All humans are entrepreneurs. Not because we all should start companies but because the will to create is encoded in human DNA — and creation is the essence of entrepreneurship.
Today, more than ever, we need to rediscover our entrepreneurial instincts and use them to forge new sorts of careers. Why? We have entered the Age of the Inconceivable, a time in which things we previously couldn’t even have imagined happen again and again and again.
You never know what’s going to happen next. Competition is fierce. Information is limited. Resources are tight. You can’t escape uncertainty or risk. And the amount of time you spend at any one job is shrinking. This means you need to be adapting all the time.
If you want to seize the new opportunities and meet the challenges of today’s fractured landscape, you need to think and act like you’re running a startup: your career. The conditions in which entrepreneurs start and grow companies are the conditions we all now live in when fashioning a career.
The solution has two parts:
A mindset of Permanent Beta: you must think of yourself as a work-in-progress and, therefore, you must invest in yourself every single day.
An entrepreneurial, adaptive skill set taken from the very best of Silicon Valley. It's these skills that we explain in the chapters ahead.
The strategies we lay out are relevant regardless of your age and stage: whether you’re just out of college (or skipped a college degree altogether), a decade into the workforce and angling for that next big move, or launching a brand-new career later in life.
Chapter 1: Develop a Competitive Advantage
If you want something specific out of life, there are probably others seeking the same thing. For anything desirable, there’s competition: a ticket to a championship game, the arm of an attractive person, admission to a good college, and especially every good professional opportunity. And amid today’s decentralized workforce, your competition has multiplied, because now you aren’t just competing with others who live within commuting distance of your dream job; you’re competing with people all over the world.
In a world where "a million people can do your job," chart a career path that sets you apart from other professionals. You don’t need to be better than everyone. Companies, after all, don’t compete in every product category or offer every conceivable service. In life, there are multiple gold medals available at any given time. Aim for a specific gold medal in a specific contest.
Differentiate or die. To beat the competition, companies develop clear reasons why a customer should pick them over other alternatives. Don’t focus on your passion. Don’t begin with the end in mind. Instead, find your competitive edge.
Understand the three career gears that form your competitive edge:
1. Aspirations & Values
Where you might like to go in the future and why.
What you have going for you now. Your soft assets like knowledge, skills, connections and hard assets like cash in the bank.
3. Market Realities
What people will actually pay you for.
One without the others doesn't work. Skills that can't earn money won't get you very far; following your bliss but not being very good at your bliss won't be too blissful for long; and being a slave to the market regardless of your likes and passions isn't sustainable over the long-run.
Once your three gears are turning in sync and moving your career forward, you can deepen your competitive advantage with the power of “growth loops,” force multipliers that yield compounding value — value that multiplies over time — rather than one-off gains.
Chapter 2: Plan To Adapt
Popular career planning advice says you should decide where you want to be in 10 years and then develop a plan for getting there. Popular career planning advice says you should find your passion and then pursue it. These philosophies have serious strengths, but also huge drawbacks.
They presume a static world. In fact, you change, the competition changes, and the world changes. They presume that fixed, accurate self-knowledge can be easily attained through introspection. In fact, your identity is not found through introspection but rather emerges through experimentation.
Entrepreneurial career planning and adapting is about being flexibly persistent: always ready to adapt, but also persistent in driving towards set goals. While entrepreneurial companies and people are always evolving, the choices they’re making are disciplined, not haphazard. There is real planning going on, even if there are no firm plans.
We call this kind of disciplined, adaptive approach ABZ Planning:
Plan A: What you're doing now. Your current implementation of your competitive advantage.
Plan B: What you pivot to when you need to change either your goal or the route for getting there.
Plan Z: The fallback position. Your lifeboat if your plan fails and you need to reload before getting back in the game. The certainty of Plan Z is what allows you to take on uncertainty and risk in your plans A and B.
How many plans can you juggle simultaneously? In the modern career, sometimes more than one. Here’s a framework for thinking about your options:
In a Laser Career, you’re manically devoted to one job.
In a Main Thing Career, you have a focused plan A, but you also maintain a side-hustle or two.
In a Portfolio Career, you’re collecting multiple streams of income, stitching together three or more activities, and iterating almost continuously between multiple Plan A’s.
