I want to make an argument for spending some time in the corporate world. I am not arguing that one should devote their life to a corporation or full-time work but I believe that many young people are not taking seriously some of the benefits of pursuing at least some time as a full-time employee in a large organization. The length of time you should spend will vary based on your entrepreneurial instincts and comfort with uncertainty, but a minimum of six months up to 10 years can yield tremendous benefits for someone who still wishes to carve their own path.
I’m writing this specifically for people that tell me they have a desire to “do their own thing” but don’t have the boldness of Elon Musk. I write this for the normal people like me that have the desire to take a chance on themselves but might be a bit scared or are terrified of going into debt. I write this as a reminder of the many good things the corporate world taught me and that if I had appreciated them and looked for them more actively, I might have been able to bet on myself a bit sooner.
A bit of caution before diving in. This is not your grandfather’s guide to the working world. Part of the reason people caution against entering the corporate world is that if you just float through the experience you won’t end up in a good spot. I’m going to nudge you to take a bit more of an unconventional approach…
#1 Full-time employment enables you to develop skills you might not have the discipline to develop
People often say things to me like “do you think you are able to be successful in self-employment because you worked at X?” To someone that has spent time in the corporate world it seems as if this is the way things work. You often need certain titles or experience to get access to the next job. But working on your own the only thing that really matters are the underlying skills you learn at those jobs.
In my time in consulting, I spent thousands of hours doing research, conducting interviews, learning how to communicate clearly, and working in teams. In the moment this often seemed pointless but looking back I’m glad I did a specific kind of work for a long stretch of time. The deliberate practice helped me develop a set of foundational skills that has given me the confidence to experiment in new areas like 1-on-1 coaching, online course creation, podcasts and writing online.
Almost every type of job will offer the opportunity to develop these kinds of foundational skills and it’s easier to find something that is enjoyable to do with a skill you already have than trying to develop a skill around an interest. This is why finding your passion is misleading. Once you find it you then need to do the hard work of learning a skill to activate it.
In full-time work, there are endless opportunities to learn new things. You just need to look for it. In a large organization almost everyone will know about something that you don’t know about. It would be impossible not to have people in your organization that could teach you something about marketing, finance, accounting, communication, managing others, or resolving conflict. Not to mention broader life skills like parenting, dealing with health challenges, or relationships. You just need to stay curious and keep asking questions.
Steph Smith, who is a prime example of someone who gets the best out of the corporate world, talks about this in a similar essay,
Working in my “day job” allows me to continuously learn from people who are smarter than me, and get paid for it. I’m also faced with challenges that I simply wouldn’t encounter with my side projects and I often need to learn how to solve these challenges alongside others.
The key to all of this is to make sure that you are in an environment which has a culture of learning and helping people out. If you aren’t in one of those environments you need to make a change as soon as possible.
#2 Figuring out what you like doing is hard but there are more opportunities in a company than you think
Figuring out what you like doing while also trying to build your own business is hard. The uncertainty and fear of failure will steer you away from things you might enjoy doing over the long run and towards things that can make money or are in fashion.
Yet people still advise this route because they have created a false comparison between a dull corporate path and a dynamic entrepreneurial path. There are downsides to both paths but with the right amount of ingenuity you can use your full-time job as a way to explore all different types of work.
The first step to this is to quickly build trust with your core team. Find out what your kinds of behaviors cause everyone to worry and become good at those things. Even better if you volunteer to become the go-to person for those tasks. If you take away someone else’s pain and anxiety you will usually end up with a lot of freedom in how you are able to spend your time at the company.
Next make a list of all the things you might want to learn about and make a list of people who can teach you those things. Curious about facilitating and public speaking? Get coffee with the training manager. Ever wonder how marketers think? Reach out to the marketing director. To do this, literally just email them and ask. I have given this advice to many young people and they were always surprised that you could just do this. But think about it. People that have been in their job for a long time often don’t have a lot of people who are curious to learn about their path or journey unless they are very senior. Ask people that are senior enough to control workflow but not too senior that people are constantly asking them for favors already.
