have them measure the perimeter of a picture of a bike. We’d have them write stories about people riding bikes. We’d ask them to share what kind of bike they want when they grow up.

When they reached their teens, every once in a while someone would show them a real bike and describe what riding it is like. They wouldn’t be allowed to touch it, and certainly not to own or ride one. In fact, anyone who let them would be subject to serious legal trouble. Then, after seventeen or eighteen years of this (never more or less), we’d have a big ceremony congratulating them and ourselves at their successful completion of bike riding prep.

They’d be allowed to ride now, but it would be looked down upon. Instead, they’d be encouraged to hone their skills and really learn to ride by paying tens of thousands of dollars to spend the next four years getting drunk and hearing specialized bike-related knowledge. They’d hear the history of bikes, mostly from professors who hate bikes. They’d hear about the ecosystem where the rubber trees grow that go into bike tires, except any connection between that ecosystem and the actual building and riding of bikes would be deemed in poor taste. They’d learn a great many other things and come away with a certificate declaring their level of bike preparedness.

We’d celebrate and buy them something (but not a bike). Then they’d go out and try to obtain a bike in a highly competitive market. If they were able to purchase one, they’d have to learn, for the first time after two decades of studying but never trying, to ride.

If at any point in this decades-long process a child decided they’d learned all they needed, quit, and picked up a bike to start riding, it would be deemed a miserable failure. Even though the stated goal is to get them riding, it’s not their ability to ride that determines the success of the system, only the number of students who complete it. Figuring out how to ride and riding before the appointed time is a sign of trouble and rebellion, and would be discouraged at all costs.

This is obviously a stupid way to teach bike-riding, yet it’s how we train kids for life.

Imagine kids blending learning with working from the time they were ready and willing to work. Imagine kids moving from reading to doing the same way they go from training wheels to two wheels – quickly, and often without a lot of fanfare or even a clear-cut transition. Imagine allowing some skinned knees, some wobbly attempts, some bumping into the neighbors mailbox while trying to figure out how to navigate the world. Think of the sheer joy and freedom kids experience when they can fly through the neighborhood on two wheels, and imagine how much greater when they can create value, exchange, cooperate, buy and sell on their own ability and will.

Instead we force kids into a simulated world for decades, then celebrate their completion of our programs, regardless of whether they’ve actually gained what they need to succeed. Then we let them wander the world for the first time, trying to learn in months what we prohibited them from trying for years.

Why do the social norms about education persist when they are so blunt and detrimental to so many kids?