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Career Advice for 2021: Learn, Earn or Quit

The best work environment enables you to learn and earn, but most only offer one or the other. Learn how to master learning and earning so you can maximize your time to make or build something great.

Are you learning, or are you earning? If both, you’re in a great place. If it’s one or the other, that’s good too. If it’s neither, it’s time to move on; you’re wasting your life.


Learning is where you need to start. As early as possible and as quick as possible, it’s important to become good at doing things. That means either being a maker — design, product and engineering — or being a hustler — management, sales and marketing. The majority of people starting out in their careers really need to focus on learning first. My friend Steven Sinofsky says, “This is the protein before the carbs.”

So, how do you actually start? First, learn about yourself. Second, learn what skills you need to acquire. Here’s a quick guide:

  1. Learning about yourself
    1. What do you like?
    2. What do you enjoy?
    3. What allows you to enter a state of flow?
  2. Acquire those skills
    1. Can you spend the 10,000 hours to become great?

Now, let’s think about a maker example. Say you love design, and once you know you love design, can you spend the 10,000 hours it takes to become truly great at it? If you answer that first part (i.e., if you truly love design), the second part comes easy because you won’t even feel the 10,000 hours. You’ll just love doing it.

If you want to be a hustler, you need to learn to market or sell. Marketing is about helping other people communicate their problem and how their solution is the best. If you see a product, website or service that you like and you have some improvements you can suggest, you need to build, design or write it yourself. Then cold-email them and offer to do it, or just do it and send it to them. Sales is about getting customers. So go get those customers, without even asking. Send those customers to a founder, and they’ll always take your email and remember you; it’s a great way to break in.

If you’re a builder, you’ve got to build. There’s power in being able to do that yourself and not rely on others. Find a problem to solve and then build a first version that solves that problem. When you’re starting out, it doesn’t even matter what that problem is. A lot of people get hung up on this step; they wait for the exact perfect problem, but it just has to be a real problem that your software can actually solve.

It’s no mistake that some of the best founders I’ve met started off by making gradebook software because they were still in school and  had access to teachers who were frustrated with their gradebooks. But many of them didn’t stay in that education space. They ended up making billion-dollar companies in lots of other spaces, but they still learned to create in gradebook software. It’s a great lesson: when it comes to creating, you can only learn by doing, and don’t let the idea get in the way of you starting.

Once you create something, anything, then iterate to make it work and turn it into something really good. When you create something impressive that users love, it’s better than a credential. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t go to Stanford. If you can point to a beautiful app, website or GitHub repository with elegant code that you created, you have done a thing that will almost always set you up to be a top 10% player off the bat.

When I was 14, I got my first job cold-calling the Yellow Pages in the internet section. What I had was a website I could point to that had won design awards; it was for my junior high school underground newspaper. After that, I cold-emailed my way to my first coding job. It worked for me, and it’ll work for you.

Here’s Bill Gates talking about what it takes to create and learn how to be great at those things:

Watch from 1:56 to hear Bill Gates’ thoughts on spending 10,000 hours on something

Bill Gates is absolutely right. It’s the 10,000 hours where you choose to do the same thing over and over again until you become great at it; that is learning.


Let’s talk about earning. By earning, I mean putting money in your pocket. What do you actually take home? The best way to do it is still equity. To make the most amount of money, you need to create true wealth by owning the stock of a company that became worth a lot of money. When you started it, you owned 100% of something that wasn’t worth anything; then you made it something. In my book, this is the highest form of earning because you made it. But you can also earn cash.

Facebook and Google pay engineers hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and stock. At the high end, it’s not unusual for executives to make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s crazy, but remember that Google made over $166 billion in total revenue. If you divide that out by 135,000 employees, that’s over $1.2 million per employee in revenue. That’s an amazing way to earn, but sometimes, there’s a catch. What if you’re not learning?

This is my opinion and my opinion alone: personally, I feel like I need to be learning something; otherwise, I’m dying. I’d be pretty unhappy in a place where I didn’t get to learn about new things or grow my skills and abilities.

