Taking Ownership of Your Career

Admittedly, I am a proponent of the notion that in your career you are a free agent and an entrepreneur of one. Without being too preachy, this blog attempts to espouse the fundamental importance of autonomy in the 21st century economy. It takes planning and continuous learning of your craft to be able to maximize control over your career and professional development.

Professional athletes, and in particular, professional basketball player can teach us non-professional athletes a lot about maximizing control over your career and professional development. Starting about a week ago, the free agency period began for professional basketball players. During the free agency period some players are able to negotiate a new contract with their current teams or under certain circumstances negotiate a contract with a new team. For me, a professional athlete is the ultimate entrepreneur of one. In watching the machinations of free agents and team executives I developed a theory that describes what appears to unfold and is applicable to all of us as we negotiate our places in the world. It is called the Durant-LeBron principle, in honor of Kevin Durant and LeBron James: The more recognized and appreciated the value that you create in your current situation is, the less you have to negotiate your next opportunity whether you stay where you are or go elsewhere.

Career Thinking, Strategically

What is your career game plan? What is your long-term objective? Are you thinking strategically about where you want to go and what you want to be within specific timeframes? Next week? Next month? Next year? Five years? Well, you get the point. If you are not doing so, whom do you think is going to engage in this activity for you? How are you preparing for your next opportunity? Are you waiting for it to knock on your door or you actively seeking it or even creating it?

A characteristic of the modern worker is a willingness to take ownership of and responsibility for one’s career trajectory and learning processes. The modern worker can no longer rely on the good will efforts of an employer to advance your career interests.

The American Dream in the 21st Century

In the first iteration of this blog, I wrote several posts focused on the American Dream. One of my favorites was titled The American Dream: Myth, Metaphor and Reality.

Therein I wrote, “The recent political economy has brought the paradox of the elements which constitute the American dream into sharp focus: working hard and doing the right things.” I continued, “These elements, which are embedded in the cultural conception of the American Dream, are currently not resulting in the payoffs that Americans historically expected.” Then, I raised some questions that we as a society need to consider: “What does it mean long-term for the cultural compass that tells American who they are and how they should lead their lives? Also, I asked, “What are the social and cultural consequences of Americans becoming untethered from the American Dream.”

In response to the above-mentioned blog post, a reader commented, “If we assume the new paradigm for the American dream is entrepreneurship, by definition is the inclination that fewer people will be able to actually obtain the dream (majority of citizens are corporate, government & small business employees.) Is the obtainability of the dream lessened by global competition or the disparity between the 1% and the 99%.”

There are several concurrent trends occurring in American society. First, technology is changing the nature of how people work and what they do to earn a living. Second, each person is now personally responsible for how she prepares herself for the 21st century world of work. Americans are still deeply aspirational, but reality forces us to update our expectations of how we can achieve the lives that we want and desire for ourselves and our children. Entrepreneurship and/or entrepreneurial skills are merely 21st century updates to help fulfill the aspirational visions inherent in how Americans think about themselves and American society. Every person does not need to be an entrepreneur, but every modern worker must appreciate that you can no longer depend on your employer to protect your interests if those interests do not advance the employer’s business goals.

Your opinion on this important topic would be appreciated by our community; let us know what you think.


It has been awhile since I last posted, but I am now re-launching this blog. Yet it will change its focus from discussions of my academic research to a practical application of experience, academic research, law, business and economics.

The mission of this blog is to help individuals navigate the twenty-first century world of work, which is characterized by risk, impermanence and extreme uncertainty. Technology and a company’s ability to arbitrage their workforce requires workers to become lifelong learners. This is a way to inoculate yourself against the capricious and pernicious world of work. We want to help by providing tools to workers and prospective entrepreneurs. These tools will be in the form of curated information, ranging from suggested readings to analysis of business and legal trends that impact workers and prospective entrepreneurs. We will try to digest knowledge concerning law, business, and the economics of labor and employment, and write about such topics in a manner that makes such information accessible to people who do not have time for such study. We want to be the curator of the entrepreneurial experience for our readers.

