Strategic Flexibility

I got two emails last week from really young kids who felt they were lacking direction in their life. I told them both the same thing. That they should calm down and stop thinking about it that way. And that their email alone puts them pretty far above the competition. You shouldn’t have direction when you’re 15. How could you possibly know what you want to do? Statistically, a significant portion of your peers haven’t even gone through puberty yet. The moodiness, depression and general angst aren’t symptoms of a problem but completely natural stages of biological and mental growth.

But it applies to more than just teens. What a lot of people miss is that asking about direction is the first step. It has to start there. To have a goal can be a goal itself. I have absolutely no clue what I want to do with my life. The job probably hasn’t been invented yet. I’ll either have to make it, or be ready to catch it when it is immaculately conceived. What if you trained your whole life for a career that suddenly a computer can do? Which is why I decided to postpone school to train under leaders. (not advocating this path, it’s just the right one for me, right now) With Robert Greene–I’m doing the research and the outlining and the absorption that made him the writer that he is. At The Agency it’s seeing how the dying half of the industry works and learning how the innovators adapt and internally revolutionize it. With Tucker it’s seeing how mobility and uniqueness and honesty carve new paths in what was previously jungle. None of those are paths that ought to pursued alone, but together they create an array of options for whatever might later exist.

It used to be that a person could prepare, study and apprentice in an industry and then still look forward a career there. That is just not the case anymore. Your average college professor today was trained by the generation that came before them and thus are teaching material only incrementally different than what we before I was born. So how can you rely solely on them? That’s the fundamental problem–societal change is linear while technological is exponential. We can’t adjust fast enough and a whole deluge of people are going to get caught in the gap. The system (almost every system) is breaking apart and people are training for a mirage. So if you’re 15 and you want to do something cool, there is no way you could put you finger on it now.

What you can do, and what I did when I was that age (and now), was focus on the things that will be important regardless of the direction you end up heading. Developing cleverness–can you pick up on the thing that everyone else is missing? Can you hold you own against people older than you?–only way way to develop that skill: going head to head. Do you know about the world around you–sports, tv, movies, books, how people work, what’s stupid, cliches, girls? You don’t have to do all of the simultaneously but try them, take what you like and then move on. The rest is just loading up on the appropriate technical knowledge and preventing yourself from being loaded done with the things that make that impossible.

But look, strategic flexibility is about cultivating options that at the right strike price make the most sense. Deciding what you want to do at 15 is a bet that that is the only thing that will pay off. The safer and smarter bet is to first invest in wanting to do something. And if at 15 you’re complaining about lacking direction, you’ve probably already started to invest in those skills. So I would assert that if you think you know the exactly where you’re going and you’re a young kid, the only place you’re headed to is a dead-end.

Note: That doesn’t justify paralysis.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.