When struggling with motion sickness, the best strategy is to sit completely still and look straight ahead. It has a grounding effect. Only after my first experience of driving through the snaking streets of San Francisco did I need to employ this tactic. My inaugural foray into the city marked the beginning of the innovation trek, which began in the home of Kelly Close ’90, founder of Close Concerns. As I sat unmoving in Kelly’s beautiful home, I ruminated on the absolute uncertainty of the future — I do this often. Swiftly, my thoughts led me to the question of what I wanted to do with my future, a topic that I continually returned to for the rest of the week. While the trek did not lead to any concrete answers concerning my future, it did help me utilize introspection to ask more nuanced questions about the future.
The innovation trek is an opportunity for twelve Amherst students from different class years with diverse academic interests to meet successful Amherst alumni in various sectors of the Silicon Valley (e.g. tech, venture capital, startup and private equity). I was very fortunate to be chosen to be part of the trek cohort, which met alumni through networking events, site visits, receptions and roundtable discussions. Throughout the trek, alumni detailed captivating stories of their paths from the East Coast to the West. We got accounts of how they leveraged their liberal arts backgrounds to succeed on the tech dominated West Coast. Despite their divergent career paths, the alumni all echoed the same message throughout the week: know yourself in the context of your career goals.
On the third day of the trek, Gib Biddle ’84, product leader of the mobile app startup Life360, provided a wonderful framework to think about this by asking us if we were starters, builders or maintainers. Starters are individuals who dare to challenge the status quo with new ideas. Builders are those adept at the art of scaling a small idea to a big proven concept. Maintainers — as the name suggests — are natural at maintaining the company’s homeostasis. These classifications are not mu\tually exclusive; one can fall into one or all of the categories. Nor are they fixed and rigid. By asking this question, one is not making a determination of what one will forever be, but rather looking in a mirror and taking stock of where one currently is.
Because a large number of the most successful unicorns — startup companies with a market cap above 1 billion dollars — have teams composed of starters, builders and maintainers, no specific skill class is better than another and one should not worry about which skill class they may be or develop into.
As I listened to Mr. Biddle speak, I thought back to the question of my future and what I hoped it would look like. I searched within myself and asked which skill classes currently best matched me. Naturally, I jumped to the idea of being a starter because I was enamored with the idea of being the next Zuckerberg. But I quickly realized that I was not enthused by a specific idea which I was willing to make my life’s mission. After deeper thought, it became clear that my current skill class is that of a builder. In sum, through guided self-analysis I was better able to think about my current skills.
The following day, Mark Perry ’65, former general partner at the venture capital firm NEA, added another layer to help us think about our skill profiles. He encouraged us to ask: Does this job uniquely play to my strengths? Suppose an individual has two skills, one with excellent competency and the other with average. If this individual takes a job that caters towards their strength, he will flourish in that role. However, if he takes a job which requires utilizing his lesser skill, he will likely stagnate. This individual is not bad with either skill, yet the first mating of skill and role lead to better results than the latter. The key to getting the fit right is making sure that the job not only fits one’s strengths, but also that it uniquely does so. By being able to evaluate how my strengths coincide with potential work opportunities, I felt better prepared in next deciding where to start my career.
Jason Spero ’94, vice president of performance media at Google, framed the question of where to begin most clearly. He asked us to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of joining a young small company or an established big company. If I happen to be an individual who wants to hit the ground running, then choosing a small company in its growth phase is perhaps the better option. Because these young companies are quite literally fighting to succeed, there is an expectation of immense responsibility and autonomy from the get-go. This route is also very risky. The stakes are higher, and failure could swallow one whole at any moment. However, high risk may result in high reward in the case that I invest early in a company that later takes off. On the other hand, I can instead decide to start my career in a bigger company that is market-tested. This option is not fraught with the same risk levels of the first option. Established companies provide valuable training programs and resources to facilitate learning and growth. Furthermore, it is still possible to rise in leadership and take on more responsibility, albeit at a slower pace than the riskier alternative. Also, note that big companies with superb training programs provide an excellent platform to dive into more uncertain waters. Whether one joins a big or small company, one should make this decision only after concentrated contemplation.
It strikes me that the strategy for overcoming motion sickness also applies to the equally nausea-inducing movement from college student to increasingly independent adult. By sitting still and looking straight ahead, I am not only thinking about the future, but I am also thinking about the future in relation to where I currently am. By doing so, I was able to do honest self-evaluations when alumni challenged us with new questions to ponder. On the subject of alumni, Mrs. Close actually nursed me back to health in her home by giving me a glass of sparkling water and continually checking up on me throughout the evening. At the risk of abusing my metaphor, I will add that her compassion for me, an individual she had just met, is similar to the help that alumni can provide when one is sitting still and staring straight ahead (i.e. thoughtfully analyzing the future in relation to their present selves). To fuel effective self-analysis, introspection need not be done alone — we have amazing alumni who are willing and qualified to offer us splendid additional input.