Outdoor college commencements are like outdoor weddings – idyllic in theory, blue skies and a gentle breezes. The reality is quite different – generally soul crushingly hot, the heat serving both as crucible and kiln to those participating. While we are now entering into peak wedding season, we have just passed through college commencement season.
These events add pomp and circumstance to a massive life transition. Cautiously optimistic parents congregate to celebrate ‘one being off the payroll,’ hopefully – while simultaneous remaining nervous about their graduate boomeranging home, as well as mourning their entrance of their child into adulthood. For the graduate, it may be a day marked by both excitement, trepidation, and sadness at the looming loss of community in such close proximity.
Starting work is in many ways like starting off a long marathon. There is a lot of excitement at the beginning of any race. For those with high expectations and dreams, there may be some degree of early sprinting to get away from “slower crowds” and find others/opportunities pursuing life in a similar vein.
Yet parallel with that is the tremendous knowledge gap that any new employee has about the domain in which they are working, as well as frankly the world writ large. Early career mentors of mine encouraged me to prioritize learning in the early phases of my career – finding places where I had the largest opportunity to grow, even if that meant lower compensation. The advice they offered was that the compensation was almost irrelevant – as you learn and grow its growth while not guaranteed is more likely than not.
There was a lot of wisdom in this view to prioritize learning early – adding energy to the flywheel in the early stages. But like the beginnings of many things – it is a fragile time.
Beginnings are exciting with the rush that comes from encountering new things. Learning and seeing the first time can be quite compelling – while not of the same degree, but similar to the heady days of an early romance.
And yet – anyone who has ever picked up the game of golf can attest to the challenges, ugliness, and seeming humiliation that comes from attempting to send a small white ball around a very long course when you don’t fully know what it is you are doing. Beginning can be deeply challenging as well.
The onus lands on the person to simply do the work to get through the beginning period. This may involve lots of hours, lots of drudgery or repetition. But after the 100th time getting a balance sheet and statement of cash flow model to balance – you suddenly realize that you have learned a lot about how cash moves around within the accounting statements of a company. Inevitable in this learning period are a lot of mistakes. Hopefully none of them are permanent derailers. Or as the common caution goes – to ‘never make the same mistake twice.’
It is in this window, that I’d like to reflect on a risk I see emerging for new adults. No doubt, we live in globally interconnected world, as well as a world in which ‘building a platform’ is easier than ever. The ubiquity of creative tools – a Macbook alone is a treasure trove of hardware potential. Distribution and discovery platforms from YouTube to TikTok to Spotify, et al. allow the ability to scale one’s reach in a massive way.
Thus it has become common wisdom to encourage young people to “build their platform.” And yet, as anyone who has been in public recently, and watched a so-called ‘influencer’ disrupt traffic or generally look foolish in public (see Influencersinthewild Instagram for particularly bad actors), very few are discussing the risk of platforming too early.
While the reach and scale of platforming is attractive, as well as the potential monetary benefits compelling – success is not a sure thing. There is a risk to building a public profile when you frankly still do not know exactly what you are doing. Ira Glass has written about ‘the taste gap’ that new creators have – they may know what ‘good’ is in their field, but they lack the skills to produce at that level. As such, in the early stages of a learning curve, what is going out into the world will likely not be that good, and arguably they may not even have the taste yet to discern.
A personal example – I wrote as a Wall Street research analyst for almost 7 years publishing ~150-200 pieces of research a year. I then began blogging sporadically, and then more intentionally in 2019, in addition to writing a book. And even now, I am all too aware of my own weaknesses as an author.
Moreover, persistence is hard. The research is quite supportive that the vast majority of podcasts and blogs do not persist for long periods of time – a few episodes or posts at the most.
The risk of trying to build a platform too early is that your early work won’t be as good as it could be. As well, unless you plan for persistence, these fledgling efforts will be all that goes out. A material misstep or worse could limit your future success. When I became a Senior Equity Analyst, I was cautioned that you only get 1 shot on Wall Street to make an impression. Blow your debut and no one will listen to what you have to say again.
Early career platformers would do well to have a bit of that paranoia in mind as they begin their efforts. If they are going to go that path, pursuing their craft from a position of humility – seeking to add to their learning and share with others – will be key. Tim Ferris has a lot of opinions today about how best to work and achieve success. But if you look at the course of his career, there was a relentless amount of experimentation in his twenties, combined with hundreds of interviews later on. The combined impact of these two is a huge base of wisdom to base his opinions on.
Whether it takes 10,000 hours or not, the truly great across a variety of domains from The Beatles to Jerry Seinfeld deeply practice their craft in safer (i.e. anonymous) spaces where they can receive feedback and grow before going bigger.
Sometimes choosing larger long-term dreams, means consciously choosing to be ‘smaller’ in the short run.