Book club: The Start-Up of You

Is thinking like an entrepreneur today's secret to career success? Hannah Langworth finds out

The Start-Up of You

By Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha

Random House Business, 2012

Near the beginning of this Generation Y careers manual comes the story of Detroit. The US midwestern metropolis grew rapidly in size and prosperity in the early and mid-twentieth century thanks in large part to its mighty car industry. Home to Ford Motor Company, General Motors and Chrysler, Detroit was known as Motor City and boasted a seemingly ever-growing network of interconnecting and always busy freeways, and a steady stream of jobs for life with attendant benefits and career opportunities.

However, things changed. The companies and jobs that once seemed so secure toppled in the face of a failure to adapt to competition from German and Japanese carmakers. A third of the city is now sparsely inhabited, and huge houses that were once monuments to wealth and security now testify to the dangers of getting too comfortable as they crumble in neighbourhoods either riddled with crime and poverty, or deserted altogether.

Why do Casnocha and Hoffman take us on this urban safari? Because, they argue, many of today's employees run the risk of becoming a Detroit. Assume that you'll be in the same job until you retire, that your career goals should always run exactly in tandem with those of your employer, and that change is a risk rather than an opportunity, and you could end up equally sidelined and - career-wise at the very least - desolate.

So where should we go instead as we turn away from the Detroit mindset? Unsurprisingly for a book co-authored by a leading IT guru, The Start-Up of You recommends we look to Silicon Valley. Casnocha and Hoffmann argue that, since today's working environments are highly competitive and rapidly evolving, you can no longer rely on staying in the same role for years on end, progressing down a pre-ordained path. Instead, they argue, today's workers should think like technology entrepreneurs and aim to be independent agents always on the look-out for the next opportunity, prepared to take risks, and flexible enough to respond readily to change and setbacks.

Casnocha and Hoffman's portrayal of prospects for those entering the workplace today is potentially frightening, but the book isn't depressing. In fact, it's often reassuring and inspiring. For example, one useful exercise involves identifying your Plan Z - that is, a lifeboat option if your current career or career plan fails. Realising you could see "getting a job at Starbucks and moving back in with your parents" not as a dead end but as something to "keep you afloat while you relaunch yourself on a brand-new voyage" would certainly help put a positive spin on a dispiriting stack of rejection letters, an uninspiring job, or a head full of career angst.

And the book's sunny Californian optimism is sometimes just plain fun. Sick of ploughing through Excel spreadsheets, or making the tea? That's ok, because you have your "experimental side project" to work on in the evenings and at weekends, and if you've been paying diligently into your "interesting people fund", you might have enough cash by now to get that plane ticket and head off to that conference on clean technology, or to buy a nice lunch for that exciting person in an "adjacent professional niche". In all seriousness, even if you're not chartering a private jet or chairing high-powered meetings just yet, thinking like a chief executive or a "flexibly persistent" entrepreneur surely can't hurt, and might even help you become one.

The plan of action the book advocates to help you progress in your career is rather heavy on networking, which is only to be expected as one of the authors, Reid Hoffman, is the founder of LinkedIn. However, I suspect some of the tips for "relationship building in professional life" are likely to work much better if you're lucky enough to spend your time with relaxed and open-minded Californians rather than grumpy and cynical Brits. But networking is undeniably important, and the book does provide some useful insights - for instance, that your second degree connections are much more likely than your closest friends and current colleagues to provide you with new career information or an exciting job opportunity.

The book also encourages the reader to take a wealth of steps in a number of other career-related areas, and lots of these are potentially useful and often (but not always) not very difficult or embarrassing to carry out. For instance, why not look carefully at the career histories of people you admire and analyse how they got to where you want to be? Or think about how you spend your free time and what it reveals about your aspirations, and then use these insights to direct your career trajectory? - Casnocha and Hoffman remind readers here of the mantra of the dressed-down and ping-pong playing Silicon Valley technology CEOs: it's often possible, and profitable, to base your working life around the things you really enjoy doing and your preferred lifestyle.

The emphasis on networking is, however, probably the clue to the book's core message: you can no longer build your career by concentrating on your own development and focusing on pleasing your boss. Moving forward in today's hyper-chatty and volatile working world, the authors claim, will involve connecting with a wide range of people in your field and beyond and, crucially, not only when you want something from them. Help others with their career advancement and those less fortunate than yourself, they say, and you'll be helping yourself get ahead quicker.

It seems that the workers of today, then, though now constantly playing with their smartphones and banging on about social capital, are still assumed by the authors to be driven by ultimately the same old American dream. A similar worthy but somewhat flawed philosophy of aggressive personal advancement intertwined with purported community building was preached by Dale Carnegie's Depression-era self-help work and twentieth century classic How To Win Friends and Influence People, and by Detroit's industrial founding fathers with their energetic philanthropy and vast personal fortunes. So there's a lot to take from this book, but don't take it, or its claims of originality, too seriously.

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