Next, if you are still curious and might want to try out some of the work make a small offer of help. Most people in mid-level roles in organizations have too much work to do and can always use some help, especially if you do it without a need for a lot of direction. While I was working in consulting, I volunteered to create training materials for the learning manager in my office. This had nothing to do with my job but I had a passion for mentoring others and wanted to learn more about how her team thought about training. After helping her do a hours of this busy work on top of my “regular” job, she saw I was serious. This led to me being asked to join the learning faculty to help facilitate trainings around the globe. The links between this work and some of the things I do with online learning now would be impossible to dismiss. I just wish I had sought out more of these opportunities.
In some cases this strategy can even lead to you discovering a job you want to be doing and the desire of doing you “own thing” might fade away. This is the story of many of the people in full-time jobs that enjoy their lives. They created their own path. Its worth finding out if this might work for you too.
#3 You can get a good understanding of how things happen in modern institutions, including how power works
Young people seem to be a bit more clear eyed than my generation was graduating in the mid 2000s. I naively thought that in a big organization most people were focused on doing good work and wanted the best for each other. On the surface this seems true but as I spent more time in multiple organizations I started to realize that who succeeds in a company is often just as much tied to results as it is political abilities and an understanding of power. I am terrible at those games but when I became aware that there were different games than just being good I became a bit less frustrated with what was happening around me.
In addition to understanding power, organizations are a great way of understanding how the world works, or doesn’t. People who have been watching the bungled pandemic responses of many countries are often outraged and react with their version of how things “should be.” It’s great to have ideals and a vision but even better to pair that with an understanding of how things fail, why four-week projects can take years and how incentives can create all sorts of unintended consequences.
The key is to observe all of this with a healthy detachment. This is easier said than done. Many people end up distraught by unfairness and other shenanigans in the workplace. Observe the dynamics and learn why people are doing what they are doing but don’t make it your own purpose. As I’ve written before, learn the game, don’t become the game.
Another situation worth experiencing but escaping as fast as you can is working with a bad manager. Use this for inspiration for what you hope to avoid. Think about the incentives at play and try to understand why this person might behave a certain way (there often aren’t that many incentives for people to be better managers) and then make sure you don’t fall into the same traps when you have your own team.
It’s popular in the corporate world for senior people to praise these experiences as something worth seeking out. “Everyone should find a job for two years where you can really struggle.” This is terrible advice and has more to do with this leader’s own confirmation bias than a deep truth about the paths people should take. Learn from it. Try to understand it. But get out of it as fast as possible.
#4 There are a lot of people that live fulfilling lives and have full-time jobs. You might be one of them.
There are many people that are living fulfilling lives and have full-time jobs. It may be a surprise to some people but many of these people don’t have a secret monetizable side gig nor a dream to start one. These people typically have a range of activities at work and out of work that bring them meaning. They may spend some of their day job mentoring people or even acting as someone that others can vent to. They may focus on things outside of work like spending time with their family, learning things for fun, volunteering in their community, or on a hobby once a week.
One of the best things I did throughout my career (though I wish I did more) was to go up to people that seemed to be thriving. These are the people that everyone loves working with and that people admire. They stand out from the others with a certain “aliveness” that is hard to deny. They may not be the actual leaders of your company. In fact they may be some of the lowest level people at the company.
Go talk to these people. Tell them that you admire their positive energy and ask them where it comes from. Without fail, there is always an interesting story. These people always have an experience that changed their life, a mentor that helped them approach life with a new perspective or a deeper purpose that drives them in their life. Try to spend time with these people. Ask them for book recommendations. Keep asking questions about their story and surround yourself with these people.
They are the role models you need no matter which path you take.
#5 Building a life off the default path takes time. Stable paychecks enable you to build savings so you can buy more time to figure it out
One of the biggest traps of entrepreneurship or self-employment is mistaking the whole purpose of the journey for making money. Money can be a good motivator but when you are pursuing something on your own you need a lot more motivation than if you were doing the work as a job. Most people want to do things that they actually like doing. Sometimes it takes entrepreneurs decades of work and eventual burnout to figure this out. Having some savings from the corporate world can help you experiment for a couple of years without the pressure of needing to make money as soon as possible.
