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

Why Working Alone Sucks

For the past year, I’ve been so obsessed by the idea of founding a startup that I rushed into it as soon as I got back to France. I didn’t take the time to find a team because I thought it wouldn’t matter. It did. Working alone sucks.

It sucks on the technical side

When working alone, you can only rely on your own ideas. If you’re lucky, you are a genius and pure gold is coming out of your brain every time you gather your thoughts. If you’re like me, you are jotting random shit on a piece of paper and changing your mind every five minutes about what needs to be done and why. Working alone means that you can’t play ping-pong with other people’s ideas. You can’t challenge your own thoughts (that’s a limited process) and you can’t benefit from other people’s skills and knowledge. You can’t delegate. You’re a hundred times less intelligent, less effective, less motivated.

Founding a startup is a lot about convincing others. It’s a very hard thing to do when you are the only believer. Potential customers would be more likely to trust you if you had other customers. Potential employees would be more likely to join you if you already had employees. It’s Catch 22. Convincing someone takes much more effort than it would if you had a team. You quickly reach a point where it doesn’t make any sense.

It sucks on the personal side

Have you ever tried to kick yourself in the butt all week long? When you don’t answer to anyone except yourself, it’s easy to be a very nice boss. I’ve been amazingly creative at implementing loose management methods and I can proudly say that my company has the best office hours in the country. Seriously, there are days when you are on fire and days when you feel like shit, but it’s tough to be productive all week long. When you’re part of a team (two people is a team!) you can’t let the other ones down. You need to prove that you’re worth working with and that you’re worth leading.

In the end,  there’s no fun in carrying a project alone. I learnt that the people matter way more than the project, the company name, the prestige or the money. I would probably be eager to join a paper company in Scranton if its employees were as amazing as they are in The Office. There’s no joy in succeeding when you can’t high-five anyone after a success, be it small or big. Trust me, high-fives matter.

So if you had the foolish idea of starting a business on your own because you still haven’t found the right team, please don’t! Good things come to those who wait. Summer is here, and sitting in a park with a nice book is a good way of waiting for them.

If you read everything, consider sharing, liking, printing or framing this article.

OpenStack Summit and why Geeky Things Matter

os

I might be the youngest attendee of the OpenStack summit this year. I am probably the only one who never used Linux. I actually didn’t pay attention to technologies until August of 2014. That’s when I did an internship atScalr, in San Francisco.

While I had been studying law, political science and business, it had never occurred to me that software was important. I now realize that I was missing something. For the past 8 months, I have been discovering a whole new world, which now passionates me.

Software Land

You never know what is going to happen in software land. Companies start and fail every five minutes, people get hired then fired and you will probably get outdated by a 16 years old boy who invented something totally new.

People love it because it is a land of unlimited challenges and opportunities. A good idea executed by a good team can lead to extreme success. I love it too. It doesn’t seem to know where it’s going, kind of like me.

Software is exciting, it carries the future in it. It is NASA, space missions powered by cloud infrastructures. It contrasts with the industries that have always scared me, the old and prestigious ones. Software makes me enthusiastic because it is going forward, and fast.

Software feels like pure opportunity, with high risks and high rewards. It carries all the promises of an interesting life, the possibility to finally do something fun. If work is fun, aren’t you already on the right track?

An Interesting Species

The people from Silicon Valley are different from what I am used to in Europe. The tech community has its own culture. These guys are total geeks, and most of them don’t care about the day-to-day money, they would do what they do for free.

It is hard to spot the millionaires, even though a fair amount of them are. A lot of them wear absurd clothes that really don’t fit at all. It doesn’t interest them, it seems. They are frugal people.

Technology is the only thing that matters. These men and women pay ridiculous premiums to live close to people like them, as in the Bay Area. This is a very homogenous environment, but not a hermetic one, I believe. Anybody with a laptop can get in.

Of course, this is not a place for everybody. It is easy for regular people to feel out of place. I often do. Indeed, I’m interested in software and technology, but these people are obsessed.

