I was upgraded to business class on Emirates Airlines last month for a 4 hour leg of a 17 hour journey. It was funny how I immediately found myself wishing I had been upgraded for the longer leg. Ha. Human nature. It had been a while since I traveled business on a good airline and what I observed had some interesting implications on thinking about careers and life.
To begin with, I perceived a change in behavior from the staff the moment I got my upgrade at the counter. I felt I was suddenly treated with more respect and felt special. Of course, the comforts were great – a full recline bed on which you can sleep comfortably and a table on which you can get work done without feeling squished. But, what struck me was the visible difference in the way I was treated. This disappeared the moment I stepped back into Economy for the longer leg.
The principle here is signaling. I was treated as someone with perceived higher value simply because of my accidental/serendipitous business class tag. It is powerful because we, as humans, are always categorizing people and things. And, signaling, one way or the other, determines which buckets we fall into.
So, when it comes to planning careers, my thought process and advice are really boring – work hard, get into the best school you can get into, then work hard and get good grades (or do something really cool in the risk-free zone that is school), then get into the best job you can get into, do very well and you’ll find yourself with more options over time. The reason for this boring advice is that it reduces downside. Yes, we love talking about entrepreneurs who made billions by taking crazy risks. That is largely media fueled nonsense. Most smart entrepreneurs are actually masterful de-riskers – they only take the next risk when they feel they’ve minimized chances of failures. And, as far as drop outs who made billions go, the most storied of the lot – Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg – dropped out of Harvard and Stanford. I daresay they would have done fine even if things hadn’t worked out at Microsoft, Google and Facebook.
Fivethirtyeight had a sobering article titled “Rich Kids Stay Rich, Poor Kids Stay Poor” presenting results from a research study on how growing up in poverty affects kids. One of the charts in the article was –
Most charts told a similar story – folks who grew up in wealthy families remained wealthy as adults.The article underlines just how hard social mobility is. And, if these were the results in the US (the land of opportunity), I can only imagine what similar studies would unearth elsewhere.
My hypothesis is that the principle that underlies all of this is, again, signaling. Do well early and you reduce downside for the rest of your careers. Once you’ve reduced that downside, you are well placed to take risks to increase upside. That isn’t to say your chances are low otherwise. But, it is also no coincidence that you have an absurd number of risk takers in places like the Silicon Valley. The truth is that places like the Silicon Valley both place a premium on failure and encourage risk taking once you’ve had a stint at a successful tech firm. So, in some ways, you’re probably only increasing your career capital. Sure, you will always be able to point to many who “made it” without following this principle. But, I could say with a good degree of confidence that the many are a small proportion of the “many others” who fell by the wayside without a Fortune cover story.
The article and data also goes to show how fortunate you are if you won the genetic lottery and were born into the right family. If you are in those top percentiles, maybe this data ought to be a wake up call to stop complaining about all the things that go wrong and to use all that privilege you have to leave the world better than you found it.