Now, let’s take a step back. Millions, if not billions, of people on the planet trade a portion of their happiness for financial stability every day. I’m not saying this is a bad situation. They can take care of themselves and their loved ones, and that’s important. But if you really want to take steps to create things from nothing, you’ve got to be careful. Don’t get trapped earning money just to spend more money because ****before you know it, you’re running on a hedonic treadmill. The tricky thing about spending money to buy things that you don’t want is they don’t give you the satisfaction you really want.

Here’s philosopher Alan Watts talking about exactly that.

Hear from Alan Watts at 0:42 on the relationship between work and money

If you know you want to create a startup, save the money. The boat, nice car or expensive clothing won’t get you all the way to where you want to be. If you’re young and still thrifty, don’t change your lifestyle. That money you spend needs to be saved so you can invest your time in creating your own startup or your own wealth engine.

I have one other big warning for you: sometimes, these high paying jobs that feel meaningless are bullshit jobs.

Here’s David Graeber, an intellectual of the Occupy Wall Street movement, talking about why some of these jobs exist.

Watch from 1:32 onwards for David Graeber’s definition of “bullshit jobs”

Sometimes the more you get paid, the more meaningless the job becomes. You only get one life. It’s too short to waste on things that you don’t find fulfilling, even though they might make you comfortable. Remember if you choose a job you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. If you don’t learn and you don’t love it, you might have to leave once you earn enough to take the leap.

Learning and earning at the same time

Now, let’s talk about learning and earning. If you start a company or are early enough, you can learn while you earn — it’s the best. For founders, this is easy math. As a founder, when you start a company, you start off with 100% of the pie. The pie might be worth zero at that moment, but you’re going to go make it worth something.

If you do manage to get to product market fit, you could have a company with an exit in the tens of millions, hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. If you own 10% to 30% of that company by then, you could be a centimillionaire to billionaire. For employees, you might have 25 basis points, 0.25% up to 2% or more. It can still be an outrageously good outcome, and you might not even have to take as big a risk. Being early means you might get less equity, but you’re not starting at a point where the company is literally worth nothing. It can still be an amazing deal, especially if the company is growing very fast.

When I was at Palantir, I was learning how to run teams and how to build product from scratch but also earning equity in what ended up becoming a $40 billion company.

When I worked at Y Combinator, I was learning to be an investor and learning how to work with startups at the earliest possible stage. I was also earning some of the most valuable carry that exists in Silicon Valley as a part of that investment firm.

I’m learning and earning every day now, as the founder and managing partner of my own venture capital firm. I learn every day from founders that I get to meet and the problems that they run across.

When it comes to YouTube, I’m doing it for fun. I even donate the proceeds from my channel to nonprofits like Code2040. While I don’t earn there, I do learn a ton from all of my viewers and readers, all of you. Hearing what resonates for you and helps you is what helps me learn the most of all.

Examples of neither

There are places where you don’t get to do learning or earning at all. It might be working at a non-tech company or a consulting firm, and you’re getting no equity and a low pay. What’s worse — ****you might be working at a bad startup.

I remember working for a startup as an intern my junior year of college. I got the internship through the Stanford Career Fair, and I’d never worked at a bad startup before. It was an enterprise software startup that raised money but never seemed to close customers. The founders spent a lot of time on business trips, and I did a lot of work that summer, creating marketing material, mockups, prototypes and screenshots to use in sales pitches. However, they didn’t close an entire sale my whole summer — I don’t think they ever did — and eventually, the startup died. I didn’t earn much because interns don’t get paid a lot, but I didn’t learn very much either. It was basically a wash.

This is the secret truth of bad startups. I hate to say it, but if you’re in a situation like that, you should leave. If you’re not learning, earning equity, earning a good salary, having fun or finding the work meaningful, you’ve got to quit.

What order do you do all of these things in?

Here’s what I recommend: learn first, then earn. If you try to do it in reverse, if you try to earn first, you’ll probably still learn but maybe slowly. You also don’t know what you’re going to give up. It might come at a great cost. You might get trapped in that hedonic treadmill. Always remember if you’re not learning or earning, plot your exit to a place where you can.

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