Career Advice from Paul Graham, Venture Capitalist

Take on challenges that push your learning.
Take on challenges that push your learning.

  My classmate, Colin Johnston, recommended an excellent article to me while we were talking about choosing career paths during the last day of our MBA orientation.  Paul Graham, co-founder of Y-combinator and Viaweb, wrote a commencement speech for a high school but then wasn’t allowed to give the speech after they found out who he was.  Instead, he posted it on his website, which you can find here.

  While Mr. Graham wrote this for high school students, the advice is no less applicable to MBA students who are looking for a career change.  We definitely get asked “what do you want to do?” as much as high school students, if not more!

  Some highlights:

Go explore the options!

If I were back in high school and someone asked about my plans, I’d say that my first priority was to learn what the options were. You don’t need to be in a rush to choose your life’s work. What you need to do is discover what you like. You have to work on stuff you like if you want to be good at what you do.

After you look at the options, choose the ones that give you the best options in the future.

…don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.

A little more detail on this point:

Suppose you’re a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

  In other words, it’s better not to overspecialize because it will limit your ability to explore further.  This could be the deciding factor when you’re trying to decide between an opportunity at a large company with a stovepiped role or an opportunity at a startup where your role is more broad and you cover a variety of functional areas.  

Take on tough projects that push your learning.

Just pick a project that seems interesting: to master some chunk of material, or to make something, or to answer some question. Choose a project that will take less than a month, and make it something you have the means to finish. Do something hard enough to stretch you, but only just, especially at first. If you’re deciding between two projects, choose whichever seems most fun. If one blows up in your face, start another. Repeat till, like an internal combustion engine, the process becomes self-sustaining, and each project generates the next one. (This could take years.)

Check out Paul Graham’s site at paulgraham.com and read the full speech here: http://paulgraham.com/hs.html

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