Alexandra Levit thinks we need a reality check. Too many of us, she says, believe that we can quit our jobs, be controversial, and find overnight success pursuing our passions after fleeing our day jobs. Despite the slew of popular bloggers urging us to do just that, Levit, an author and speaker on career issues, insists it’s not the right path for most people. Instead, in her new book, Blind Spots, she urges us to work hard, fit in, and keep those day jobs.
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“Today, it’s fashionable to say that you’re going to become an entrepreneur, that you’ll shun the corporate world to go out and start a business according to your own values and your own rules. But here’s the thing. Running a business is harder than it looks, and the idea that entrepreneurship is the best solution for everyone is a myth,” she writes.
If that sounds more like The Organization Man than Free Agent Nation, fear not: Levit says she’s not suggesting we return to the 1950s, but simply scale back some of the entrepreneurial-mania sweeping the blogosphere. US News spoke with Levit about her new book and the real path to career success today. Excerpts:
Why did you feel like you needed to provide this reality check?
I was so sick of reading blogs and business magazines and hearing that it was so easy to walk into your boss’s office and tell them to appreciate you or you should quit job and start your own business tomorrow. That is such toxic advice. We’ve all heard about people who have done it, but we’ve heard of them because it is miraculous and rare. If you do tell your boss that you don’t want to toe the line, you’re going to get into trouble. Even more than before, companies are emphasizing a good work ethic and being someone who assimilates well, and if you do those things, you can get ahead more quickly.
Who is spreading this misinformation?
I don’t want to name anybody outright, but there are a lot of blogs about entrepreneurship and finding your passion. When I look at the bloggers themselves or individual posts, they do have really good advice and it’s well-written, but I think the danger is in encouraging people to go too far. Implying that it’s something that’s easy to do, or totally doable for everybody. The truth is, you need a specific type of personality and you need to withstand a certain amount of risk. It’s not one of those things that everyone should do—not even close. Ninety percent of the population should work for somebody else.
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Are you saying it’s not realistic to follow your passion, if that means leaving corporate America?
Exactly—not at all. The majority of people are probably better off working for someone else. People who don’t have a lot of experience, they should make their mistakes on someone else’s watch. They haven’t acquired enough skills to start their own business. It’s also unrealistic for people who are risk averse or need someone looking over their shoulder. There’s no shame in being a person who says, “I want to work for a company. I want to work for somebody else.”
The word on the street is, “You’ve sold out if you’re working for someone else, or you’re somehow less of a person, which is just absurd. The large organizations are around for a reason.
There’s no easy way to find a meaningful career, you just have to plug away and work hard.
Do you see many people fail when they try to make it on their own?
I see it all the time. People are starting their own businesses without a lot of forethought. What need am I addressing? Do I have the skill sets to pull it off? Do I have the financing? How different is it from what’s out there? I recommend [building a business] gradually, and keeping your day job while moving the endeavor forward one step at a time. People aren’t doing that. As a result, they lose a lot of ground and suffer financially.
Some of your suggestions—to focus on having a strong work ethic, to not rock the boat, and to adhere to your organization’s culture—seem reminiscent of The Organization Man mindset. Are you suggesting that we revert to the 1950s?
Not the 1950s. That was a very stifling environment. You weren’t supposed to speak up, you were supposed to put your head down and do your work, and the channels of career progression were very predictable. But companies are valuing some of those traditional values, without the extreme nature of the 1950s environment.
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But it seems like you are saying we should work hard and put our heads down.
There’s a fine line between never speaking up and never saying anything, and always being the person who has to make waves. Part of the journey of becoming a mature professional is learning what that line is and how to walk it carefully. You don’t want to be the person who never says anything because nobody will know who you are. So we talk about how to be assertive and how to make waves in the right way, but not necessarily stirring the pot.
You write that one of the happiest workers you know is a high school janitor.
This guy, the best thing for him was that his schedule as a night janitor allowed him to spend more time with his children. He felt like he could be a hands-on parent. If that is something that’s important to you, then maybe that makes sense. Not at all times in our lives will we be career-focused. And that’s okay.
You urge people think twice about entrepreneurship, but you left your day job in marketing to run your own business, right?
I did. I moonlighted for a really long time though. I started writing my first book in 2002 and published it in 2004 and didn’t go out full throttle with my business until 2008. Every day I spent in the PR world helped me generate the skills to be successful in my own business. If I had quit right away, I wouldn’t know what I was doing. So I don’t regret any time spent in my day job.