The Modern Toolset to Build the American Dream

Build Your Own ToolsWhen I started my research several years ago I was interested in finding a topic that would enable me to gain a deep insight into Millennials. This generation is interesting because they are the first generation in America that are digital natives. They grew up taking the Internet for granted because they did not know what life was like before the Internet. They are also the largest, most ethnically diverse, and on tract to be the most college educated generation in American history. One area of interest was the generational voice and generational identity that Millennials were developing. It is unclear whether generational voice and generational identity are phenomena that a demographic group consciously sets out to create, or whether economic, social and political forces dictate the outcomes. My research was being done in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and at a time when the world was experiencing a rapid pace of technological change, and technological change was impacting every aspect of our lives.

I am returning to the topic of the American Dream because I am trying to find an interpretative tool for the behavior and attitude among the wide toolbox cohort. They do not refer to the American Dream by name, but they speak in terms of working hard, being disciplined in how they spend their time, being conscious of what it takes to be successful. A testament to the self-replicating power of culture is when people are engaging in behavior or holding beliefs that are self-evident without consciously doing so. In some respects this is how the American Dream is omnipresent among the wide toolbox cohort.

The wide toolbox cohort possesses a strong sense of positive expectations about the future. Evan, a junior cognitive science major whom I have cited before, said that he is keenly interested in taking classes and engaging in extracurricular activities that are intellectually interesting. His view is that if he stays intellectually curious and pursues interesting opportunities his career plans will in some way become self-evident to him.

Initially, I was interested in whether the Great Recession has awakened Americans to the reality that the American Dream has been under siege by governmental policies regarding taxes and financial deregulation. The metaphor “We Are the 99%,” the mantra of Occupy Wall Street, seemed to signify a change in American attitudes about attainability of their expectations, hopes and aspirations. “We Are the 99%,” symbolizes the generational downward mobility of Millennials; it represents an emerging worldview that encompasses notions about extreme inequalities in income and opportunity in American society. The elephant in the room is that American society is experiencing a profound change in what is required to participate in the American Dream. The old requirement of willingness to work hard and sacrifice in the present for the future has been replaced by a requirement that you possess skills and talents that are in demand in the knowledge economy. 

There is some discussion about erosion of the American Dream. But politicians are being disingenuous when they proclaim that the solution is raising the minimum wage to a so-called “living wage.” They are omitting to say that the American Dream is more elusive than ever. They are failing to state that the bar for participating in the American Dream has been raised and a substantial number of people lack the tools and wherewithal to keep up with the new more stringent requirements.        

“What is emerging, is a sense that that the game is rigged,” stated Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institute (Sawhill 2011). This emerging worldview is significant because belief in the American Dream is a central tenet of American culture and society (Benedict 1934). It is a part of the cultural compass that tells Americans who they are and how they should lead their lives. For more than two centuries, equality of opportunity and upward mobility have formed the foundation of the American Dream (Sawhill 2007); it remains at the core of America’s identity.  From an anthropological perspective, the American Dream functions to shape American society; it is a “myth” in the Malinowskian (Malinowski 1926) sense of a “charter for action,” or a retrospective moral pattern of behavior, or a charter conveying assumptions, values, and meaning about how to live (Wedel et al. 2005). 

What is true of myth is also true of metaphor: it is through language, as symbolic action, that people are able to size up and control-or if not control, at least cajole their natural, social, and supernatural environment (Sapir 1977:x). The American Dream is also a metaphor.  It symbolizes a national ethos in which freedom includes the opportunity for spiritual fulfillment and material prosperity and success, and an upward mobility achieved through hard work and effort. The American Dream also signifies one’s expectations about the future.  

If Sawhill is correct that the game is rigged, the wide toolbox cohort is in an advantageous position because they are preparing themselves by acquiring modern skills and knowledge. Also, they are acquiring the toolsets that will enable them to build the future that they want and deserve.  






YHack 2.0

YHack Logo

YHack Logo

YHack 2014 was held October 31 – November 2nd, Halloween weekend 2014. Blogging about last year’s YHack I quoted one of the organizers, stating that “It’s hard to predict the impact that YHack will have,” then he concluded, ”but we know for sure that it is a move in the right direction.” At that time he could not have known that during the ensuing 12 months significant events would signify that the university was moving in the right direction regarding supporting student oriented initiatives concerning innovation, design and entrepreneurship.

