Follow Traditional Advice, Become Just a Number
Several months ago before the pandemic, I attended an event in New Zealand showcasing the country's rapidly expanding space sector. The keynote speaker was the CEO of a company that builds and launches rockets to place satellites in low orbit. The CEO provided a compelling story of how he created his successful venture. A high school student in the audience asked the CEO how to get a job with his company after university. The CEO's response was great advice about changing your mindset for success by going against the herd.
Essentially, the CEO said this may require disregarding everything you hear from traditional career counselors who tell you to study hard and get a degree. The CEO recommended taking time to explore a range of subjects until you find your true passion. He then advised committing yourself to knowing everything you can about the subject. This also goes against traditional advice of encouraging people to be well rounded in their experience. The CEO advised there is no right answer on exploring your passions or gaining knowledge. He said the value is in the pursuit itself as it will lead to creative thinking, problem solving, and the type of skills that he, as a CEO, looks for in employees.
Just One Resume Among Thousands
The CEO explained that he receives thousands of resumes from top students across the world who all followed the same path. They went to a good university, earned high marks, and participated in the same types of clubs. He said this makes it very difficult to find the right person among thousands of applicants. Each one followed the herd and now they do not appear special. He advised that the way to stand out is to look for options where you can obtain unique skills that will separate you from the crowd.
Leverage Skills You Have for Skills You Want
If you are just starting your career there are many entry level jobs that do not require a university degree to help you find your passions. You could also identify a skilled practitioner in your field and offer to work for them for free for a year. This will require taking a part-time job at night to cover your expenses, but is far less expensive then paying for an education. The key is to do your research and present to this person how you can add value to their business. Bring them a solution (ways you can improve their business) not a problem (the time commitment of mentoring someone). Also think about leveraging the skills you have to get the skills you want. Are you a skilled photographer, great at social media, or a tenacious sales person? These are valuable assets to most businesses.
You will learn far more practical experience working alongside an expert than from being a student in classroom. The experience also lets you build a network of new contacts in the field. Once you identify you passion you can always add a few classes part-time to round out your leaning.
If you are mid-career and looking to change to a different field this same strategy works. Look to leverage your existing skills and network to gain experience that will get you closer to what you want. Think about this as making steps on stones to cross a river. Each move gets you to the next stone and closer to the other side. You may even be able to take on projects in a new field with your existing employer to gain exposure before moving on to a full-time position. You may also be able to take a leave of absence or be on leave without pay to spend more time working in this new career to test it out. This is a low risk way of gaining new skills and experience.
Going With the Herd Can be Expensive
One of the reasons I like the the CEO's advice so much is it can help avoid the mistake of taking on excessive student debt. Classes are increasingly moving on-line but the cost of average cost of an university education in the United States is $100,000 at a public school and $200,000 at a private school. If you are mid-career and decide to get a graduate degree it may cost $75,000 to $100,000. There is no guarantee you will like this new career or that your educational investment will equate to a commensurate financial return. Many students unfortunately learn this lesson after they graduate. When working as a diplomat I saw a lot of people with $250,000+ Ivy League educations in the same position as people with public school degrees that cost a third of the price. Paying off $150,000 in unnecessary student loans deprives you of the opportunity to build wealth and gain financial freedom.
Going Against the Herd
The concept of going against the herd also applies to investing and wealth creation. In the book Become Loaded for Life, I explained how I turned $39,000 into $650,000 in real estate equity by using the strategy of going against the herd. In this case it was selling real estate when everyone else was buying during the lead up to the 2007-08 global financial crisis. My analysis showed real estate prices were overvalued so I sold. People told me it was a great time to buy real estate and I was making a mistake by selling. Soon after, real estate prices fell dramatically and access to credit started to seize. In response, I went against the herd again. Real estate investors were desperate to sell, and I was focused on buying. People are social creatures and sometimes they move in the same direction without thinking it through. This can lead to taking on too much debt to get a college degree, following the wrong path to obtain a desired job, or making poor decisions when it comes to investing in real estate or stocks.
Mistakes Still Happen, But They Are Less Costly
Going against the herd does not mean the path will be easy nor is it a guarantee that you made the right decision. But, when it comes to choosing a career or making a career transition, it will allow you to differentiate yourself and gain new skills while avoiding the type of debt that could limit future opportunities.
Going against the herd also allows you to make course corrections as you learn more about a potential career. Do you want to find out you don't like being an accountant two months into a summer internship or after you graduate with an accounting degree and $100,000 of debt? Would you rather learn two months into a sabbatical from your job that you don't like working full-time at a non-profit organization or after you have quit your job to pursue this new career? Going against the herd is a strategy that allows you time to try something out before you make a more serious commitment.
When it comes to investing, the same benefits of reducing costs or losses can apply. If your analysis indicates it's time to sell an asset, trust your numbers and follow through. If you are wrong you may miss some upside profit, but if you are right you may earn some extraordinary profits. And even better, you have cash to reinvest when asset prices are lower. That is how to create real wealth; always look for options to go against the herd because that is how you make your luck.