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Don’t Kid Yourself, or Your Kids, About Being an Entrepreneur

These are tough and complicated times for parents to try to give any career advice or direction to their children who have just graduated from college and who are about to enter the working world. A subset of these students will head to graduate school for a year or so to postpone their inevitable transition, another group will pursue gap years or philanthropic and social adventures. But plenty more will need to hit the ground running and find something remunerative to do with their lives, especially as the clock on their student loans starts ticking.

I’m a little afraid that too many of them will decide to become “entrepreneurs” and try to start their own companies without having a clue as to what a painful and precarious road building a new business is. Or what the process really entails. And, naturally, if they decide to chance it, they’ll turn to their parents and family for support and financial assistance. As one who meets dozens of these wannabes and sees hundreds of alleged business plans each year, you parents have my deepest sympathies. Don’t try to prepare the path for your kids. Instead, prepare your kids for the path. Remember that it’s more important to do things with your kids than for them.

To make these imminent, heart-to-heart conversations with their kids even more difficult, many parents — largely because of the pandemic — are in the midst (voluntarily or otherwise) of rethinking their own careers, alternatives, and businesses while facing their own financial challenges. Stuck between supporting their kids’ colleges and dreams and their own parents’ ailments and infirmities, they are truly the sandwich generation. For many of these folks, looking for something new to do isn’t exactly their own choice, since there’s no longer any job or business for them to return to. For others, the end of the mandatory, 16-month Covid-19 respite from the daily grind feels like a once-in-a-lifetime, guilt-free chance for their own do-over.

Sadly, too many of these people will also think that being their own bosses sounds great and that they have the skills, aptitude, and mental wherewithal to start their own businesses. Overall, this is a bad idea for most of them. The only worse thing I could imagine for them would be to try to go into business with one or two of their kids or other family members. Assuming that you are smart enough to resist these temptations yourself, you still need to be very careful about the advice that you offer your overly optimistic and woefully naive offspring. There may not be a right answer, but there are plenty of ways to go wrong if you’re not paying attention and prepared for the inevitable conversation.

First of all, be honest. If everything about your work were joyous, it would be called fun and not work. Serious and important work is challenging but strenuous, and sometimes thankless. It steals time from your family and often seems like there’s never an end in sight. It takes perseverance and grit. If you enjoy what you’re doing, make that clear to your kids. But please don’t ever tell them that you’re doing it for the money so you can buy or do whatever. We work because we enjoy it and we’re proud of what we do and we work to help others. Ideally, that’s what your kids should be aspiring to as well.

Second, please don’t tell them to pursue their passion. In these times, and at this time in their lives, that’s utter BS. Seriously awful advice. Even if they actually had an overwhelming passion, they’d be ill-equipped and unlikely to do anything in pursuit of it fresh out of school. They’re good at taking their needs and desires into consideration, but rarely their abilities. There aren’t any shortcuts to real success or fantasy outcomes, and it takes time, skill, preparation and a whole lot of experience to succeed in just about anything meaningful — none of which your kids are likely to have at this stage of their lives. Down the line, when they finally do settle on something that’s real and important to do, passion for the project and the work will be critical — but passion should not lead this parade. Passion without focus, patience, and precise execution is simply a path to chaos and waste.

If you’re gonna have the “talk” with your son or daughter, here are the three most important things to discuss — long before you get to passion.

No. 1 on my list would be two little things called responsibility and ownership. Your kids need to understand and appreciate that they didn’t get where they’re at by themselves and that they’ve accumulated debts and obligations of various sorts that they now need to own and be accountable for. The “free ride” is over and whatever plans they have for moving forward need to take into account, and make adequate and realistic provisions for, supporting themselves and paying their own way. Covering the rent without starving has an amazing ability to inject a large dose of realism into whatever dreams and plans they may have cooked up with their friends. In dreams begin responsibilities. Wherever you want to end up, the path starts with getting a real job and earning a living wage while you’re learning the ropes and getting ready to do your own thing.

No. 2 is preparation combined with perspiration. One of the worst sins of the business media that exalts successful entrepreneurs is that, apart from the disgusting celebration of excessive wealth and its accompanying perks, there’s sometimes an undue emphasis on how quickly these wondrous things came to pass without giving ample recognition to the fact that there are very few overnight successes. In fact, as I’ve said before, the painful backstories are an equally important part of describing the journey and debunking the idea that anyone with the will and desire and a little luck can also be an overnight hero. It’s simply not a good idea to unduly encourage novices to believe that they should do their own thing when, in fact, the very best thing they can do is to find someone else who’s smart and successful and who’s doing it and go to work for them for a while. You need to be a hardworking role player (and get really good at it) before you try to roll your own.

And No. 3, please stop telling your kids how smart and talented they are. You’re setting them up to feel like failures when they get out there in the working world and find that brains and book smarts aren’t nearly enough. For every Elon or Zuck, there are tens of thousands of sad and disappointed people who fall flat on their faces and have yet to recover from the experience. The real world is full of smart and talented people who never made anything of their lives because they lacked the two most essential components of all: grit and perseverance. There are always going to be smarter people around and many who are more talented, but the trick is simple: If you can’t outsmart them, you can always outwork them.

Effort trumps talent all day long. And the people who get the most accomplished are those who stick with the task through thick and thin and never stop trying to get better and get the job done. Great works aren’t the product of strength; they’re the result of perseverance.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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