It was meant well, of course. Still, one of the worst pieces of advice that I received in high school was to study for a professional degree that I could “fall back on”. It seems I’m not alone. Many of my contemporaries in the corporate system silently regret their dangerous addiction to a monthly salary. They wonder what would have happened if they had followed their passion and did something out of the ordinary, like starting their own business.
A generation ago “something to fall back on” was considered the safe option, mainly because it guaranteed a job. Today the world is changing so fast that studying to get a job could be the unsafest option of all. Even the usually sober magazine The Economist predicts that everyday jobs like accountants, auditors and estate agents will be fully computerised in 20 years. So what advice should we be giving to the next generation?
History often has the answer. In 1519 Captain Cortez landed in Veracruz to begin his great conquest of South America. His first act upon arrival was to order his men to burn his own fleet of ships. The moral of the story is simple: It’s easy to retreat – if you have the option.
Or even look to Hollywood. It’s a sentiment echoed by Richard Gere in Officer and Gentleman. Less than two weeks before the end of a grueling aviator course, the young candidate officer is driven to breaking point by his instructor and threatened that he will get throw out of the course. When Gere realises that he has nowhere else to go, he ends up graduating as officer and even gets the girl!
To be clear: I love academia and wear the “geek” badge with pride. There is undoubtedly huge value in cultivating curiousity and much enjoyment in finding things out. In a country where 34% of our people are un- or underemployed, the statistic that 94% of all graduates find a job is hugely appealing. I just wish more of our talent went the entrepreneurial route. If Branson had finished his schooling, or Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg had completed their college degrees, we would probably never have witnessed Virgin, Microsoft, Apple or Facebook. They took the riskier path. In their case the lack of an easy fall-back option ended up moving the world forward.
My advice to the new generation is simply to take more (calculated) risks. Study by all means, if you are privileged enough to afford it. But don’t settle there – especially not for the first job available. First travel the world. Befriend people with wildly differing world views. Read more. Question the status quo. These are all inherently risky things but will make you smarter, even wise. Then, when you feel ready: start something. I hope it’s a business. Just don’t fall back if you don’t have to.