There are many ways to carve a thrilling career. There’s no set rule for how to bet in your career. It all depends on your assets, aspirations, and the market realities — and your tolerance for uncertainty.
Chapter 3: Build a Network, Build a Following
Relationships matter because:
Every job boils down to interacting with people. Sharing experiences together — digitally or in-person — is everything. In fact, the word company is derived from the Latin cum and pane, which means “breaking bread together.”
Every opportunity is attached to a person. Opportunities do not float around in the ether. They’re attached to people. If you’re looking for an opportunity, you’re really looking for a person. A company doesn’t offer you a job, people do.
The people you spend time with shape the person you are today and the person you aspire to be tomorrow. Here’s one of the most important self-improvement principles of all: The fastest way to change yourself is to hang out with people who are already the way you want to be.
As tempting as it is to believe that we are the sole heroes of our own stories, it is impossible to dissociate an individual from the environment of which they are a part. Both the individual and the team matter. Your career success depends on both your personal capabilities and your network’s ability to magnify them. Think of it as ”I to the We”: An individual's power is raised exponentially with the help of a team (a network).
There are three types of professional relationships in your network:
Professional Allies. Friends who serve as important career sounding boards / advisors / advocates. You trust their judgment and regularly consult them for advice. You proactively collaborate on opportunities together. And you talk each other up to others. Many people can maintain at most eight to ten strong professional alliances at any given point of time.
Friendlies. They’re “weak ties” or acquaintances, but not full-on friends. Friendlies introduce diversity to your network. They tend to hail from different social circles or industries, and have access to different people or knowledge. There’s quite a bit of variance in how many of these weak ties you can maintain; you may be able to maintain a maximum of a few dozen, a couple hundred, or even more than a thousand depending on your personality, your line of work, and how much time you have for socializing.
Followers. These are people who look up to you and hear what you have to say. You wield influence among your followers; you’ve earned their attention. Having people’s attention, in some lines of work, can translate into tremendous career capital.
Your network is bigger than you think. A person with 170 connections on LinkedIn is actually at the center of a professional network that’s more than two million people strong. The extended network that’s available to you professionally contains all the people who sit two or three degrees away, because they are the people you can reach by means of an introduction.
Remember that relationships are living, breathing things. Feed and nurture them, and they grow. Neglect them, and they die. Strengthen relationships by sending articles, making introductions, collaborating on projects, and staying in touch. If the best way to strengthen a relationship is to help the other person, the second-best way is to let yourself be helped.
Chapter 4: Cultivate Strategic Serendipity
The trajectories of remarkable careers are not slow and steady, up-and-to-the-right. Rather, they are marked by breakout opportunities that lead to rapid, exponential growth.
Even if you don’t have an immediate reason to actively look for a specific opportunity, it’s important to keep generating professional opportunities anyway. “Everyone’s looking for a great opportunity, even if they don’t know it.”
You can develop habits of behavior that increase the likelihood you find career-changing opportunities:
Be curious. When your eyes are open and your mind is curious, you can do things that dramatically increase your opportunity flow, such as tap networks of people, court strategic serendipity, and see opportunity amid hardship.
Court randomness. Courting randomness can be as simple as seeking out more information than your peers do. But information isn’t everything. People and places matter too. Courting randomness means staying in motion while keeping your mind open to new possibilities.
Connect to networks, groups, and associations. If you want to increase your opportunity flow, join and participate in as many groups and associations as possible. Better yet, start your own.
There will be times when your back is against the wall. When you feel like serendipity has abandoned you. When you may be short on funds or allies or both. When no one is knocking at your door inviting you to stuff. These situations call for the most entrepreneurial opportunity-generating strategy: hustle. Constraints can be a blessing in disguise: it’s amazing how resourceful one can get when one has no choice.
Don’t waste your window of opportunity. The best opportunities for you almost never arrive at moments that fit your schedule. When it’s hard to make a decision, remember that making a decision reduces opportunities in the short run, but increases opportunities in the long run. To move forward in your career, you have to commit to specific opportunities even in the face of doubt and convenience.
Chapter 5: If You Don’t Find Risk, Risk Will Find You
Risk tends to get a bad rap. We associate it with things like losing money in the stock market, or riding a motorcycle without a helmet. But whether we realize it or not, we all take risks — every day. Doing anything contains some degree of risk.