      • CEID celebrated its second anniversary and has become a stalwart among American academic maker spaces focused on supporting and fostering student-led design and innovation.
      • Yale Entrepreneur Magazine completed its first year of operation after being dormant for many years. Also it has become the publication of record for all student oriented entrepreneurship. It shifted its focus from undergraduates only to all Yale students.
      • Yale Entrepreneurial Institute expanded its programs to include social entrepreneurship and a technology bootcamp to teach students how to code.
      • Yale School of Management hired Kyle Jensen as Director, Program on Entrepreneurship and tasked him with expanding the curriculum surrounding entrepreneurship. Eight new courses were added.
      • InnovateHealth Yale, an initiative out of the School of Public Health is focused on entrepreneurialism in the public health and healthcare space.

YHack, from an anthropological perspective, is more than an event: its social significance is that it is an example of the university’s support of students who want to engage in self-directed learning. And it is a symbol of the new culture of learning that is fueled by curiosity and a desire to fill the gap between what students are taught in the traditional classroom and what they desire to learn.

The wide toolbox cohort are hackers because they are also trying to do something clever to beat a component of the establishment; they are trying to overcome the traditional higher education system. They recognize the need to use university resources to hack a new culture of learning that entails taking ownership of how, why, what, where and when they learn. As hackers the wide toolbox cohort is also driven by something that is more sustainable than making money or following the traditional status tract to Wall Street, or law, or medicine. They seem to operate more independently; they follow their passion to pursue their curiosity. It took me a while to get this point because I thought that my initial research project was about how the educational elite were driven to be innovators and entrepreneurs. Deep into my ethnographic research, I discovered that I was witnessing something that was much more sustainable and profound than a student pursuing an isolated idea about creating a business or making some gizmo. Joe gave me an enlightened perspective when I asked him about his interest in creating a startup. This is what he said:

I’m not one of those people who wants to start a startup just for the sake of being able to say that I started a startup. I’m not opposed to the idea, but I’m also not obsessed with doing it. If I happen to have an idea that a) I think would add value to the world and b) would best manifest itself in the form of a business, then I would start a venture. If not, I would do other work that I find meaningful. It’s my belief that the best kind of startups form organically out of a good idea, rather than out of the desire to start a business just for the hell of it.

Joe’s notion of what is meaningful is in line with the viewpoint of Jason, one of the organizers of YHack 2.0. Jason made the following point about coding for its innate beauty. “If you are an English major you write for class, but you also write outside of class because that is fun; that is what you love to do.” He continued about the changing nature of coders today, “Perhaps because CS majors are so employable now, you get a lot of people who are mercenaries. They learn the skills but they are not generally interested in computers; they just want to make a living.” YHack and similar hackathons encourage people to want more, to want to be curious about computers and to enjoy their ability to make them do what they want them to do. This is the essence of hacking: putting something into the world because you love learning and mastering your chosen field.

This phenomenon, Tom Lehman, host of the YHack award ceremony and co-founder of Genius (formerly called Rap Genius), referred to as “taking the roast out of the oven.” Getting stuff done.

Y-Tools: Resources for Sowing Intellectual Capital

The Sower by Robert Parke Harrison

The Sower by Robert Parke Harrison

During the course of my ethnographic research I challenge myself to understand the purpose of my project beyond fulfilling the requirements for a Ph.D. Early in my fieldwork, a prominent anthropologist told me that at this point in her career she only focuses on research questions that would impact public policy. That is an interesting way for her to conduct her academic life, and her approach is consistent with my focus on research that will have an impact on how people pursue life long learning and live with curiosity. A relevant question for me is: Why does it matter that I am studying the impact of student oriented infrastructure for innovation, design and entrepreneurship on how students learn and prepare themselves as 21st century knowledge workers?

My research is meaningful because it examines how students learn at a university, which through a strategic shift in favor of STEM, arguably has positioned itself at the intersection of knowledge creation, technological innovation and disruption, and the potential application of technology through entrepreneurship (Roberts 2009). My research, at its core, analyses how and why students tap into student oriented infrastructure that works individually and together to create a novel environment for learning and creating intellectual capital in the form of ideas, physical objects and entrepreneurial ventures. This ecosystem fosters a new sense of expectancy about what is possible at an elite university and a sense of opportunity to take ownership of their learning. I refer to these resources as the Y-Tools. The Y-Tools include the following components:  pedagogy (Yale School of Management), an academic maker space (Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design), venture creation programs (Yale Entrepreneurial Institute), and programs for creating mission-driven enterprises (e.g. Yale InnovateHealth).

