I seem to be asked more often by young people:
“Should I go to college, or should I get an MBA, should I start my own company? What is a good career fit for me?”
In my book, Jump First Think Fast, I discuss and support alternative paths to success and happiness. I am a big advocate of knowing what is unique about YOU, carving your own path, and not being led by your peer group or someone else’s values.
My first piece of advice is to get a good grip on who you are. There are some good ways to do this, including an assessment from people who know you and who can be honest. You can also obtain outside testing or hire an assessment firm. One that I have used extensively is the Predictive Personality Index. It was initially developed by Dartmouth with thousands of observations and thus has some sound scientific backing. This is not the Myers-Briggs personality profiling, which can also be helpful for introspection but has recently become less popular. We use the Predictive Index when interviewing job candidates to predict their workplace performance and behavior. But it is still valuable for an individual to understand their strengths and weaknesses and, importantly, what careers, college-based or not, are good fits and those they should avoid. This self-evaluation should help define who you really are, what is unique about you, and what’s important in your life.This process should start early, even before high school graduation. Hopefully, trained guidance counselors can help who are knowledgeable about a wide range of colleges, including community colleges and various trade and tech schools. If you aren’t happy with their advice, find an independent school counselor who can also provide testing to find the right educational institution fit. So many people, later in life, discover they are still following their peer group flock when they would be much happier carving their own unique path.
It is important to gain solid introspection of who you are and stop bouncing off the tennis rackets of your peer group, which may be strung differently than yours.
I have two sons who are college-grad millennials, so I have seen this dynamic up close and personal. My son, Sean, with an MBA from Cornell, followed the traditional financial services career in NYC, is married and lives in a 950-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn with two young children. He is very smart, insightful, loved by colleagues, and has a wicked sense of humor. He recently concluded he was not making the progress he wanted. He was experiencing increasing boredom, working long hours building financial models and punching in numbers. I advised him to take the Predictive Index, which produced some surprising results. It revealed that while he was good at financial model building, he was not good at the tedious plugging in of data where accuracy was critical. It also indicated that he needed to be in a job environment that was collaborative where he was continually interacting with people. He is now exploring other career paths.
As for going to college or pursuing an MBA, there is no standard answer. When asked this question, I find that a person is often focused on the impact of this decision on their career or their ability to make a good living. I always encourage them to open their lens and think more broadly about the impact of formal education on their personal development. Things such as the value a classmate network can bring, providing a sense of enjoyment throughout their life.
When it comes to careers, the job market is changing quickly. When I graduated in 1966, there were only a few thousand MBAs, and thus every big company was bidding for us. If you know early on what job or career you want to pursue, you can determine if it requires an undergraduate or graduate degree. If you don’t know what you want to do, college exposure can help you sort it out. Today, you can’t escape the growing cost factor of carrying a loan, perhaps for years. Realistically, you need to make a return-on- investment calculation. A good alternative is a community college. They are more affordable, the teaching has improved, and you can often live at home. It can be a stepping stone to a four-year school or allow you to pick up practical, useful courses such as business if you eventually do your own thing.
Classic trades such as plumbers and electricians, technical workers and people with analytical tool boxes are in high demand which can yield a wonderful lifestyle. There are tons of good trade and technology tools. In many cases, a company will provide training as the technology is new and changing rapidly. The shift to a hiring mindset over skill set is a reality. Employers want bright, quick learners who are adaptable and coachable.
It is also important to recognize that many people are not geared to learning in a classroom environment. For example, take my grandson Logan, who is now 25. He did well in the local rural upstate NY high school and took advanced classes and robotics at an academy in a nearby town. He showed a penchant for mechanics, electronics, and any computer or internet technology. He lived near the lake and showed his friends how to rebuild power boats. I recall one time he was in the middle of the lake on a paddleboard he had powered by attaching a propeller on his mother’s weed whacker. He graduated from high school and went to UNC (University of North Carolina) in Ashville. But he soon became bored, skipping classes to work on the 3-D printer he was building from parts he bought online. He essentially flunked out and could have gotten back in through a community college stent but decided this was not the learning route for him. His parents called Barbara and me out of frustration, hoping for some advice. We suggested they send him to us for the summer to sort things out. He had grown up spending his vacations with us in Vermont, and, as an outdoors guy, he loved it, so it was an easy sell to get him there.
