One of the most common reasons I’ve heard from anyone, regardless of age, who’s interested in moving to a startup from a different field is a desire to ‘have an impact’. This could be taken as a generic, well-worn answer to the vague question: why startup instead of ‘x’ profession? Maybe sometimes it is, but I believe that this answer is a packed statement that reflects how entrepreneurship and the rising popularity of working at early stage companies has exposed an outmoded form of traditional career path.
Did this broken or at least boring dynamic begin with the American profession? Absolutely not. In fact, impact wasn’t really available to anyone save inherited royals dating back through most of human existence. Kings and Queens took thrones when they’re parents died or were killed. Without any qualification, this often transpired with catastrophic results. One of the greatest war time kings in British history, Henry V who, for the briefest time held France and England under one crown, had that dominion lost by a son who was too feeble and honestly way too young to deal (like infant young).
How insane is it to pass things down this way? Influence, power, and control remained amongst a tiny, paranoid minority and entrepreneur was an adjective not a noun or profession. Just crazy. It was, perhaps, the greatest revolutionary achievement from America’s Founding Fathers to extract power from the hands of families passed down and reward democratic choice, present achievement and popularity with leadership. The United States would never have arrived at President Barack Obama if this had not been done and we would never have become a progressive, global power without it either.
What’s happened then? Well, in my mind, the 20th century professional world has grown to reflect that of political ruling classes from centuries past. CEOs aren’t giving the reigns to their children but career ascension is a reward for years served. speckled white hair means someone’s ready for a corner office. We’re taught to earn gradually over time not through overtime. This sounds like prison, not progress, unfortunately its reality. Pursue the careers that seemed so logical and safe post WWII in the U.S. and surrender certain drive, creativity, and personal vision to 20-30 years of repetitive experience. And then maybe join the board. The sickening fact is that these ‘safe’ professions aren’t even safe anymore. One too many WSJ reports on advanced degree graduates who aren’t finding work are testament to this insanity. And just to be clear, am I arguing that everyone should always be in a startup throughout their career? No, startups are by nature transient, not an endgoal. Do we still need advanced degrees? Absolutely…Is an MBA worthwhile in startupland? Sometimes, yes…Is there still a place for a gradual career focused on masterful decades of dedication? no doubt…but…
…you say want to have an impact? like tomorrow? Startups have no age limit, height requirement, or a record of years in an industry to have a massive impact. The wise are not exclusively the elderly, youth is not wasted. Anyone can do anything at anytime. Should everyone? No. Can anyone? Oh yes, and please do. Impact - direct, meaningful, rewarding - exists in startup, in fact its the essence of why many of the most successful companies of the past 20 years were started. People had passionate desire to have an impact, to change the world and they did.
So, the next time you hear this from a interviewee, don’t pass it off as boilerplate. Accept it as a reflection on other industries’ status quo and applaud the person across from you for not wanting to spend a lifetime waiting to inherit a right to impact that should have been encouraged from day one.