I remember watching The Social Network when Justin Timberlake, in the character of eccentric entrepreneur cum venture capitalist cum bon vivant Sean Parker, said to Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” Facebook’s blockbuster success, together with technology peers such as Google, Twitter, and LinkedIn, have magnetized an interest in the startup culture that has defined this generation of 20-somethings and college co-eds. Is it a true passion to manage one’s own enterprise and improve life for the rest of the world? Or are sensational stories of young, vibrant men and women with nine figures to their name the real captors of our attention? I am prepared to say that such romanticized visions of monetary grandeur and societal adoration are swaying our generation toward this path without their possessing a genuine understanding of its challenges yet thirsting for the fast money it can bring — much as investment banking attracted budding analysts in the heyday of financial markets.
Nowadays those bold enough to venture out on their own and hopefully land on a Forbes cover for becoming multimillionaires by age 30 inform the career choices of fresh university graduates. Creating new ideas and revolutionizing human practices are admirable goals, but we must also consider the impetus driving today’s startup founders. To many the prospect of birthing novel concepts and building a professional force from that platform is probably far more electric, more tantalizing than slaving away at Excel for 90 hours a week in a staid office building. (I personally disagree and see the attraction to both realms, but I am painting an image of trending sentiment). Furthermore, nascent entrepreneurs who are developing something “cool” likely garner more sympathy than workaholic bankers in dark suits as they buzz around trading floors or fill up cubicles.
According to Business Insider, the success rate for novice entrepreneurs is 12 percent. While it is commonsense to understand that not every new venture materializes into something tremendous, the prevalence of newly minted wealth belonging to people who have cashed in on trendy ideas is skewing the perception that establish one’s own business is the way to succeed in life. Five years ago, investment banking or trading paved the way to earning a healthy six-figure salary by one’s late 20s. In either case, too much focus is levied on short-term gains and monetary rewards to be reaped within the first five or 10 years.
This is especially troubling when college co-eds and recent grads “know” (or more realistically, think) they will lust after a career in entrepreneurship or finance. First, these words are poorly defined and encompass a plethora of avenues one could travel. Secondly, if doing what we love is crucial and we should embark on a professional path that actually engages our curiosity and creativity, it is probably important to understand a job’s purpose and to have a clear idea of what we wish to pursue. No, I do not mean that a college junior must enter recruiting season with an unwavering vision of the trading desk he wants to join. However, I do think one should be able to define investment banking or explain the role of angel investors before committing to a career choice. If — through either calling — the money one envisions earning as a 20-something compels one’s decision, it is a shame. Following taxes and other living expenses, the analyst and associate salaries do not amount to much. Moreover, market trends, office politics, and educational options might further differentiate monetary reality from earnings expectations.
This impatience and preponderance of attention toward immediate realizations are dangerous, for they cloud one’s judgment of overall goals and the long-term picture. In an article featured in the Atlantic in September, Bob Dorf advised startup founders, “Find the right trajectory for your business and focus not only on reaching it, but on assuring that the result is a sustainable, repeatable profit engine that can perform and grow healthily over time.” Likewise, our nation’s people, and particularly the poor excuse for Republican and Democratic leadership with which we are burdened, share a nearsighted, myopic vision of America’s path. One does not need a PhD in political science or economics to digest this reality — look at the last-minute, slipshod nature of debt ceiling negotiations and sequestration talks. Have any sustainable mandates been achieved? No. On important issues such as entitlement reform — which both left- and right-wing economists agree is the largest liability we must tackle — have difficult, albeit appropriate, decisions been made? No. Have we addressed ugly issues of increasing costs as our population ages? No. Have we heard of any mortgage financing reform or housing policies to correct ramifications of the financial crisis? No. Why? I think a grave inability to understand these problems certainly plagues Capitol Hill, but it is also convenient for our senators and congressmen to jettison these thought-provoking questions and only focus on pressing issues that affect them in the very near future.
Through a political lens, we can see what happens when the short term is our sole focus and we disregard the importance of understanding the decisions we are rendering. For example, the current balance of power has acted in a way that only demonstrates the Pollyanna-like objective of covering health care for all 45 million uninsured Americans and perpetrating present entitlement outlays to the elderly. This addresses the rewards without acknowledging the risks of burdensome costs that our nation cannot bear. Similarly, college students and newly minted alums must understand what they are getting into when making a career choice. Of course, change is always possible and some marvelous entrepreneurs such as Larry Ellison or John Paul DeJoria took circuitous routes toward their ultimate successes. However, the vast majority should not be persuaded by near-term visions of grandeur and financial stardom. Many today expect to be the next Mark Zuckerberg and be set for life within 10 years of graduating college. On the contrary, our generation should focus on attaining solid skills within the next five years that will sustain our long, prolific careers. An overnight success such as Facebook or Instagram is cool. But you know what else is cool? Establishing a robust company such as DuPont or IBM that has prospered for many generations.