He went to work in my son Mack’s craft beer and wine store in our town of Woodstock. We thought he would be stocking shelves and sweeping floors; but on the first day, he immediately solved a long-term software cash register and inventory control problem. Then Mack needed some plastic brackets for the cooler shelves. Logan got his bag of parts and set up his 3-D printer in a room in the back, later to be known as the “lab.” He printed out the bracket in minutes. Then Mack needed some tap handles. Logan designed and produced a series of handles that were prominently displayed on the wall. One day, while visiting the store, a beer distributor wanted to know where Mack got the tap handles. He complained that his were from a supplier in China and were costly, requiring long lead times, and unreliable. The price he was paying was several times over Logan’s cost. This turned into a great business when other breweries from around the area heard about it and they all got on board. Soon there were ten 3-D printers running 24 hours a day, which Logan built from parts he bought on the Internet, happily spitting out tap handles back in the lab. Fast forward three years later, he has formed his own 3-D printing company, and he just received an exclusive contract from a large distributor to produce hundreds of tap handles. He is doing all sorts of other interesting 3-D printing jobs, including a critical bracket for the vintage chairs used by government officials in the Vermont State House. It’s nice to have that kind of political horsepower sitting on your product.
I introduced Logan to Charlie Shackleton, a well-known distant cousin of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who, in 1914, famously led an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica on the ship Endeavor. Charlie is a high-end custom furniture maker in Woodstock, VT and his wife, Miranda, is equally famous for her hand-crafted pottery, often given as gifts to foreign dignitaries visiting the United Nations. Charlie recognized Logan’s talent and ability to bring a 3-D perspective to Charlie’s 2-D design drawings. Charlie’s production facility is in an old knitting mill on the Ottaquechee River in the nearby town of Bridgewater, VT. He offered to have Logan move his lab into the mill rent-free. Logan started producing 3-D models of tables and chairs for customers paying thousands of dollars for a Shackleton product. Then the world of CNC (Computer Numerical Control) opened and Logan worked on building his own machine versus paying close to $200,000 for a machine produced in China. A CNC machine can machine tool wood or metal shapes with incredible precision from computer drawings, significantly reducing manual labor costs and time while ensuring quality and precision. Fast forward, Logan now works for Charlie on a wide range of projects as well as other entrepreneurs in the area, helping with production, problem-solving, and creative designs.
As a side venture, Logan has built a separate business restoring motorcycles. He buys used bikes dirt cheap, gets them running, adds some paint and then sells them at a considerable profit. His shop is in the lower level of my barn, where he currently has six bikes being rebuilt. He also fixes everyone’s ATVs in town and has gained a reputation as the go-to guy for problem-solving. He is currently negotiating to buy an old firehouse in Bridgewater for his shop.
Barbara and I have been Logan’s business educators, spending many hours over dinner discussing his forming an LLC, P&L statements, the importance of cash flow, calculating his break-even point, raising capital, bank loans, tax returns, and hiring an account.
I use this detailed example because there are a lot of “Logans” in the world who don’t fit the standard mold but are talented and need to follow an alternative path. I don’t believe everyone should go to college. In some ways, the educational system needs to catch up with the global business and cultural environment and what’s going on in the world. The environment is moving too fast and obsoleting various aspects of what is being taught. In many ways, companies will need to educate employees on new technologies and management techniques. For example, I have seen the incredible impact of Artificial Intelligence across the board.
The world of entrepreneurs is likely to explode. This will be fueled by Gen Z’s who do not want to follow the corporate path and Millennials who are unhappy with their careers and want to jump off the train.