Strong opinions, weakly held

Being young and broke is an opportunity

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.


  1. One other problem to consider here is that lots of people come out of college (or cooking school) with piles of debt. It may not be lifestyle that forces them to take the job at the big company, but the sheer need to keep the creditors away from the door.

    I’m thinking that college is less and less the right answer for a lot of these questions anyway, but there are challenges here on lots and lots of levels.

  2. This is why the debt load on college students these days is so deadly. It keeps any of them from taking chances because they have to pursue the paycheck to service the debt.

  3. Or rather I should say just to pay it off. Need more caffeine.

  4. Of course, Anthony Bourdain’s actual career path seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

    There is also the risk that the people doing the hiring and paying later won’t think your low-paid experience is awesome and amazing (and worth a lot of money) so much as think, hmm, he’s getting $20,000/year, we’ll offer $20,750, he’ll think it’s a big raise. There are awesome experiences that don’t pay well, but there are a very great many more crappy experiences that also don’t pay well.

  5. I’ve had some of those crappy experiences that don’t pay well for sure.

  6. There is a phenomenon I’ve observed repeatedly whereby very successful people try to generalize from their own experience and think it applies (and will work) for anyone. T’ain’t so.

    College loans are not the only problem, although they are a significant one. But just as the best political and policy internships pay for crap and therefore are really only manageable by people who have a backstop (cough trust fund cough) — a big class divide — the same is true in these other areas as well.

    Not to mention this advice flies directly in the face of the tip to start plowing cash into a retirement fund ASAP because once you’re 30 or 35, you’re pretty much screwed, having missed out on all that early compound interest. (There are similar reasons why more than a year or two of graduate school is extremely counter-indicated from an economics and lifetime earnings perspective.)

    Moreover, it’s particularly pernicious advice for women, for all the usual and much-discussed reasons.

    Without a decent social safety net, recommending this kind of risk-taking seems like misplaced nostalgia. (One can be 23 (pre-ACA and allowing kids to be on their parents insurance ’til 26) and still be hit with a medical emergency that w/o health insurance might bankrupt you/hobble your potential for life.)

    So, meh.

  7. I don’t think that advice applies to anyone, but I think that if your goal is to be phenomenally successful, it’s the best advice. I am definitely not phenomenally successful. My phase of being penniless didn’t include any glamour. I had crap jobs and gained no experience that helped me later in life, other than the experience of learning that being broke with no significant prospects really sucks and that I needed to get off my butt and do something more productive.

  8. i would really like to see lifestyle combinators form; companies/amalgamations that hire people, provide really cheap high quality housing, and provide some kind of work bounty framework to permit people to work within the collective, and provide resources to empower individuals– either for company or personal gain. the goals are to aggressively address cost of living and quality of life head on, and to promote an environment where people are enabled to do their own exceptional acts. the words i used a decade ago were “code commune,” and the idea hasnt evolved altogether much beyond that genesis aside from some modest upscoping.

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