Crash the Gates: The New Route to Success for Graduates and Everyone Else

Posted on May 7, 2014 by Marian Salzman

[Originally posted on PRWeek.com.]

The career path many of us grew up with—find a big company, get your foot in the door, play by the rules, work long and hard, climb patiently up the ladders, and make nice with all the gatekeepers—is crumbling. So why should graduates, or anyone else, waste time and energy following it?

Busting economies and booming tech innovations are breaking up the old systems and opening the way for new ones. What’s the point of loading up on debt and sweating your way through the well-worn rut of college when more dynamic and creative approaches can produce better outcomes faster? Fellowships, apprenticeships, gap years, travel and even straight-up dropping out to hack can be great routes to success.

However you define success—learning, money, status, influence, satisfaction, fun or philanthropy—there are plenty of ways to achieve it. It is there for anyone who has the smarts to come up with an idea, the cojones to give it a go, the diligence to execute it well, and the ability, and maybe luck, to time it right.

It might seem safer to kowtow to the gatekeepers, but long term it’s going to be better to crash the gates, to break the rules—as long as it’s done creatively and effectively, with an eye not just on being rebellious, but also on generous thoughts for the future.

The recent history of the media industry most clearly illustrates the weakening of gatekeeper culture. In music, the all-powerful gatekeepers used to be mainstream record labels and Top 40 radio programmers; book publishing’s legendary editors decided which authors were worthy of publication; a handful of executives controlled newspapers, magazines, radio and television; and movie moguls determined what films got made and who starred in them.

Look at those fields in 2014. Any band can record music, shoot a video, put it online and build a following. In print, self-published came in third among publishers in 2013’s 99 best-selling ebooks. Magazines and newspapers are seeing circulation declining and revenue bleeding, but teen style blogger Tavi Gevinson is succeeding on her own terms with the online magazine Rookie. In TV, shows such as “House of Cards,” commissioned by Netflix, make us wonder about the future of last-century TV. And as for movies, “most of the esoteric fare will land on small screens, not big ones,” says The New York Times.

It’s no coincidence that there’s new scrutiny on internships in media—and other industries, too. Smart young people are starting to see that sucking up to the gatekeepers isn’t necessary, now that the value of what’s behind those gates is in doubt.

Media isn’t alone in this phenomenon. Fast-fashion brands such as H&M and Zara completely uprooted the old model of having “high fashion” for people who could afford it and plain old clothes for everyone else. Same with Ikea and home furnishings.

With all this in mind, how can there possibly be a reliable road map for careers anymore? Here’s the advice I offer to anyone entering, or keeping up with, today’s job market:

  1. The five biggest U.S. cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) will become less important. They’re the last bastions of industries still ruled by gatekeepers. Go south and west, where there’s plenty of buzz and new jobs, and few gatekeepers.
  2. The career paths of the future have yet to be invented, and they’ll keep changing anyway. Assume that your career is yours to invent. Jobs that sound like they existed five years ago are probably doomed.
  3. With internships on the way out, Brand Me is the future. Nurture yours. If you have the drive and the smarts to get an internship, you probably have what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
  4. Unusual combinations of skills and backgrounds will be valuable. Even if you take the college-corporate path, think creatively. Big-name schools might not be worth the expense, and nontraditional degrees can give you an edge when everyone else has taken the safe, obvious courses.
  5. Personal networks will replace corporate hierarchies and recruiters, so invest in friends and fans. Treat your relationships as long-term investments with the potential to grow into collaborations and new ventures when the time is right. You never know when that time will be until it comes. In the meantime, enjoy the connections.

If you know any high school students unsure about college, you might suggest they pull a Peter Pan and avoid growing up for as long as possible. If you are an employer, realize that millennial gatecrashers need constant stimuli. The next generation of success stories will come from the people who rewrite the rules. 

[photo: creativecommons.org/Andrew Schwegler]

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