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Millennials & Risk vs. Upside

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I felt compelled to write this post for two distinct reasons:

1) I am worried about the low level of risk tolerance in some of our generation’s most well-educated and promising students and future leaders.

2) I have been asked over the past few months on job thoughts from students at universities and people <5 years into their career.

I read a piece by Priya Parker who recently completed a study on “the values and behaviors of the world’s next generation of leaders – the most talented, educated, capable Millennials”.  These include those from the best institutions, at the most prestigious firms, and with the greatest ambitions.  What Parker finds is spot on:

“What I found was a rising generation of elite leaders who bring wonderful new gifts to the table – more empathy than their predecessors, more worldliness, more pragmatism for an angry, ideological age. But I also found my generation of young leaders paralyzed, hesitant, and unwilling stick their necks out and lead on the big questions of our time: how to build a more equitable and sustainable capitalism, how to manage the transition to a post-Western world, how to extend prosperity to developing countries without pushing the planet over the brink.”

She said our generation effectively has a FOMO syndrome, or ‘fear of missing out’.  It’s perhaps the biggest reason why our top institutions’ graduates seem to migrate towards consulting and investment banking at higher rates than ever before: it’s prestigious, it’s broad in terms of skillsets acquired, it pays well, and, most importantly, it keeps our options open.

When I was in my second year at Stanford, I wanted to go work for McKinsey or Goldman Sachs.  They were the two firms that some of the smartest upperclassmen I knew were joining post graduation.  After I went through the interview process myself, I ended up receiving offers from both of those firms.

Then, I received some great advice.  A professor emeritus, David Abernethy, asked me to design my ideal job assuming monetary considerations were thrown out the window.  We eventually arrived at the conclusion that often the most exciting jobs have to be designed yourself since hardly any job description can possibly contain all that we wish.  I wanted to invest and work with many entrepreneurs that are building technologies to change the world, so I thought I should try and do everything to found my own venture or get into venture capital, an asset class known for high risk investments in budding startups, with the intention of carving out an emerging markets niche.  And, although my ultimate choice of VC isn’t as high risk as starting your own company, I do think I took the “less safe” route.

Our 20s are the time where we can, and should, be the most risk-seeking.  We’re free of familial obligations and are used to a relatively lower quality of life having been stuffed in dorm rooms.  We may, however, have considerable student debt that we need to pay off (a whole different subject), which is a very valid reason for going into guaranteed low risk, high paying jobs straight out of school.

I would implore anyone graduating soon or considering an early career change to do something slightly riskier, but with greater upside.  Upside can be monetary (say: early stock options in a company), measured through diverse experiences (for example, traveling to countries or places outside your comfort zone), or even personal fulfillment/growth (for example, always wanting to do XYZ, like work for X organization, rally for Y cause, or start Z nonprofit, etc).  I have nothing but respect for an institution like McKinsey and if two years there increases your confidence, network, and appetite to dive into something higher-risk, then it is a tremendous option.  But, if you have even the slightest inkling as to a high risk, high reward job or career path that you would find fulfilling, assuming financial obligations are not too crazy (which is not a safe assumption anymore) then you should go for it.

I think we would all be surprised by how much we learn, how much we can impact, and maybe even how much we can personally gain for ourselves when we take the higher risk, higher reward option.


Written by sheeltyle

March 14, 2012 at 9:26 am