The Secret Weapon of Young People on the Job Market…
Nothing better to do.
The only things that matter when it comes to succeeding in the marketplace are:
- The ability to create value for others.
- The ability to persuade others of your value creation potential.
It’s not your school, your grades, your network, your knowledge, or anything else you may have been told. Those things are only useful insofar as they help you do #1 or #2.
This should be an empowering revelation. Value creation opportunities abound. Yet it often makes young people feel intimidated. After years in classrooms acquiring few real-world skills and gaining knowledge that is basically an inferior version of what experts possess, how are they supposed to create value for anyone?
Here’s where the secret weapon comes in.
Value creation is not about having an absolute advantage over others at some activity. It’s about having a comparative advantage. This concept, popularized by David Ricardo a few hundred years ago, is a powerful tool to understand and seize opportunity as a young person. It reveals the secret weapon called ‘nothing better to do.’
To have a comparative advantage at something simply requires that your opportunity cost is lower than others. What you have to give up to engage in that activity is less valuable than what they have to give up.
Young people with few skills and little experience don’t have a lot of high value options for how to use their time, so their opportunity cost tends to be very low. This makes their value creation potential high.
How does it work?
Imagine a CEO who is incredibly organized, detail-oriented, and something of a wizard at scheduling, logistics, travel planning, and utilizing all the best productivity apps and tools. She’s many times better at this than an aspiring 18-year-old. Yet for every hour she spends planning her travel and meetings, she gives up the ability to spend that hour selling a new client or planning the marketing expansion. Those are high-value activities, say with the potential to bring in another $30,000 in revenue. How much is excellent travel planning worth? Something, but less than that. Her opportunity cost is very high.
That 18-year-old, on the other hand, has nothing better to do. Even if it took him three hours to do the travel planning she could do in one, he would be giving up a lot less. He could no longer browse Facebook, read a textbook, watch Netflix, or play basketball. There is nothing bad about those activities, but none of them likely have the potential to create $30,000 worth of value for him.
If our 18-year-old realizes this, he has a powerful weapon. He can offer to take over scheduling for the CEO and free her up to do more valuable work. She might be reticent because it’s possible that he could actually create more work if he’s really bad. To reduce risk further, he can go all in and offer to do it for free and demonstrate his ability by planning one mock trip to show her.
This requires no special skills, just a touch of creativity, persistence, and Googling. Yet if he lands the gig, even unpaid, he will be exposed to the world of a CEO and probably learn more in a month than he could in a year sitting in classrooms. He can observe the company and identify other areas to create value — other areas where his opportunity cost is lower than others — and potentially parlay this into a really cool role there or at another company. Maybe he can even learn how to start his own.
So few young people try anything like this. They’re stuck spending endless hours and countless dollars getting a piece of paper that makes them identical to every other young person. They accumulate debt and expectations that make them feel the need to enter the professional world at a level of pay that, frankly, they can’t yet justify with their limited skill and experience. They feel it would be beneath them, after getting an expensive degree, to work for free or low pay to get a foot in the door. They are completely neutralizing their greatest asset, their low opportunity cost.
If you’re young and have little in the way of monthly expenses or valuable opportunities in front of you, rejoice. This means you can explore and test and try a great many things. Your ability to create value is tremendous if you look for places where others have a high opportunity cost and you do not.
Get off the conveyor belt. Break the mold. Go do some cool stuff.
Isaac is the founder & CEO of Praxis, a one-year paid entrepreneurial apprenticeship combined with a rigorous personal and professional development experience for young people who want more than college.