The End is the Beginning is the End

It’s the final week here for the class of 2017 at Stanford GSB, which means an aura of hope and nostalgia has entered the air, along with plenty of parting words of wisdom.

During David Dodson and Rob Siegel’s speeches at the last lecture series, I was struck by the simplicity of their powerful life lessons. The days of the rah rah inspirational graduation speech are over and have been replaced by the simple life stories of realism and perseverance.

The key message: graduation is not the end, but the beginning.

Replace the word “graduation” in that sentence with any life milestone, and the mantra still rings true. The GSB statistic that most pops out to me is that the average 1st job tenure graduates is < 15 months.

Granted, this is an MBA vs. MSx statistic, but the underlying sentiment holds true: those of us who have been trained to speak confidently about our ambitions have no better idea than average about what our heart desires.

There are a few reasons for this.

Expectations. Graduating from one of the top programs in the world brings high expectations. Going into consulting with anyone except for McKinsey, Bain, or BCG? It’s not often you get the “that’s great” congratulations when I mean condolences look for scoring a great job that pays $150k/yr.

In this touchy feely land where we are taught that it’s values and not value that matters, classmates are celebrated for turning down swanky google and facebook offers to work on their own venture (15 percent of graduates).

But what if that’s not what you want to do?

I remember being in an entrepreneurship class when I was one of only three out of 90 students who expressed mere willingness to work at GE. And living anywhere except the West Coast/East Coast? two percent of last year’s MBA graduates ended up in the Midwest.

Evolution. The fact that so many people get it wrong when the world is their oyster is perfectly natural to me. If you think that a year or two is enough for you to figure it out, rethink that question 50yrs from now.

We humans are always figuring it out.

That’s because we continually learn new skills and learn about ourselves, which are great things. We don’t reach age 30 by following a path set out at age 10 anymore than how a computer optimizes.

If machine learning is foreign to you, get started by reading this guide by Andreessen Horowitz — in our modern day world, you will need to understand it. We learn by doing and readjusting.

Becoming an Engineer

How did I become an engineer? A business leader? A startup co-founder? A consultant? Did I plan to become any of these things? Was I born to be any of these things? 35 yrs ago I was the worst engineer / businessman / writer / father on the planet — the same as Diane Greene, Mark Zuckerberg, or David Sedaris at the same age.

10 years later, I was still in the bottom 1%. Little by little, I got better and better as a result of intentional experience, as coined by Anders Ericsson in Peak and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.

I never planned to make diapers any more than I planned to live in Venezuela, attend Stanford GSB, or enter the venture industry. But each step that I took was a mini experiment that prepared me for where I am today.

If there’s one lesson that I will teach my daughters, it’s to go all in on every such experiment. If you don’t give it your all, you have already pre-judged the outcome and made the experiment an invalid test.

I’ve got a plan, and if it doesn’t change in the future then I know that something went wrong. 10 years from now, rich or poor, I know that I’ll have a smile on my face; happy at the decisions that went well and laughing at the choices that tanked — a grateful privilege of being a middle class US citizen. I have no idea what I will be doing, but I do know exactly where I will be: still at the beginning.

This article was originally published on Jun 12, 2017.