Risk is the flip side of every opportunity, every career move. Rather than fleeing risk, you should develop the skill of taking intelligent risks. The intelligent risk-takers are the ones who strategically pursue only those opportunities with enough upside to justify the possible downside. If you don’t feel the need to contemplate the risk related to a career opportunity — if you feel no fear — it’s probably not a breakout opportunity. There is literally no career opportunity in the world that’s worth talking about that is risk-free.
Learning how to accurately assess the level of risk in a situation isn’t easy:
Risk is subjective. What may be risky to you may not be risky to someone else.
Risk is dynamic. You are changing, the competition is changing, industries are changing. What may be risky to you right now may not be a month or a year or five years from now.
Here are a few principles to help you evaluate how risky an opportunity really is (or isn’t) and how to manage the risk that does exist:
It's probably not as risky as you think. We're wired for evolutionary reasons to overestimate risk.
Determine whether the worst-case scenario is tolerable or not. If the worst-case scenario is the serious and indelible tarnishing of your reputation, or the loss of all your economic assets, or something that is truly career ending, don’t accept that risk. If the worst-case scenario is getting fired, losing a little bit of time or money, or experiencing some uncomfortable emotions, remain open to taking on that risk.
Think hard before walking through one-way doors. One-way doors are those you walk through and then can never look back. Two-way doors allow you to reverse course if needed. One-way doors carry a higher degree of risk.
Don't conflate uncertainty with risk. There will always be unknowns. This doesn't mean it's risky.
Consider age and stage. If something worthwhile will be riskier in five years than it is now, be more aggressive and seize the day. As you age and build more assets, your risk tolerance usually shifts toward increased caution.
Pursue opportunities where others misperceive the risk. If people like you perceive something as riskier than it actually is, it creates an opening for you to go after an opportunity that your peers may be unwisely avoiding.
Pretending you can avoid risk causes you to miss opportunities that can change your life. When you’re resilient and thoughtful about risk, you can play for big opportunities with less worry about the possible consequences of unanticipated hiccups. The only long-term answer to risk is resilience.
Chapter 6: Who You Know Is What You Know
The way we've been socialized to think about information and knowledge is radically insufficient. Traditional education trains us to memorize facts stored in textbooks and then regurgitate them on an exam. But as a modern professional, you can't acquire knowledge this way, because the knowledge you need isn't static — it’s always changing.
You can't cram your brain with all the relevant information that might possibly be relevant to your careers, then deploy it on exam day. In the world of work, every day is exam day. Every day brings new, unpredictable challenges and decisions. Stockpiling facts won't get you anywhere. What will get you somewhere is being able to access the information you need, when you need it — which usually is very soon.
Both entrepreneurs and ambitious professionals gather accurate and actionable information from one main source: people in their network. It’s people who help you understand your assets, aspirations, and the market realities; it’s people who help you vet and gain introductions to possible allies and trusted connections; it’s people who help you track the risk attached to a given opportunity. What you get when you connect to other people’s brains is called network intelligence.
People offer private observations and impressions that would never appear in public sources.
People offer personalized, contextualized advice.
People can filter information you get from other sources.
Many people simply think better thoughts and make better decisions in dialogue with others.
How can you figure out who has the intelligence you need at any given moment, and how should you go about extracting it most effectively?
Domain experts. These are the pros, the people who really know the ins and outs of a specific, relevant topic.
“You” experts. These are the people who know you well. Your mother. Your childhood friend. They can help you unpack feelings of confusion and sometimes even intuit how you’ll likely feel about various outcomes of your decision.
Free-range experts. These are just really smart people you trust. They may not be domain experts in the specific topic area and may not know you well. But occasionally their sheer analytical horsepower and/or wide-ranging wisdom can be useful.
As a general rule, when you want information from your network to help you make a career decision, begin by asking domain experts. Next, talk to people with whom you have strong personal relationships. Then, time permitting, turn to really smart outsiders.
Start tapping into your network and building a following. Start investing in skills. Start taking intelligent risks. Start practicing strategic serendipity. But most of all, start forging your own differentiated career plans; start adapting these rules to your own adaptive life.
For life in permanent beta, the trick is to never stop starting.