"The Start-up of You," or The Future and Its Friends

Last week, I devoured Reid Hoff­man & Ben Cas­nocha’s brand new book, “The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Your­self, and Trans­form your Career.” It couldn’t have come out at a more appro­pri­ate time for me per­son­ally, given that I have aban­doned aca­d­e­mic aspi­ra­tions, left grad school, quit a bor­ing pub­lish­ing job, and launched a tutor­ing ser­vice, all in the last six months.

The Start-up of You” is pretty good; it con­tains lots of rel­e­vant anec­dotes and reads eas­ily as it inspires. I expect that it’s largely preach­ing to the choir, though: while read­ers may not have pre­vi­ously had a worked-out the­ory of con­duct­ing one’s career like a start-up, they are likely those who were already mostly con­vinced of the value of con­tin­u­ous pro­fes­sional and per­sonal self-improvement.

Its main mes­sages are fairly sim­ple and some­what repet­i­tive: The work world will con­tinue to change rapidly whether you like it or not, con­stantly invest in your­self, con­stantly invest in your social net­work, reassess your level of risk aver­sive­ness by think­ing clearly about what’s at stake in pur­su­ing new oppor­tu­ni­ties and which pos­si­ble fall­back options are avail­able to you.

Above all, though, I think the most impor­tant take­away of the book con­sists in one sim­ple but pow­er­ful insight — that “adapt­abil­ity cre­ates stability.”

A per­son might think that she can cre­ate and pre­serve sta­bil­ity in her finances, fam­ily life, retire­ment sit­u­a­tion, etc. by com­mit­ting to a par­tic­u­lar job or line of work. How­ever, the times they are a-changin’, in ways that often make this kind of com­mit­ment impru­dent. Teach­ers and other gov­ern­ment employ­ees thought that they were pur­su­ing sta­bil­ity in their seniority-based career lad­ders, but pub­lic indebt­ed­ness threat­ens their pen­sions. Doc­tor­ate hold­ers earned their PhDs par­tially in the expec­ta­tion that decent aca­d­e­mic employ­ment would later become avail­able to them, but the adjunc­tiviza­tion of acad­e­mia con­tin­ues at a rapid clip. My father as a young man for­went col­lege and put his nose to the grind­stone at IBM, even relo­cat­ing a fam­ily for them, only to have his divi­sion sold off  (and his friends laid off) count­less times over the past 15 years. Of the many peo­ple put in these and sim­i­lar posi­tions, some swim by actively devel­op­ing new skills and find­ing new out­lets for the old ones, while oth­ers sink by cross­ing their fin­gers and hop­ing things will just work out somehow.

As such, the car­di­nal virtues for nav­i­gat­ing the tur­bu­lent waters of glob­al­iza­tion, rapid and rad­i­cal tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, and uncer­tain polit­i­cal cli­mate aren’t loy­alty and com­mit­ment at all, but adapt­abil­ity, flex­i­bil­ity, and open­ness to oppor­tu­nity and change.

The Start-up of You” is about work. But adapt­abil­ity and open­ness to change are qual­i­ties that serve humans well across the board, because work is not the only sphere of our lives that we find con­stantly in flux. Our work lives both con­tribute to and reflect a wide vari­ety of other con­di­tions: com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools, liv­ing arrange­ments, trans­porta­tion sys­tems, fam­ily struc­ture, leisure activ­i­ties, agri­cul­tural prac­tices, etc etc etc.

There is a book that dis­cusses change very broadly, and the advan­tages of adapt­ing to it. This book is Vir­ginia Postrel’s “The Future and Its Ene­mies” (1998). I read it last July and haven’t been able to stop think­ing through its (*cringe*) life-changing lens ever since.

Postrel clearly estab­lishes and dis­cusses in var­i­ous con­texts the impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between “sta­ti­sists” (as in “sta­sis”) and “dynamists.” A sta­ti­sist resists the future and seeks to pre­serve fea­tures of the present with ill effects, either out of a mis­guided desire for sta­bil­ity (this char­ac­ter­izes reac­tionar­ies, usu­ally polit­i­cally con­ser­v­a­tive) or a desire for con­trol (this char­ac­ter­izes tech­nocrats, often polit­i­cally lib­eral). A dynamist, on the other hand, believes that “human bet­ter­ment depends not on con­for­mity to one cen­tral vision but on cre­ativ­ity and decen­tral­ized, open-ended trial and error.” For a good syn­op­sis of the book, visit Dynamist.com.

Those who believe in the vision and advice put forth in “The Start-up of You” are dynamists at heart. They aspire to make the best of ever-changing con­di­tions, as skill­ful surfers on inevitable waves of uncer­tainty. Indi­vid­u­als run­ning their lives like start-ups seek oppor­tu­nity in what­ever form it presents itself and take appro­pri­ate risks, know­ing that life and change are some­what risky whether you acknowl­edge it or not. They envi­sion mul­ti­ple paths that the world and their lives can pos­si­bly take, and nim­bly nav­i­gate these paths as nec­es­sary, for fun and for profit.

The Start-up of You” mostly reads like a man­ual for improv­ing one’s own prospects in a benign, rather than socio­pathic, man­ner. How­ever, Hoff­man and Cas­nocha make a crit­i­cal point in pass­ing, and it deserves to be empha­sized: run­ning your life like a start-up (i.e., adapt­ing to change) has impor­tant ben­e­fits not just for you, but for soci­ety. What we don’t need is a bunch of peo­ple unpro­duc­tively and unhap­pily cling­ing to the past. What we do need is intre­pid thinkers, mak­ers, and doers, all vig­or­ously explor­ing the futures that are emerg­ing, inside the phys­i­cal or vir­tual work­place and out. “The Start-up of You,” then, is really about the future and its friends — and the per­sonal and social rea­sons you have to become one.

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