“Achievers like to achieve.”
Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America, notes this in his recent book Smart People Should Build Things. Yang discusses why so few people who are traditionally considered “smart,” meaning they went to a good university and got good grades during their school-lives, pursue entrepreneurship. Most of these people end up pursuing finance, consulting, professional school, graduate school, or Teach For America. Despite big talk about the virtues of entrepreneurship and going to talks by people working in Silicon Valley, relatively few go off to found their own companies.
Why? Because “achievers like to achieve.” The tricky thing about entrepreneurship is that it is hard and it takes time (Ben Horowitz calls this realization, “the struggle,” a period during which even successful entrepreneurs question their purpose and break down under pressure). People who are used to getting to “the next level” after following a certain set of rules or advice find it very difficult to adapt to an environment where it is unclear if they’ll be the next Travis Kalanick or if they will be looking for a new job. Even more, successful entrepreneurship takes time. Most successful founders don’t know whether or not their companies will be successful for three, four, or even five years (Uber, a relatively “overnight success” case, took two years before they raised very large capital investments).
When somebody is used to experiencing the laurels of achievement after a semester or a year, three-to-five years of hard work that may have little-to-no payoff doesn’t seem like a very good deal. Yet there is interest there, as evidenced by campus and high school discourse, the popularity of events like hackathons, and the recent success of books like Zero to One.
Telling somebody who has spent 18 years of their life working towards security and achievement to put it all on the line and go all-in for a crazy idea they have in passing that will probably fail is unlikely to gain their immediate support. Even if they want to pursue it, they know it’s risky, and they know that entrepreneurship can be frustrating.
There’s a better way to help them get into what entrepreneurship is, though, and that’s what Praxis does.
The thing for overachievers (or really anybody) is that a lack of structure or determined path makes pursuing something very difficult and scary. Giving a certain path for a predetermined period of time — a set of entrepreneurial training wheels — relieves this problem. The further problem with entrepreneurship is that it takes years to reap the success and possibly several failures first (Kalanick founded two companies before Uber, one of which filed for bankruptcy). Working with tried-and-true companies and tried-and-true entrepreneurs helps alleviate that concern.
Getting young achievers to pursue entrepreneurial passions isn’t just something that they could benefit from, but is something we all benefit from as innovation is tried and tested in the marketplace. If everybody became a lawyer or a doctor, we’d have no iPhones, no Facebook, no Tesla. But even these dreams of grandeur are hard to persuade with over a more conventional route. Imagine giving a college student these options:
“You can either be successful by all conventional standards. Work a lot, but make a lot of money, wear fancy clothes, and live in a fancy city, like NYC, Boston, or Miami. Or you can put the chance of all that on the line to work your ass off for a year or two, or three, for the chance to be either insanely successful, moderately successful, or go and find a new job.”
It’s no surprise that many will take the former route over the latter. One of the reasons so few entrepreneurs succeed, though, is lack of mentorship and a good source of knowledge on entrepreneurship. Working closely with entrepreneurs resolves much of this problem.
When I speak to students at Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) conferences, I exhort them to go out there and create value, because creating value is something that benefits both them and others who will exchange things for their value. At the very least, I see entrepreneurship as that: creating value. If a student launches a club, they probably had to think entrepreneurially to do that. If they publish a book, that takes entrepreneurship. Young achievers aren’t shying away from entrepreneurship in high school and college. They’re embracing it. The trick is to help them embrace it through and after graduation from high school or college.
With the right resources, we can make the latter option less scary and can help young achievers who want to pursue entrepreneurship but don’t know quite how figure out their next steps.