Peter Thiel And The Alternative Career Path

“The most important thing I can teach my kids,” said my friend Frank, leaning forward intently, “is to be masters of their own destinies.”

Being master of your own destiny, apparently, is the new black, with early adopters like Peter Thiel setting the tone. The Thiel Fellowship, created in 2010, gives 20 people under 20 $100,000 to drop out of college and work on their startups full-time. While the program has had its share of critics (including, not surprisingly, former Harvard President Larry Summers), it’s by no means a flop. This past December, the Wall Street Journal’s Lara Kolodny summed up the results as follows: “64 Thiel Fellows have started 67 for-profit ventures, raised $55.4 million in angel and venture funding, published two books, created 30 apps and 135 full-time jobs, and brought clean water and solar power to 6,000 Kenyans who needed it.”

Derek Handley, founder of (among other things) The Hyperfactory, just completed an extraordinary recruitment process called The Shoulder Tap, inviting people to apply or nominate others to be his chief operator in New Zealand focused on making the world a better place, “managing what already exists, dreaming up ideas of what ‘could be,’ and turning the best ideas into reality…”



And earlier this week, I made three connections for London-based Dan Bowyer, who is looking for his next adventure. Instead of going via or its U.K. equivalent, he turned his network into his recruitment agency. On his website, he posted his skill set, the kind of gig he’s after, and a few relevant parameters (e.g., he may invest, but assumes he won’t at first), and offered £1,000 and a few other perks to whoever makes the introduction that leads to the gig. (Incidentally, if you’d like me to introduce you to Dan, feel free to let me know.)

Peter, Derek and Dan have a number of commonalities, among them a complete unwillingness to accept the default, assumed structures and pathways that govern how we get educated, how we get jobs, how we develop our careers. And their success proves something quite profound: these structures and pathways may be the default, but they are not the laws of the universe, they are not the way things have to be -- and they can be challenged.

So many of us take a proscribed life path for granted. We will go to college. We will apply for a job by submitting our resume for an advertised position. The job will be singular, rather than a portfolio of gigs. We will evolve in that job. We will work 40 (or many more) hours a week, change companies every three to five years (even this bit is relatively new), and steadily progress up the ladder of title, responsibility, and, one hopes, money.

Not one aspect of this is written in stone.

We should tell people this, especially young people. We should tell them that we made it all up, all these structures and pathways, and that they are free to make up their own way of doing it, which will be no more right than the way we did it, but which may suit them better. We should let them know they don’t need anyone’s permission to create an alternative career path, to work two days a week or three months a year or to be an entrepreneur or a circus clown or a robotics designer or an astrophotographer.

And so I return to Frank, his eyes alight with excitement for the future of his children. He is steering them on a good path by encouraging them to be the masters of their own destinies. They will know that we made it all up. And they will know that they are free to accept the version they’ve been given, or make one up for themselves. May nobody stand in their way.

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