Thoughts on The Startup of You

Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha’s book The Startup of You isn’t a book about teaching and learning. It’s not even a book about higher education. I do think it’s a valuable read for anyone in higher ed, however, as the career advice it gives could easily be translated into curriculum and organization suggestions for colleges.

The premise of the book is that today’s economic climate is very competitive. Gone are the days of the “company escalator”, when one joined an organization right out of college and stayed for 30 years. Now, with the mobility required due to global economic forces and the increasing number of work that is done by freelancers and contractors, everyone needs to think of themselves as a startup.

This startup mentality is built on “permanent beta” — the idea that we always ought to be improving ourselves, our skills, and our network. They argue that this state is necessary for career success, as we ought to be adaptable and able to “pivot” to new opportunities as they arise. This can only happen if 1)our skills and ourselves are always growing and 2) we have some idea of what opportunities are available.

They key to both of these things is our personal network. Given that Hoffman is the founder of LinkedIn, this perspective isn’t surprising (and the book does veer into promotional territory on more than one occasion). But the book does give sound advice on how to cultivate one’s network well beyond “schmoozing”. Key to their perspective is “offer to help”. One begins a relationship not by asking what one can get from another person, but by figuring out what one can give. The network then becomes an invaluable resource for opportunity and growth.

As someone involved in higher education, I found the book provocative. I am not looking to pivot to another career anytime soon, but I tried to imagine the book as a resource for our students. If the authors are right about the present conditions in the world of work, the the question becomes are we providing our students the space and resources to build the sort of startup mentality that’s necessary for success? Do we offer a knowledge base that not only serves as a good foundation, but also offers the “permanent beta” perspective? Do we give them the opportunity to build a network and the skills to cultivate it? I am not so sure we do a great job of that, generally speaking, in higher education. . .

Finally, while the book is written as career advice, it could easily extend beyond the idea of entrepeneurship as a career choice and into the larger realm of personal development. I was surprised to read that Hoffman was in graduate school for philosophy before leaving for the business world. I actually see a lot of philosophical thought in the principles of The Startup of You, particularly the idea of the unfinished self (in “permanent beta”) and the social construction of selves and ideas (in the langauge about networks). That may asuage some of the criticism higher ed folks may have about using a “career guide” as a springboard for a discussion about curriculum and aims of higher education. Hoffman and Reid are arguing for the cultivation of a particular sort of person, a sort of person they believe will be successful in today’s world of work. That question — what sort of person and what sort of society is college aiming for — is a perennial one for higher education.

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The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Texas Wesleyan University (CETL) promotes a student-centered university by providing resources and professional growth opportunities to faculty on enhancing instructional practice, integrating technology, and promoting essential student skills.

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