What We’ve Learned in the First 5 Years of Praxis

After contemplating and discussing with the Praxis team, I jotted down some of the big things we’ve learned now that we’re five years in to this great adventure:

Our customers are heroes.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Few appreciate just how awesome the young people we get to work with are. They are courageous enough to take a chance on themselves, discover who they are, choose their goals, and buckle down and do the work needed to succeed. They don’t get a lot of praise from the world because they world doesn’t yet fully understand this new breed of career-launchers. But they’re busy building their skill and reputation where it matters.

They’re hungry, relentless, inspiring, real, and tons of fun. Not a single thing we’ve done in the first five years is possible without our awesome customers. All credit goes to them.

The world is changing. Fast.

When we launched, opting out of college seemed crazy to most people. Today it doesn’t. In fact, pretty much all the young people we interact with know they can do more and better for their career launch than debt and classrooms. (Parents are a bit slower to come around, but that’s changing too!)

As TK Coleman put it way back in February, 2014 when we launched our first class,

“We are pioneers of the inevitable.”

It’s almost hard to remember just how different it was when we began. It gets easier every year to help people launch careers, because every year more and more people have awakened to the fact the the conveyor belt won’t do it. Recognizing the problem is the first precondition to meaningful action.

What was radical has become practical.

Opt-outs and dropouts were once radicals. You usually got two ends of the spectrum. Steve Jobs, or Cheetos-on-mom’s-couch guy. Genius or schlub.

Not anymore.

Opt-outs and dropouts today are radically practical. They want to launch a career. They aren’t content to believe old tropes about head-down hoop jumping and static status seeking. Their heads are up, scanning the world, seeing they have an opportunity to do better. They compare the years of time and gobs of money in college vs. the hard work and focus of building their skills, experience, network, knowledge, and reputation in the real world and they make the practical decision to do the “radical” thing and avoid more school.

They’re not schlubs or wunderkinds. They’re clear-thinking, hard-working, practical radicals.

FOMO is a real hangup!

Anyone on the Praxis team can verify that fear of missing out on imagined, theoretical possibilities is the number one thing that blinds or scares young people from actual, real opportunities. This is a real, major, serious hangup for this generation. It needs to be smashed!

It comes from the myth of the perfect path. The idea that somewhere, somehow, there is a perfect calling, and every step to it must be perfect. Fortunately, this isn’t true!

Life and career are a wild, messy, wonderful process of discovery aided by trial and error feedback in the real world. You didn’t learn to ride a bike planning and analyzing the “right” sequence of moves before smoothly hopping on and riding on the first try. You plucked up the courage to jump on and start peddling. The real world provided plenty of “not that way!” feedback, and you adjusted.

Don’t do stuff you absolutely hate and suck at. The rest is fair game. If it looks pretty good, go for it and go all the way! That’s how you’ll get feedback and refine with each new step. Relax. You’re not missing out on anything as long as you’re making a little progress each day.

It’s not about skill.

Skill matters. A lot. A combo of 2–3 solid skills that other people value enough to pay you for are necessary. But honestly, that’s the easy part. There are plenty of marketing skills for any personality type, and plenty of ways to build them enough pretty quickly and use it to start a career. Lack of skill can be overcome. But only if you have what really matters.

Humility. Optimism. Forward tilt.

Those are non-negotiable if you want to do more than just survive. If you cultivate those every day, your ceiling doesn’t exist. We’ve seen it more times than I can count. It’s why 17-year-olds have been hired in roles that typically require a degree and 3 years experience. It’s why 19-year-olds have taken over entire departments for growing startups. Yeah, they built some skill and a body of work to prove it. But what enabled them to do that, and what screams louder than specific skill sets, are their humility, optimism, and forward tilt.

There’s no magic. Just hard work.

Praxis doesn’t make magic. Neither does college, a mentor, the Tim Ferriss Podcast, a paleo diet, reading 100 books a year, or the coolest startup with the biggest investment from the best investors.

If magic means transforming one thing into another, seemingly in defiance of what everyone thought possible, the good news is magic is possible. It happens every day. You make it. One day at a time. In the most boring, least sexy ways imaginable.

You chip away at obstacles and inch towards goals. You take out the garbage. You come in early. You stay late. You finish what you promise. You don’t ghost, flake, or flub.

Good people are more important than great ideas.

You can’t build a business on a flood of great ideas. You can get a kickstart, a burst of inspiration, and a lot of attention and excitement from great big awesome ideas. But what happens when the ideas meet the world and things get complicated, confusing, and damn-near crushing? A wild hop to the next great idea won’t do. In fact, if that’s all you’ve got, it’ll sink you.

In the good times, bad time, nondescript times, and every other kind of time you might have in life or work, it’s the good, solid, true, honest people that make things happen.

There’s no one on earth I’d rather be in the trenches with than the Praxis team. I love this crew.

Your parents are lying.

They say they want you to go to college, do this, do that, and go about it in the following way. It really feels like they mean it. They don’t.