They will talk all night long about the capacities of a computer, or the way cloud allows you to scale your web infrastructure. Such a level of interest can look a little weird to people like me, that also enjoy talking about sports, about cinema, about « futile » things of the day-to-day life.

It is however this level of obsession that makes these guys capable of everything, because it makes them the best at what they do, and they will never stop.

Something is Happening

Although each new project is described as a world-changing breakthrough, it’s easy to forget that their world is much different from the normal one. Software hasn’t eaten the small village in which I grew up, not yet. People there won’t see self-driving cars until long.

In fact, everything doesn’t lead to software and normal people are still the fuel of the day-to-day life. Try to explain to your Grandma how BitTorrent works and you’ll know what I am talking about.

Still, something is happening here. It has been happening for a long time but I wasn’t paying attention. Now, it’s hard not to think about how many of these weird geniuses it took to build the laptop that I’m using to write this. It’s crazy to see executives from huge companies talking with the first intern that wants to learn something (me in this case), to see this will of transmitting knowledge and experience to the younger generation and to help people when they ask for it.

I still don’t understand 50% of the discussions here, but I would spend a whole month at the OpenStack summit if I could. These guys are onto something, something that matters. I feel stupid for waking up so late. Guys from the tech industry, you now have my whole attention.

Why Startups Are The Only Way

I never wanted to work. I remember a seven years old version of me asking my father which jobs would make me rich without working too hard. “It’s not a job, he said, if you don’t work hard.” He didn’t like to work either. Work wasn’t fun.

 

Is work fun?

Ten years later I was the lead member of a music band and determined to never work “like a slave”, to never be a fool. Of course, I was a complete fool. I was wrong at all levels, the first being that I thought I wasn’t working. I was, actually working very hard to get this band going. I was spending hours writing, recording and editing music. I was organizing gigs, finding rehearsal sites, performing, going in the studio and I still had to go to class. I didn’t know I was working at the time. Was it because it was fun?

It took me some time to realize that life doesn’t have to be split between work and fun. When I think about it, this music band was actually my first startup. Startups are defined by the level of risk and uncertainty that clouds their future. We all spend our lives at our job. If work isn’t fun, life won’t probably be either. People who work in startups have understood something very important: if we want people to give their best, we need to create a place where it’s good to live A place that feels like home. Startups create their own work environment and set the tone. You can choose the people, the job, the culture. They want life to be fun, and they make work seem like life.

Startups don’t have time

“Move fast and break things”. I have always been scared of waiting. Wait too long and doubt invites himself. Startups don’t care about the rules.  They don’t have time to respect “how things are”, which creates problems with the established order. They don’t care about how the world is or used to be, only about the next step. They are those reckless young people who finally made it because of their recklessness.

Startups make dreams come true because they don’t mind the risks and value uncertainty. They think it’s worth it. The downside is that these companies don’t have time to babysit. They won’t keep you if you’re not as hungry as they are, if you don’t want to break things. Startups are a place of informality where you might not have to wait three years to get promoted, but they will fire you if your fire no longer burns. Startups don’t have time.

 

Stories to Tell

I often ask myself: “What’s my life goal”? Be happy? Sure, but how can you define happiness? I know what I am afraid of: regrets. I want to have stories to tell. In order to get these I think I need to take risks. I have never met a risk-taker who regretted his choices. All in all, we try and that’s the most important thing in life: trying. I want to create memories, to leave a mark if I can. Who’s not afraid of disappearing in a complete indifference?  What are children if not the desire to build a legacy, to give a purpose to our lives and actions?

Startups are like children. That’s no coincidence if founders call them “their babies”. They are an opportunity to take risks and to build memories that will last, like children are. It’s incredibly uncertain and risky, but I think it’s worth it. Stories are worth more than fortune and fame.

Eighteen years after talking with my dad, I still don’t want to work, but I am ready to have fun.