Yale’s strategic shift in support of STEM has made new resources available to students that were formerly unavailable to them. This strategic shift is concomitant with a new culture of learning. Students have innovated ways to use Y-Tools to fill the gap between how and what they want to learn and what was offered formally by the university. For example, HackYale and YHack perform important functions of teaching students how to code in a real world manner. These efforts are student-led, but university administrators have been pragmatic about providing physical space for these activities to occur. HackYale is run out of CEID. And YHack, which will take place on October 31st – November 2nd will be held on the West Campus again.

A member of the YHack leadership team explained that the group’s operating premise “is to give people time, money and space to sit around and tinker on their own personal projects. He continued, “YHack sparks that creative spirit. Instead of just working on dry problem sets from class, people are able to do creative stuff.” With YHack they want to “encourage people to get out of the mode of just programming for class projects.” They want people to experience the fun and creative spirit of true hacking. The ethos of YHack is consistent with the self-directed learning ethos of the wide toolbox cohort. Students are engaging in peer-to-peer teaching in order to fill the gap between the formal classroom and the real world skills that they need to succeed.

My ethnography demonstrates that understanding how the educational elite learn has implications for how education policy makers and administrators should think about the relationship between how 21st century students are being taught and how they learn. Because of Yale’s stature as an educational institution a study conducted at Yale should garner attention from education policy makers and stakeholders. Inquiring about a learning framework that Yale students are experimenting with should bring forward propositions about the relationship between self-directed learning, technology, the humanities and entrepreneurship.   



Liberal Arts, Yale and Entrepreneurship

Fall Library by Tom Gauld

Fall Library by Tom Gauld

Fall Library by Tom Gauld

Scott Cook, Founder of Intuit, and Rick Levin, President emeritus of Yale, participated in an event that was held in Woolsey Hall on October 13th, “Changing the World from Silicon Valley,” sponsored by the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and HackYale. They engaged in a lively discussion about topics ranging from how Intuit was founded in 1983 to the state of entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley today. During the Q&A a member of the audience asked what impact a Yale student’s background in liberal arts would have on a startup versus a Stanford graduate who majored in engineering. Rick Levin’s answer was interesting. He said a broad education might be a disadvantage initially, but this disadvantage will dissipate over time. The opportunity to take companies beyond the startup phase, to mature organizations is where you need that broader vision to navigate the external world. “These companies get going then all of a sudden they have to worry about international markets, international regulations, and legal compliance,” he stated. He continued, “A whole host of things that a generally educated person can probably get into and understand will enable him to lead a little more effectively than a person with a more narrowly focused education.”

Leadership is in the institutional DNA at Yale. I have written about how leadership is fostered throughout the institution, and starts with the selection of students through the admissions process. Jeffrey Brenzel ’75, Master of Timothy Dwight College and former Dean of Yale College Admissions, was quoted in an earlier post:

In undergraduate admissions, however, we must also keep before us Yale’s longstanding aspiration to cultivate responsible citizens and leaders, graduates who will achieve prominence in the founding or management of enterprises, in public service and public office, in the professions, or in the realms of religion, the arts, and education. By “leaders” I do not mean individuals who succeed merely in achieving high status or high income. To develop leaders means to nurture individuals with superb skills for collaboration, an orientation to service, high levels of creative energy, and the aspirations and character required to make substantive contributions to the common good. Our mandate is to send talented, courageous, and far-sighted people into the global endeavors, organizations, and communities that sorely need them. [Brenzel 2014]

The Yale wide toolbox cohort is sustained because of a broad liberal arts education coupled with an institutional focus on leadership development in an environment where a spirit of entrepreneurship is emerging. Ellen, an example of the wide toolbox cohort, is a self-described bibliophile and “an English nerd.” She described her interest in English and entrepreneurship in pragmatic terms: “English is not necessarily a career. English is the way I live my life. I love poetry, it speaks to me at a level that is not necessarily academic, but personal which is why it is so important for me to study. I love it; it is my hobby. My career mindset though is entrepreneurship and business.” 

