“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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