Last week I read this essay by Anthony Bourdain for aspiring chefs. In it, he lists all the reasons why going to cooking school is a bad idea. Being a chef may have a more extreme list of downsides than some other careers, but you could make such a list for any profession.
But what I found more interesting was his advice to people who do go to cooking school and want to be great chefs. And that advice is that it’s far more important to work in great kitchens than it is to get paid a living wage. Jobs in the great kitchens of the world are in high demand, and the best way to get them, above and beyond being brilliant, is to be willing to work for nothing or next to nothing. He lists as his great regret that he got a decent paying job right out of cooking school, and that once he’d adjusted his lifestyle to that wage, it was impossible to even consider sacrificing that wage for the opportunity to learn from great chefs.
This advice holds true for people in other professions as well. If you want to reach the top of the legal profession, it’s best to start out with a judicial clerkship. They don’t pay nearly as well as jobs at law firms, but they offer a huge leg up in the legal profession. There are plenty of other examples as well. I’ve heard of the unpaid internships at National Geographic referred to as the world’s finest finishing school.
The bottom line is that just as the prices for food and lodging are highest in the world’s most popular tourist destinations, so too are the wages lowest for positions that matter the most in the pursuit of ambitious career goals.
Bourdain’s article was already on my mind when I read Paul Graham’s article, What Happens At Y Combinator. In it, he explains how the Y Combinator startup incubation process works. Y Combinator’s program is the equivalent of working for a Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe for a newly trained chef. You have to take a few months to live in the Bay Area focusing solely on your startup, and in the end you have hopefully launched a new company. It’s an opportunity best suited to the young and hungry, not the old and complacent.
That’s true for working at startups in general. I’m not talking about small businesses that have enough revenue to hire experienced people and pay them a competitive salary, but startups that demand insane sacrifices from their employees and can’t really afford to pay very much. The only people who can take that on are those who have already been successful enough to live off their savings, or more frequently, young people who don’t have a mortgage, a car payment, or familial responsibilities.
People who get out of college and wind up with a job developing software at a big company rarely wind up working at startups later on. Once you get used to the lifestyle afforded by stable employment at a company that pays well and is run in some sort of sane, structured fashion, it gets harder and harder to make the leap into the craziness that is a startup.
Bourdain’s advice applies for any field. The seemingly risky choices you make early in your career aren’t really risky. The stakes are lower than you think and the potential rewards are as great as they can ever possibly be.