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Can Growing Up Without Money Make You a Better Entrepreneur?

Published: Oct 23, 2017

It can be difficult to know what to say and what not to say in an interview. For example, do you tell your interviewer about that business you had your freshman year in college in which you made a couple grand manufacturing fake IDs, selling them at premium to ex-boarding school kids, only to be shut down by the local bar after one too many guys came through its doors from the same street in Mill Valley, California?

Conventional thinking would say that this is probably one of those experiences you can leave out when speaking about yourself in an interview. However, if you're speaking with former Facebook employee Chamath Palihapitiya who left a huge job with the social media firm to start his own venture capital firm, you might very well want to discuss the initiative and risks you took in your illicit dorm room business.

Here's Palihapitiya speaking with the New York Times about the extracurriculars he was involved in during his high school years.

I loved gambling, and I loved card games. I would run a little blackjack game at one of the lunch tables. The kids could bet 25 cents to a dollar.
I was the house. I was making $40 or $50 each lunch hour, and it was all the money in the world. On the weekends, I would take that money and sneak into the charity casinos with my fake ID.
That showed me that I have a passion for risk, and that I really like decision-making under pressure. I still play a lot high-stakes poker.

The poker-playing Palihapitiya was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Canada in a family of extremely modest means (his father was unemployed for a long stretch, while his mother worked as a housekeeper at night), and his first job was working at Burger King. So if you ever find yourself meeting with him, don't pretend that you grew up with a sterling fork in between your lips if you didn't (and if you did, you might want to keep your lips sealed about it).

I’ve found that a lot of successful poker players grew up poor. And I’m convinced that poor people have a risk tolerance that rich people don’t have because poor people fundamentally don’t value money that much because they’re used to not having it.
With rich people, when they’re born rich, a lot of their identity is wrapped up in that because of the way society defines your success by the money you have. So they covet money. I’ve never cared about it that much.

This is partly why Palihapitiya left a cushy gig with Facebook. Palihapitiya said he left a lot of money on the table at the social network because he "decided to make a big bet" on himself. He also valued independence, creativity, and winning in the long term, as opposed to the short term, so leaving Facebook was easy for him, whereas it might have been harder for others (who perhaps grew up wealthy and value security over independence).

As for the bets that Palihapitiya makes on other people, particularly on the people he hires, he looks for three things: 1) curiosity, 2) resiliency, and 3) ...

... the combination of ego and humility. Let’s be honest, a lot of C.E.O.s are ego-driven people. But they also have to be humble in some very precise ways around ideas and decisions, and being able to change their mind. That’s an idiosyncratic combination.

Palihapitiya also highly values learning. In fact, he recommends that college students and young professionals continually put themselves in positions to learn, and says, "If you want to be really good at your craft, it only comes through knowledge, and knowledge only comes through experience, and experience only comes through failure."

And so, the point is not that your fake ID business needs to be a wildly successful one, but that the next time out, you learn from your mistakes, and vary the street and city name a bit so your business lasts a little longer.


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Speaking of big bets, monster tech firms like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Uber are wagering a ton of money on a certain sector of the tech industry, and if you play your career-cards right, you could soon cash in to the tune of a half a million dollars or more per year.

Tech’s biggest companies are placing huge bets on artificial intelligence, banking on things ranging from face-scanning smartphones and conversational coffee-table gadgets to computerized health care and autonomous vehicles. As they chase this future, they are doling out salaries that are startling even in an industry that has never been shy about lavishing a fortune on its top talent.
Typical A.I. specialists, including both Ph.D.s fresh out of school and people with less education and just a few years of experience, can be paid from $300,000 to $500,000 a year or more in salary and company stock, according to nine people who work for major tech companies or have entertained job offers from them. All of them requested anonymity because they did not want to damage their professional prospects ...
Salaries are spiraling so fast that some joke the tech industry needs a National Football League-style salary cap on A.I. specialists. “That would make things easier,” said Christopher Fernandez, one of Microsoft’s hiring managers. “A lot easier.”

The good news, aside from the lucrative salaries, for A.I. jobseekers is that the demand for employees with proficiency in deep neural networks (the "complex mathematical systems that can learn tasks on their own by analyzing vast amounts of data" that drive A.I.) far outweigh the supply. The bad news is that tech giants are having to go to academia to find talent, and taking all of the A.I. experts out of academia might not be such a great thing, since it leaves very few people with the knowledge of deep neural networks in universities to spread their knowledge to others.

Most of all, there is a shortage of talent, and the big companies are trying to land as much of it as they can. Solving tough A.I. problems is not like building the flavor-of-the-month smartphone app. In the entire world, fewer than 10,000 people have the skills necessary to tackle serious artificial intelligence research, according to Element AI, an independent lab in Montreal.
“What we’re seeing is not necessarily good for society, but it is rational behavior by these companies,” said Andrew Moore, the dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, who previously worked at Google. “They are anxious to ensure that they’ve got this small cohort of people” who can work on this technology.

In any case, if you're stuck on pursuing a career in tech and still unsure which sector to go into, then it's seems like a pretty good bet, if not to go all in on A.I., to at least gain some working knowledge of the systems that drive it, and take a class or two.


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One thing you don't want to get too risky with is your sleep. In a fascinating and frightening recent Fresh Air podcast, Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at Cal Berkeley, informed us that if we're not getting eight hours of sleep a night then we're: 1) risking our productivity, 2) risking our creativity, and 3) risking our lives.

WALKER: Well, I think the first general point to make from epidemiological studies across millions of people is the following: that short sleep predicts a shorter life. It predicts all-cause mortality. So that sort of classic maxim that you may've heard that you can sleep when you're dead—it is actually mortally unwise advice from a very serious standpoint.
We also know that every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep—and a lack of sleep defined as six hours of sleep or less. So I think people really need to start to become much more aware of the science of sleep.

Walker also explains, in detail, how alcohol, caffeine, Ambien, melatonin, and trying to catch up on your sleep on the weekend affect you. Hint: they do little, if anything, to help you fight against the lack of sleep.

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