Parents are people too. They use shortcuts and proxies when the thing they want is nebulous and hard to define. They want you to be the best, fullest version of yourself. But what does that look like, and what does it take? They don’t know any more than you do.

So they pick a proxy that seems reasonable and low-risk. Get grades. Go to school. Finish. Then…self-actualization (we hope? right? maybe?)?

The sooner you know what they really want — you as a successful, independent person — the better you’ll be able to navigate the inevitable anxiety and confusion as your idea of how to achieve it runs afoul of theirs. You don’t need to be a rebel or a conformist to show your parents that you understand their concern, you don’t take it lightly, you share the same end goals, yet you know you have to make the choices you deem best, learn from them, and adapt.

Companies are lying.

Yep. They don’t know how to define what they want either.

“Degree required” isn’t true.

They want someone who will solve the problems that matter to them at a lower cost than the next best option. They don’t know the best way to find and filter for that any more than you know the best way to show it.

Take the lead. Put yourself in their shoes. Think about what’s valuable to them. Build it. Show it. Make yourself too good to ignore compared to the competition.

You don’t need a credential, but you definitely need a signal.

We hammer on this all the time, and five years and a few hundred careers launched have only intensified this truth. You don’t need a third party credential to vouch for you because you can build something better.

But you MUST build something better!

You have the opportunity to be your own credential. It’s fast becoming a necessity.

Companies and clients and coworkers and customers don’t know you well enough on a personal level to choose to work with you. You’ve got to build a signal — an efficient way to pack a lot of info about yourself into a easily digestible format. Call it a body of work, a brand, a reputation, a digital footprint, portfolio, a project-based persona, or whatever you like. Bottom line is, you need it.

You can throw money at the problem, or you can get busy building it. (We can help!

School messed you up.

When we launched Praxis, we significantly underestimated how much schooling leaves people unprepared for the real world.

Learning how to build social capital with employers, colleagues, and customers requires a mindset that’s entirely foreign to the incentive structure of school. Part of the reason we extended the bootcamp in the early days was because we realized most Praxis participants needed a month or two to get deschooled.

If you want to know what you’re learning, don’t look at subject matter. Look at the incentives and what kind of habits and behavior are rewarded. In the case of school, the incentives push young people to develop all kinds of habits and traits that are valueless or worse in the real world.

Learning out loud is better than branding.

When you hear,”personal brand”, you might cringe. We’ve all seen plenty of the nauseating kind. Photoshopping your headshot and handing out business cards are not the way to create a great professional reputation. But you do need a reputation!

The good news is, you don’t need to become a master at something before you can show it to the world and use it to signal your skill and value. As I mentioned earlier, there are things more important than skill level. Ability to learn (humbly, with optimism and forward tilt) is one of them!

A great way to do it is to publicly document your learning in real time. Share video summaries or blog posts of books as you work through the ideas, or create tutorials for Excel functions as you learn them. Let people see your curiosity, persistence, and process in action.

The marketplace is borderline desperate for workers who can signal reliability, character, and the willingness to commit.

I’m not even gonna add anything to this one. Trust me when I say the demand is real. There is zero shortage of professional opportunities for those who think beyond “What can a company do for me” and flip it on its head.

The people who get to have the most exciting jobs are the ones who are willing to do the boring things no one else wants to do.

Really. We’ve seen it time and again. The people envied by others for their cool lifestyles are the ones who did the least glamorous stuff when everyone else shrugged.

Find me a cool startup founder who never cleaned the office bathroom when everyone else went home.

Real world experiences and skills are more transferable than degrees.

A lot of young people (and especially their parents) worry about that first professional job. “What if I don’t want to do sales for the rest of my life? Will I get pigeonholed?” No. Good, real work experience is transferable across many domains in the market. Even if you take a dramatic turn and, say, become a coder a few years in to a sales career. A coder who has sales experience too? They’ll be banging down your door!

Contrast that to a lot of the prefabricated specializations in school. (Especially those in government or nonprofit areas) A degree in education means almost nothing to someone who no longer wants to work in education. They have to start from the beginning again. Four years working in customer success at a software company is valuable even in other industries and roles.

Young people don’t want to be taught. They want to be empowered to teach themselves.

Crazy, right? Poking and prodding and threats and cookies and star stickers aren’t needed. Learning is the most human of all activities. You have to really mess people up to make them want to avoid it. Back off, provide resources and an environment of real cause and effect, where the goals aren’t imposed but chosen, and self-directed learning will emerge with a fire that no amount of grade-grubbing or rule-following can touch.

— — —

Five years seems like a flash and a really long time all at once. We’ve morphed and changed and grown a lot, but we’ve never deviated an inch from our commitment to help young people discover and do what makes them come alive.

There’s a lot of stuff that slows and holds people back from this discovery and doing — much of it from within themselves. We’re not content to let those shackles remain. To borrow from the infamous John Paul Jones, we have not yet begun to fight!

From the Praxis blog, where you can find over 1,000 articles, videos, and podcasts on how to launch an awesome career.