Stop Playing By the Rules. Start Breaking Them.

Yesterday I met with a good friend of mine. He’s afraid his school is not good enough, and that he will be stuck because of this. He is thinking about entering a $40,000 program in London to catch up on the competition. I think you are wrong, you’re trying to play by the rules. You have to break them.

The game is not in your favor

That’s true, a lot of companies won’t even look at your resume if you’re not from a top school. But are they really the kind of companies you want to work for? They won’t look at you because they don’t need you, just as they don’t need me. In fact, they don’t need anyone. They get a million resumes each year from people competing for the same position. When I got into HEC, I thought: “This is it. Life is going to be easy now.” Truth be told, it became even harder. When you’re competing with the best, you can’t win.

Alright, I come from the best business school in France. But who am I compared to a Stanford, Harvard or Yale graduate? Who am I against a guy that went to Cambridge or Oxford? Who am I against children of famous, rich and successful people? I come from a fucking buddhist camp! I come from nowhere.

There are too many intelligent, incredibly talented people on this planet. Do you really think you can be the greatest at one thing? Do you think that you can keep being the best when even Eminem is starting to look like a joke? Look at how people come and go in every industry. Staying at the top is too hard. I’ve been playing my Playstation for the last eighteen years and I now get my ass kicked by twelve year old kids, is this my reward for working so hard?

Where do you want to go?

Degrees are just a ticket for your first interview at a huge company, but you can’t win the game this way. Smart people know that they have to cheat to get where they want to go. Yes, it means that you need to know where you want to go. It’s really hard. We feel like we’ve been making life-changing decisions in complete uncertainty our whole life. If you’re lucky, you know that you want to become a judge, a pilot, or own a bakery. If you’re like most of us, you’re just afraid of making the wrong move.

Here is a a good way of knowing where you want to go, the only one that works for me: think about who you don’t want to be. It’s a lot easier to know what you don’t like than to know what you really like (remember high school classes?).For instance, I know I don’t want to be stuck. This is something that frightens me for obvious reasons. I don’t want to be another cog in the machine, I can’t accept the fact that I am just another piece of meat, even if I am. I want to be completely free. In order for my body to be free I need money, in order for my mind to be free I need to keep learning all the time.

Believe it or not, it already eliminates a lot of jobs and companies in my mind. Try to figure out where you want to go, set yourself a realistic goal for the next two years and go for it. You won’t fail. You will increase your chances of being the one you want to be. It’s ok to change your mind, but it’s not ok to not give it a shot.

How to play a new game

The game is not in your favor, so create your own set of rules. You’re not from the top business school in France. So what? Nothing stops you from meeting the people who are there. The simple fact that we met demonstrates how easy it is. You don’t feel competent for not having studied X or Y? Grab the fifty best books on the subject, read 5 hours a day. In one month you will know as much as the bad graduates, in one year you’ll be a pro. Everything you need to know is in books, and school is overrated. Don’t pay 40k to spend a few more years learning nothing. If you play differently, you’ll be where you want to be in one year.

Playing a different game is all about the people, it’s about the network. You do have a network, everybody does. It is not only what you acquire through your school, but one of your muscles that you need to work every day. You need to make friends, which means you need to reach out to people and figure out how to help them, without keeping score. The only risk you’re taking is rejection, which means it can’t hurt you. It’s like talking to a pretty girl you don’t know. The reward is worth the risk, isn’t it?

Let’s say you want to work at company X, but you’re afraid that they will not hire you because of the school you went to. Ask yourself these questions before giving up:

  • Have you met one-on-one with at least 15 people from this company?
  • Did you try to figure out how you could help every one of them?
  • Did you ask all your family and friends if they know somebody who works there, or somebody who knows somebody?
  • Have you spied on this company? Do you know everything there is to know about it?

When I applied to consulting firms last winter, I sent twelve resumes with cover letters to all of the most prestigious companies. I got eleven negative answers. The only positive answer I got, I got it because I had reached out to one of their employees and made friends with her. She pushed my resume, because this is how the world works.

A lot of people still play by the old rules. This is you luck. When I was 16, with no brain and a music band, I wanted to leave school to try my luck in the music industry. Buy a van, tour, record an EP, all this very dumb stuff. My grandfather advised me that if I wanted to do this, I needed to be serious and go to the conservatory to become at least an excellent musician. He wanted me to compete, but competition was never an option for me.  How many excellent musicians do you know? Maybe one. How many terrible musicians with really successful bands? A lot more. The famous guys understood they couldn’t win by playing the old rules. I’m glad I didn’t leave school, my band was terrible and by know I would be a starving idiot. If you understand that changing the rules of the game you are playing is vital, you will have an unfair advantage over most people.

Clear your mind

Figuring out where you want to go is still the hardest part. It’s the major decision one can make in his life, and it’s stressful. But don’t worry, if you’re a good player, you will never get stuck. James Altucher, whose posts I read a lot on Quora, often tells the story of how he switched careers a thousand times. He founded a company, sold it, became rich, went broke, founded another company in a totally different industry, sold it, became an author, created a show on the radio, etc. You can go wherever you want to, as long as you keep breaking the rules and knowing where you’re going.

If someday you reach a decision, if you find a company that amazes you and people you want to be with, get inside! Don’t hesitate, and don’t negotiate too much. As we’re all starting to realize, embark on a good trip is an uncommon luck. So when you’ll be given the possibility to take place in a spaceship, don’t ask which seat.

This thinking process requires you to have a clear mind. Every bad decision I made in my life, every negative action that impacted people I care about was made under the influence of stress, or alcohol, or both. A run in the park is perfect to process your thoughts. Don’t worry, we’re all 23. We’re all stressed, and I never sleep at night. Don’t feel like you are stuck, you’re the only one in charge of who you will become. Spin the wheel yourself. It’s all about showing up.

Right now you are trying to win by playing the old rules, start trying some new ones. Good luck!

SF