A Lean Approach to Career Planning

by Seth Moulton

Minimum Viable Product is the new fad of the start-up world: don’t design and build everything to a T—get something out to market as quickly, and as cheaply, as possible; use it to test hypotheses and learn from customers; and be able to iterate and pivot quickly on your way to the final product. Even in heavy investment world of clean-tech this idea is getting some traction; we heard from the co-founders of Aquion Energy that companies often risk spending way too much time and energy over-designing a product. 

In a way I think this theory can be applied to young people seeking careers of impact in the world; many of the MVP concept’s virtues for products might be applicable for “producing” a successful career in an individual. Some of the best advice I ever received was “whatever you do, do it well.” Success breeds success and opens doors, even if don’t yet find yourself in your ideal job. But the name of the game in career paths these days is also maximizing “pivots”—regularly changing jobs to skip up the ladder; gone are the days when you expected to spend your entire career slowly gaining seniority at one firm. And to do so, you need to know just when to leave—when you’ve done enough to be successful and to have learned a lot along the way, but not wasted time becoming the world’s expert at a narrow job, or set of skills, that won’t necessarily be applicable in your next move. You’ll probably learn the most in your first few months, maybe first couple years, at a job anyway; then you need to start looking to move on. Is there value in consulting? Sure, but is 5 years at McKinsey really that much better than 3? What else could you have been learning in those last two years had you made the pivot to a different career earlier? And if you go to consulting—to begin with—in an effort to learn, say, strategy, how much of a corporate strategy expert do you really need to be? 

Let’s say you want to own your own company someday. You might already have enough basic strategy under your belt after two years of business school, so instead of spending your first two years after school becoming a strategy guru, just jump in and get a head start with your company (and down the road, you can even hire a consultant to fill in any gaps!). To put into more personal terms, I get a lot of interest from potential employers because of my leadership experience from the military. I would gain much more leadership experience if I stayed in, but would I ever learn as much, in such a short period of time, as I did being a platoon commander on the front lines for my first two years? Probably not, and I doubt companies value “former Marine majors” much more than “former Marine captains” if both led troops in combat at some point in their careers. 

In the end, life is short, time and money are a-wasting, and all of this is about trade-offs. Lean start-ups try to get the minimum viable product to market so they can learn from customers, beat the slower competition, and do so without wasting a dime of extra money. In doing so, they trade off product perfection. With all the time and money in the world—and no competition—it would be fine to strive for perfection right out of the gate. But individuals compete in life just as products compete in the market, so being quick and nimble is imperative. The hiker who carries the bare minimum of required gear is more likely to make it to the top of the mountain than the cautious hiker who hauls up every imaginable piece of equipment on his or her back.


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