Beware the Faustian pact of the professions

First published in the Financial Times on 11th February 2014.

Doing something with meaning is better for the soul, and probably the economy too

I think all humans are born with an innate desire to create. I see the instinct in my children, when they construct miniature worlds with Lego sets. Some of us are lucky enough to exercise such impulses as an adult, either at work or in our hobbies. But tragically, many intelligent and ambitious young people never pursue such a path in their careers. Instead, they enter into a Faustian pact and join one of the well-paid professions such as law, accountancy, banking or management consultancy. For all those bright starters, I suggest they read a new book called Smart People Should Build Things , by ex-corporate attorney Andrew Yang.

Mr Yang is the founder and CEO of Venture for America, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to enable “talented graduates to spend two years in the trenches of a start up so they become mobilised as entrepreneurs”. He argues that too many of America’s finest youth are seduced by the apparent money, prestige and security of the service professions, so they neglect the potential of exciting industries such as software, biotech, energy, manufacturing and retail, and the opportunity to launch a start-up. This brain drain means fewer new jobs, less innovation and a weaker tax base.

Not only would more entrepreneurship among this elite cohort serve the common good; many who enter the status professions suffer from illusions about the true rewards. I know from personal experience: in my 20s I was a stockbroker. But I have never regretted leaving the City after a few years for the riskier but more satisfying life of self-employment. I agree with the novelist Jeanette Winterson when she writes: “I have noticed that doing the sensible thing is only a good idea when the decision is quite small. For the life-changing things, you must risk it.”

It takes a significant investment of time and money to qualify as a lawyer, for example. Yet the calling is becoming overcrowded and it has still not recovered from the downturn. Outsourcing and automation are likely to threaten the economics of the legal profession in the medium term. And it appears lawyers are generally not very happy – there are plenty of statistics which suggest they are disproportionately prone to depression, alcoholism and suicide.

After all, who would choose to work in the legal system for a living? As Charles Dickens vividly described it in Bleak House, the Court of Chancery “so exhausts the finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give – who does not often give – the warning, ‘Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!’”

Of course some start-ups fail, and many projects struggle. As Mr Yang puts it, “building things is hard”. But doing something with meaning is better for the soul, and probably the economy too. It might be a social enterprise, it might be a turnround, it might be a small, existing business in need of the finest human capital. Society requires more successful new companies to challenge the establishment across industries ranging from banking to power. Clever graduates can see that technology is helping to level the playing field: big institutions no longer have all the advantages.

In Britain I meet increasing numbers of refugees from sectors such as law and finance getting their hands dirty in industries such as hospitality. My partner at Gail’s Bakeries, Tom Molnar, is a former McKinsey consultant. The Ocado founders were all at Goldman Sachs. These sorts of role models provide terrific inspiration for those contemplating a new venture. From organisations such as StartUp Britain, where I am chairman, to the New Entrepreneurs Foundation there are sources of advice, support, mentoring and encouragement for those who are bold enough to make the leap. Accelerators and incubators are proliferating everywhere, from New York to South Korea. But sufficient capital, networking hubs and low-cost premises are always in short supply.

More enterprise is additive, not zero sum, so we would all be much richer – culturally and economically – if a higher proportion of graduates followed their creative DNA and chose the more demanding but much more enthralling path in life.