Survivorship Bias and Career Advice

Last night, I sent out what I thought was a harmless tweet about how tech elders give advice to younger folks starting out in their careers about working at larger technology companies. The nuance and cheekiness I had originally intended for in that tweet was unfortunately lost, twisted a bit out of control, but the upside is that it spurred another conversation today about the benefits of working at a large tech company.

Many very successful people wrote back in disagreement with my original tweet (most of them were investors), which was taken out of context. Nevertheless, their arguments seemed to suggest that early in one’s career, it would be a wise move to work at large company that was “winning” (like Apple or Amazon) or a hyper-growth company that was on a trajectory for getting even bigger (like Airbnb or Dropbox). The implication of in recommending this path — keeping in mind it was coming from investors who have successfully made it — is that the ecosystem values this type of experience, the same way the executive boardrooms of corporate America may value a blue chip MBA and the validation of working at a shop like McKinsey. (This may be why Zuckerberg cleverly marked a career at his company as “the McKinsey of entrepreneurship” – come to Facebook, learn great things, and then go off to build companies like Asana, Quora, and others we’ve yet to see.)

It all makes sense logically, but in practice, we encounter trouble in reality with this logic:

  • Ambitious folks early in their career are encouraged to start companies, join startups, or even drop out of school to enter the high-tech economy. There’s marketing from the Thiel Fellows, the romanticization of the startup life from “The Social Network,” and a range of new products they touch every day.
  • There’s a massive attitudinal shift among younger generations from eschewing working at a big company, even generally distrusting them and not being attracted to the lifestyle it may promise.
  • On the technical side of things, emerging companies like Palantir, Stripe, and others aggressively market themselves on elite college campuses, in the same ways Goldman Sachs targets really smart students or McKinsey targets those who want to jump on the fast track in traditional business.

The result of all of this is that a set of 100 great students about to graduate could solicit advice from 100 successful people in technology and venture capital and get 100^100 different pieces of advice on what’s a good path. They could encourage them to just start something — anything — and make their own way, with the risk that failure in this context may not impart learnings. Or, they could encourage them to join a company like Google or Facebook so they can see how a company operates at scale when its “winning,” but they may get comfortable with free food, free shuttle busses, and pick up as many bad habits as good habits along the way. (For the record, I rarely give advice on this because I don’t feel qualified to, and I have never worked at a big company, and because I wouldn’t suggest someone go on my path to begin with — it’s really hard being nontechnical and coming here later in your career.)

All I could say is that, if I had to do it all over again, conventional wisdom would have put me inside a big tech company in the Valley instead of living in NYC and being a bartender or living in SF as a cook, and maybe I would have dabbled in a startup here or there, and then maybe gone back. Who knows? I’m inclined to really listen to al the smart folks on Twitter today. Maybe now as investors, they encounter too many people without enough experience, or without the right experience. Maybe they encounter too many startups founded by really smart kids who lack the context to attack the industry they target. Or, maybe those who have taken these paths view the world now with a bit of survivorship bias, comfortably recommending a path they themselves have taken.

All in all, it’s a very interesting conversation and debate with no real answers. The data here won’t lead to any conclusions because the world is shifting too fast. In the end, then, when folks ask me what they should do, I simply ask them “What are you psyched about?” and then ask them to focus on that because, largely everything we all do now, day to day, is kind of silly, kind of stupid to those who don’t understand. You will have to suffer hundreds of “no’s” throughout your career. People won’t understand you. Some of your relationships will suffer. Your parents won’t understand what you’re trying to do. So, if you are amped up about what you want to do in that moment, if you are truly psyched, that will provide the motivation and sustenance to deflect what everyone else is chattering out. We all operate with free will, and we are employed at will. Yes, luck plays a part, but the beauty is we all have a chance to make it our own way, so do what feels right — drop out of school, or take more school; join a big company, or join a small one; join a company that’s winning, or try to save one you believe can be saved. And, most importantly….may luck be with you!