Book Summary: The Start-Up of You

by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha

What’s it about?

This is a book on career advice from Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha, on how you can benefit by adapting common characteristics of Silicon Valley tech startups to your individual career. They contend that all humans are entrepreneurs, in the sense that we all are hard-wired to create things, to be curious, and to seek out lucrative opportunities. Thus, being entrepreneurial, even if you’re not literally starting a business, is a necessary strategy to survive in the workforce today. Resilience, effective planning, smart risk tolerance, and networking are all discussed.

Why I read it:

I heard about it from Ben Casnocha’s blog, who seems to run in the same circles as a few other people I’ve been reading: Ramit Sethi, Robert Greene, Ryan Holiday, Charlie Hoehn.

My impressions:

This book contains a lot of ideas that have been floating around in my head from other books and blogs, so while I can’t stay it gave me a whole lot of new insight, it did present those ideas very cleanly and compellingly. Despite the buzzwordy title, it was surprisingly low on actual buzzwords and overall business book fluffiness.

A key theme is adaptability. Near the beginning, the writers are quick to take a swipe at the near-sacred mantra of “follow your passion” as delineated in Richard Bolles 1970 classic What Color is Your Parachute?. In the vein of Parachute, Hoffman and Casnocha say you need to focus on the intersection of your assets, your aspirations/values, and the realities of the market. The departure from Bolles is that you need to realize that the three pieces are in constant flux and are subject to constant reevaluation during your career. The common-in-some-circles idea that each person has one golden idea, one true path to follow, is bunk.

So you need to experiment, potentially by working for free or on the side. It’s especially interesting to hear the example of how Reid got product development experience simply by pitching product ideas to a friend in the field and asking for feedback. I personally tend to think too that this kind of free work or internship-type stuff needs to be technical, but I have been looking for way to develop and demonstrate soft skills exactly like this.

When strategizing, utilize “ABZ Planning” in order to think like a start-up:

  • Plan A – Your current career or objective. Your main focus. Concentrate on making constant tweaks, small changes, and iterations. If something changes….
  • …take Plan B. Plan B is your pivot plan. It’s related to Plan A, but it’s a bigger shift than an iterative approach allows. It might be a change of field or industry.
  • Plan Z – Your worst-case scenario. Your “move back home and work at Starbucks” plan. This exists so that you can fearlessly answer the question “What have I got to lose?”

Networking is another major point. All start-ups have strong professional and personal support networks, so The Start-Up of You needs one as well. Networking gets a bad rap, but the secret is to realize that networking is not slimy. It’s not transactional, and it’s not all about Me, Me, Me. When meeting someone in a business context, you must emphasize mutual benefit instead of give-and-take. Always have something to offer, and never expect anything in return.

Curiosity and resourcefulness are important as well. Entrepreneurs always look for more information because they’re always asking “Why?”. They see opportunities where others see problems. They made do with what they have. They are persistent. Do I really have to explain how these are applicable to an individual’s career?

Lastly, the book talks about how risk is a fact of professional (and for that matter, personal) life. Despite common misconceptions, careers in relatively stable professions like teaching, engineering, and government are surprisingly risky precisely because they don’t expose you to risk. On the other hand, risky careers like freelancing carry less risk over the long run because you’re trained to tolerate the risk every single day, so when the market crashes you’re able to cope better than the person who just got laid of from his sole employer for two decades.

Good book for anyone my age who is looking for a job, trying to rethink his strategy, or just get a better understanding on the way the job market works today. Just try to ignore the shameless plugs for LinkedIn and Sheryl Sandberg.

Further Questions:

  • What are some other ways to add value, to provide small gifts, and to do free work that isn’t quantitative? Hard skills are easier to sell, but what are the best ways to sell/demonstrate soft skills?
  • How does the “many paths to happiness” idea relate to that of Marcus Aurelius when he says “people who love what they do wear themselves down doing it”? Did Marcus read What Color is Your Parachute? What about Paulo Coehlo’s Personal Legend idea?
  • How can I make myself hustle more? Is fear holding me back from pushing harder and developing an “action bias” as David Schwartz says in The Magic of Thinking Big? If so, fear of what?

Quotes:

“[I]f you are not genuinely pained by the risk involved in your strategic choices, it’s not much of a strategy.” – Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix

When you have no resources, you create them. When you have no choice but to fight, you fight hard. When you have no choice but to create, you create.

Fragility is the price we pay for a hyperlinked world where all the slack is optimized out of the system.

Discovering what people want, in the words of start-up investor Paul Graham, “deals with the most difficult problem in human experience: how to see things from other people’s point of view, instead of thinking only for yourself.”

Until you hear “No,” you haven’t been turned down.

The puzzle pieces are always changing. The best you can do is articulate educated hypotheses about each. “I believe I am skilled at X, I believe I want to do Y, I believe the market needs Z.” All plans contain these kinds of assumptions.

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