I watched a video a few years ago by Stanford Technology Ventures Program director Tina Seelig, “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20” and pondered what advice I’d have for an inquisitive young person. The video was so popular that she figured out what she did wrong, made the corrections, and wrote a book about making your place in the world.
My first advice would be to avoid earning an engineering degree. When I graduated with a computer engineering degree in 1986, a new engineer earned $29,000; a barrel of oil costed $22; an ounce of gold costed $350. Today, a new engineer earns $58,000; oil costs $88 and gold costs $1400, so goods require 4 times as many dollars to buy with only twice as many dollars.
If Not Engineering, Where is the Greatest Demand?
Governments of most nations have grown tremendously, especially the United States, so the greatest demand is for lawyers to interpret laws and write studies to justify the creation of new laws and regulations. For instance, many lawyers must have been involved recently in the Startup America Partnership. President Obama allocated $2b for the initiative, even though the federal government is spending $1500b more each year than it receives, so it must have required the skills of a very clever group of lawyers to persuade the President to spend more money.
Nicolas Shea, head of Start-Up Chile, says of Startup America, “It was inspired, partly, by Start-Up Chile. I’m 100 percent sure about that.” Perhaps some of the project legal consulting was performed in Chile, too.
The Analysis is More Complex Than I Imagined
Like Tina Seelig, I looked deeper and refined my thoughts. Specifically, I read, Unbillable Hours: A True Story, a memoir of young lawyer Ian Graham.
Litigators have to become quick-study experts in the subjects of their cases, learning in a few days or weeks minute and complex details that experts in the topic spend years mastering.
That’s what I loved about being a software engineer, too. People explained their business to me in great detail and taught me how the world works. It was a great education completely free of charge! But, there’s a downside to being a lawyer.
I spent the first four months of my legal career numbly looking at documents I did not understand, on subjects and for deals I knew little about, with almost no thought required. I felt like Yossarian, the antihero of Catch-22, idly censoring all adjectives out of soldiers’ letters home. I hadn’t expected to be coddled, and I knew I would be working hard. I just didn’t know the work was going to be so meaningless and boring. I wasn’t like a medical intern who works long hours but sees patients and the tangible results of his or her work. I had almost no sense of the client, of what was at stake, of the bigger picture or the strategies of any of the cases or deals I was working on.
….As a junior associate, the only skill required seemed to be a very high tolerance for boredom.
Software engineering jobs often require maintaining code poorly written in haste and without much documentation, but sometimes creative work is necessary. Engineers are rarely fired and when they quit, they often pursue better opportunities. Lawyers are more likely to leave the profession.
When I left Latham, in October 2006, only five of the forty-seven members of my first-year associate class of 2001 remained at the firm. Two of those left within the next 6 months.
….Although during my time at Latham I was often frustrated by the nature of the work and the intense demands of the practice, in hindsight I realize how much I learned there and how much I grew as a person. In the end, big-firm law practice just wasn’t for me. As a big-firm lawyer, you don’t cure anyone, you don’t build anything, you don’t create or own anything. You are a middleman, dedicating your life to resolving the problems of, or enriching, corporations.
The market for lawyers is so bad that many lawyers are reviewing documents for temp agencies. Ian Graham convinced me that being a lawyer today is worse than being an engineer, so that raises an important question.
Who is More Valuable than Engineers and Lawyers?
Josh Kauffman claims that the net has made teaching more lucrative. He tried computer engineering and was not inspired; and he tried business, again without finding inspiration. Finally, Kauffman found his niche by helping people master useful skills.
I started my website, PersonalMBA.com, as a side project when I graduated from college. Instead of spending an enormous sum of money on graduate school, I decided to educate myself, and share what I learned with other people interested in doing the same thing.
Two years ago, I quit my job at P&G to teach business full time. I’m essentially a business professor — but I don’t have an MBA, I don’t have a PhD, and I don’t work at a business school. I teach craftsmen and professionals how to master the fundamentals of business on their own terms, without spending years in school and without racking up six-figure debts.
That seems right to me. Even the best colleges like Stanford and Harvard are overpriced for the educational value delivered, so perhaps freelance adult education has the most opportunities to transform us in the near future.