- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

The traditional career path — starting with an entry-level job and working your way up the company ladder — isn’t for everyone. In fact, author Laura Vanderkam says in her new book, “Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues,” young professionals can find alternative routes to success by taking an entrepreneurial approach to their careers.

Co-author of two other books and a contributing editor for Reader’s Digest, Ms. Vanderkam is a graduate of Princeton University and lives in New York City with her husband, Michael Conway.

The following are excerpts of an e-mail interview:

Question: You write that “the lower levels of most big companies are toxic places for talented, ambitious young people to languish.” Why is that?

Answer: Bigcompanies are a bit likeschools. Schools rarely challenge their brightest kids to the extent of their abilities because teachers and principals are too busy dealing with the average ones. At big companies, likewise, many managers are too busy wringing work out of mediocre employees to nurture the talents of their A-team players. I wrote “Grindhopping” to tell ambitious, free-spirited young people that paying your dues in a big company where you might not be challenged is not the only way to launch a career. A growing number of Americans are looking at self-employment: freelancing, starting micro-businesses or otherwise hopping out of the grind, and hence becoming “grindhoppers.” Over time, the National Association for the Self-Employed reports, there’s been a trend toward younger people entering self-employment. That’s because, thanks to technology these days, you don’t need a lot of capital or experience to start a business. I pay $9 a month for a Web site that advertises my writing and editing skills and, voila, I’m a writer and editor.

Q: You say that the publishing industry is “one of the worst offenders” in terms of forcing young people to “pay their dues” — isn’t that a good thing? Do we want newspapers and magazines edited by 24-year-olds?

A: Little of what we do in this industry is rocket science. The whole blog revolution is showing that there is a place for fresh voices in the media. That said, in any field there’s a benefit to experience. The problem with publishing is that at magazines in particular, people have to spend so long paying their dues at $30,000-a-year jobs … that only the independently wealthy survive. Recently, I met a young lady working at a women’s magazine who’d done a seven-month unpaid internship there in order to land an editorial assistant position. Now she’ll spend the next two years answering someone’s phones. How does that teach you to edit? Daily newspapers are different in that writing articles is good training for writing more and better articles. But every time I look at the headlines, I see that newspapers are trying to figure out how to lure younger readers. Maybe having more 24-year-old writers and editors would be a good way to do that.

Q: Why is financial self-discipline so important to the “grindhopping” lifestyle?

A: Money doesn’t buy you love; it buys you freedom. Six months of expenses in the bank is your ticket to life outside the grind. If you know you have enough money to last you until something better comes along, then you don’t have to take on jobs or projects you don’t want just because you need the cash. Every project becomes a choice. More than half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. These people don’t have a choice on whether they show up to work or suffer under a bad boss. Grindhoppers can’t see living such a fenced-in life.

Q: Do you think most young people understand the relationship between eating Ramen noodles and the opportunity for career independence?

A: Unfortunately, the statistics on young people and debt these days seem to say otherwise. Young people see that credit cards let them have all the things they want now. Pop culture celebrates that myth; remember the swanky apartments in “Friends”? How did the characters afford all that stuff so young? I’ve even seen people take on debt consciously as an income “smoothing” mechanism. They want nice things now and assume that eventually they will earn more and be able to pay the debt back. But that locks you into a regular paycheck of at least a certain size later in life. Maybe 10 years from now, you’ll decide there’s something else you want to do, but you won’t have that freedom.

Q: Of all the role models that you could urge 20-something entrepreneurs to emulate, why did you pick Col. Sanders?

A: Col. Sanders’ life story can teach us a lot about risk. Starting a business seems risky because most of us don’t know many people who’ve tried. We fear failing. So I tell grindhoppers to face those fears and figure out exactly what rock bottom would look like. Col. Sanders provides a good example of that. He auctioned off his first restaurant that he’d spent years building right around retirement age and wound up living on $105 Social Security checks. Most people who hit rock bottom at age 65 would spend the rest of their lives muttering in their rocking chairs. But Col. Sanders stared rock bottom in the face, realized it wasn’t that bad, and realized he still enjoyed making his chicken. So he traveled the country cooking his chicken for potential franchisees, and the rest is history. Col. Sanders liked to point out that over time, the hard way gets easier and the easy way gets harder. That’s good advice. … Starting a business right out of school is hard at first, but investing upfront in building the life you want will make achieving that life much easier, later.

Q: What are some of the downsides of “grindhopping”?

A: Self-employed people have to be incredibly focused and disciplined. No one makes you do anything. You have to be responsible for producing income. You won’t get a paycheck every two weeks regardless of whether you’ve been slacking. Then there’s health insurance. It can be expensive to buy health insurance on your own, though some insurance companies are starting to offer bare-bones plans for young people. And any form of entrepreneurship is a risk. You might fail, though far fewer businesses fail than people think.

Q: Somebody’s got to flip burgers and drive forklifts, and somebody’s got to work all those low-end office jobs in Corporate America. So, obviously, everybody can’t be a “grindhopper” — or can they?

A: Grindhopping requires an independent spirit and a disciplined temperament. Not everybody has those character traits, of course. But we are becoming, increasingly, a “free-agent nation.” The Labor Department released figures showing that the number of self-employed Americans rose by over 150,000 in December alone. Many office functions can be outsourced to home-based entrepreneurs who specialize in doing specific administrative tasks they like. There will always be people who value the social benefits that come with working for a big company. But our economy offers plenty of choices these days to people who don’t like to travel with the crowd.

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