September 9, 2019

Do You Want to Go to Stanford? Take Risks.

It's as true in college as it is anywhere else: If you want big rewards, you have to take risks.

The typical high schooler just wants an A in AP Calculus and maybe a job as a manager someday. Those are small rewards, and they come only after you do exactly what you're told to. If you take that path, people will tell you what to do for the rest of your life.

At Stanford, the expectations are totally different. Look at what's published on its Web site:

Study shows Stanford alumni create nearly $3 trillion in economic impact each year

Stanford University has long been known as one of the world's leading centers for innovation and a breeding ground for the entrepreneurs who created – and continue to shape – Silicon Valley. Now, for the first time, a study puts into perspective the sheer scale of the university's economic impact, not just in Silicon Valley and California but across the globe.
The word innovation appears 10 times in that article. Entrepreneur shows up 14 times. Founded is seen five times (companies founded twice, organizations once, firms once, and legendary founders once).

Stanford rewards risk-taking. It wants students who will enhance its reputation as a leading center for innovation and add to its $3 trillion in economic impact each year.

Stanford has entrepreneurship classes. That's the sort of thing that should make you salivate. Keep a hanky on you just in case.
High schools don't make innovation opportunities part of their normal curriculum. You have to seek them out. That's what makes you an entrepreneur.

Check out Paul Graham, the startup founder with a degree from Cornell and two from Harvard. He's written some insightful articles, including one titled Inequality and Risk:
Why not just have the government, or some large almost-government organization like Fannie Mae, do the venture investing instead of private funds? 
I'll tell you why that wouldn't work. Because then you're asking government or almost-government employees to do the one thing they are least able to do: take risks
As anyone who has worked for the government knows, the important thing is not to make the right choices, but to make choices that can be justified later if they fail. If there is a safe option, that's the one a bureaucrat will choose. But that is exactly the wrong way to do venture investing. The nature of the business means that you want to make terribly risky choices, if the upside looks good enough.
If you're studying for a history test, yes, you should worry about failure. That's a low-risk, low-reward activity. If you decide to goof off, you'd better be able to justify your decision later.

You can't treat your Stanford application like a school test. An exception might apply if you're a star athlete or math competition champion, someone who's already taken risks and proven herself on the battlefield.

My rooommate at Stanford was a risk-taker. He programmed and hosted Stanford's first social media network — two years before Mark Zuckerberg founded the precursor to Facebook. I watched him do it from his 120 square foot bedroom. (Since then, Stanford may have become even more entrepreneurial.)

Don't worry too much about success. Put my roommate's accomplishments next to Zuckerberg's and ask yourself whether the former's seeming failure makes the idea any less remarkable.

The first attempt to innovate is usually underwhelming. Look at Brownian motion, the random movement of dust and pollen grains, which a biologist first observed in 1785. (Dust particles move without being pushed, but they're not alive?!) The research was set aside until 1880, when someone was able describe the observations mathematically. Scientists started to apply the equations in diverse ways, ranging from evidence for the existence of atoms to a pricing theory for stocks and options. An observation about dust (!) that failed to generate results for 95 years eventually led to Nobel Prizes in both physics and economics.

Apple's 1993 attempt at a hand-held computer failed, only to set the groundwork for the launch of the PalmPilot four years later and, eventually, the iPhone.

Failure is normal. Don't punish yourself. It creates great learning experiences that you can write about in your application essays.

To succeed, you have to fail. To fail, you have to start.

Pick one or two extracurricular interests and drill down deep. Get noticed. Blog about your progress every week. Have opinions. Disagree with your teachers (the ones who are okay with it).

Let people see you catching fire!


Post a Comment