Ellen is emblematic of the type of person Brenzel was describing as the Yale “leader,” and Levin described as the broadly educated businessperson that is required to be an effective leader to navigate the world beyond the startup phase of a venture. Currently, Ellen is heavily involved in creating a sustainable business model for a student-led publication. Through this effort she displays the full array of traits that successful entrepreneurs possess: leadership skills, perseverance, persistence, empathy, hard work, and the ability to get things done. Some of these characteristics were evident in Ellen when she came to Yale. But it is pretty clear that the environment at Yale has enabled her to embellish whatever traits she came to campus with. Moreover, she has been able to hone her skills at a very high level.   

To the question that was asked during the Q&A, it is virtually impossible to know whether a broad liberal arts education will focus budding entrepreneurs on different business problems or industries than a student with a more technical education would pursue. A liberal arts education exposes students to an array of subjects and thought processes that enables them to look at issues from a different perspective than the typical technically educated student.   




The Paradox of the Modern Yale

Civilization is GrowingIn response to me reaching out to some people about suggestions for courses that I might teach, I received an e-mail with an interesting course idea: “There’s a class here called ‘Yale and America’, so I was thinking you could do something like Yale and Entrepreneurship. That way, you’d be able to go into all the research you’ve done over the last few years. I attached ‘Yale and America’s’ syllabus in case you want to take a look at it.” Indeed I did take a look at the “Yale and America” syllabus. Professor Gitlin, History Department, writes in the course description: “Although the time span of the course is rather long, the focus is consistent: to study the impact of Yale on American thought and culture and vice versa-that is, the ways in which events and social, intellectual, and cultural currents have influenced the university and the work of its graduates. We will also look at the image of Yale in American popular culture.” After reading Professor Gitlin’s course description it became apparent to me that a course focused on Yale and Entrepreneurship warranted further investigation. I intend to develop a course that focuses on the impact of Yale on American innovation and entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship and a new culture of learning that centers around self-directed learning is fundamental to the internal and external perception of Yale. That perception will not displace Yale’s image as an icon of liberal education. But it will embellish the university’s attractiveness to prospective students, faculty, and donors. This assertion raises the specter to the looming debate about the role of humanities in education, and whether humanities are being marginalized because of the ascendancy of STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) and closely related entrepreneurial activities. My interpretation, as an ethnographer, of the discussion about the role of humanities in a 21st century education, is that this discussion is a proxy for a broader debate about the meaning and consequence of modernizing elite universities. Concerns about modernizing an iconic 313-year-old institution while heartfelt and sincere, are antithetical to why institutions such as Yale have thrived for as long as they have.

My research and development of the theory of the wide toolbox offer a less obvious proposition: a cohort of students are preserving the humanities, the arts and social sciences by incorporating these disciplines into their self-directed learning process. They recognize the value of a humanist approach to designing solutions to engineering, social or business related problems. This cohort is attempting to fully utilize the plethora of resources that make Yale the world-class institution that it is. In The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, author Walter Isaacson, offers the observation that he was “struck by how the truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences. They believed that beauty mattered.” He continues, “The people who were comfortable at this humanities-technology intersection helped to create the human-machine symbiosis that is the core of this story.”    

For Yale and Harvard, and their peers, the paradox is how to preserve what has made these institutions great, their liberal tradition, while periodically adapting their institutional ethos to maintain their vibrancy and contemporary relevance. Two former presidents of Yale highlight this point. “The university is essentially a living thing. Like other organisms it must grow by casting off that which is no longer of value and by taking on that which is …. Meantime, it will always be true that where the greatest investigators and scholars are gathered, thither will come the intellectual elite from all the world.” President James Rowland Angell, Inaugural Address, 1921.

In a contemporary version of President Angell’s view of the essential nature of Yale, President Levin, in discussion about Yale’s fourth century, wrote:

Indeed, we will continue the transformation of Yale, begun in the eighteenth century, from a local to a regional to a national and now to a truly international institution-international in the composition of its faculty and student body, as well as in the objects of its study.

We have thought hard about how to marshal the means to realize our aspirations, and I believe we have the financial and organizational capacity to succeed. But we need also to be flexible and adaptive. We are engaged in the generation of new knowledge, and this core activity will inevitably produce new opportunities for as yet unimagined innovations in education and research. Thus, we can have no rigid long-term plan. Instead, there must be a broad consensus on values, a shared sense of direction, and a perpetual willingness to revise yesterday’s plans on the basis of new knowledge. [Levin 2003:172-173]

An intriguing question for students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and friends of the Yale community is: How would you design the modern Yale?