This is the path Kyle Kowalski took as he has explored uncertainty and meaning through his writing after leaving the corporate world in 2018. He is grateful that he was able to build some “runway” that has enabled him to explore without the immediate pressure to monetize:
There is no question in my mind that I would not be doing what I’m doing right now if I hadn’t worked in the corporate world for a decade. Saving some money from that time is also buying me “solopreneurial runway” for a few years.
I always tried to be frugal no matter how much I made. Perhaps this was me knowing deep down that I wanted the option to walk away down the road. I’m glad I saved a lot of money and invested aggressively in all my jobs. Many people suggest investing 5-10% of your income in your 401k. I did 20-30% every year. I used this as a way to artificially lower my salary so that I could learn to live on less.
When I did quit my job I was able to commit to at least a year of self-employment because of the savings I had. This enabled me to experiment with a variety of different types of work not to mention extended breaks of non work. It sounds crazy but if I spent all my money and only wandered around for a year and read a bunch of books I still would have considered it a success. To me there is more to life than work.
I’m always grateful for the money I was able to save in the corporate world because I’ve been able to take a slower and more interesting path than if I had to focus on making a lot of money immediately. Some people think of it as “losing” their savings but I re-frame it as a gift from my past corporate self telling me, “go explore and see where you end up Paul!”
#6 A lot of jobs are not that hard and you can stay energized by limiting the amount of hours you work
There is a famous study run at a consulting firm that looked at the link between hours and promotions. There were three groups. Those who worked the most, those who negotiated less hours, and a third group of people who worked less but never told anyone.
Who got promoted the most? Predictably the first group but also at similar rates were the people that worked a lot less and didn’t raise attention to this fact. The morale of this story? Don’t ever accept that “this is the way things have to be.” Many in the corporate world are good at conforming and look around for cues for what they are supposed to do. Instead you should always start with the question, “what is possible?”
This question drove Diania Merriam to negotiate a two month leave of absence to go on a pilgrimage across Spain instead of a pay raise. She was a bit scared to ask but surprised when her boss said yet right away. In 2020, many companies have finally woken up and even formerly stuffy companies like Citigroup are offering 4-weeks paid to work with a non-profit and 3-month sabbaticals after five years.
Working shorter workweeks are also much more possible than people realize, even at some of the most hard-working companies. I spent long stretches at companies like McKinsey, BCG and GE working 35-40 hours a week while still doing great work and not dropping the ball. I was just obsessive about doing the things that mattered and doing them well.
Corporate norms can also drive perverse incentives such as keeping people glued to a desk surfing the web rather than reading a book they might be interested in. You can make the case that many books will help you at work so never be afraid to pull out a book and read at your desk. If anyone asks why you’re reading a book just respond, “aren’t we here to learn?” In my final full-time job I used to block off a private “freedom hour” meeting each morning to spend on writing before I started my “real” work.
The lesson? Don’t create prisons for yourself that may not exist. Look for ways to do the things you want to be doing. It may be easier than you think.
The Bottom Line: Defend Your Energy & Cultivate Possibility
Blindly following the norms of the corporate world and working long hours every week on something that you’re not excited about is one of the fastest ways to destroy your energy, numb your imagination and convince yourself that you can not do anything other than stay in your current job or path.
This is why some people advise against this path. However, with a little creativity on your part I believe that you can get a lot of good out of your time in the corporate world.
The key is making sure you stay focused on the right things.
The most useful metric I’ve found is not your title, your career progress, or compensation. It’s your energy. Defend your energy at all costs. It’s good practice to have some regular reflection in which you can assess you energized you are about life. I recommend setting a calendar reminder once a month and tracking it over time. If it starts dropping its time to change things up. It’s the only way you will be able to keep experimenting and staying open to the possibilities of life.
It may be hard to believe but the biggest barrier to carving a path that works for you is not access to opportunity or money, but your own imagination for what’s possible.
Just published! The Pathless Path is Paul's book about walking away from a "perfect" job with a promising future and starting over again. Through painstaking experiments, living in different countries, and a deep dive into the history of our work beliefs, Paul pieces together a set of ideas and principles that guide him from unfulfilled and burned out to what he calls "the pathless path" - a new story for thinking about work in our lives. Learn More & Buy The Book Here