Career Dead-End or Stepping Stone?

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You have heard the phrase, "Close, but no cigar." It describes someone who came close to the big payoff, but who missed it.

Will he ever get over it? Will it haunt him for the rest of his life?

Mario Cuomo could have had the Democrats' nomination for President in 1992 if he had decided to take on the seemingly unbeatable George Bush in 1991. He skipped the opportunity. Bill Clinton, with far less reputation to lose, took the challenge. The recession overcame Bush's victory in the Gulf War. Clinton won.

He will be remembered in the textbooks only for the Lewisnky scandal, which involved a cigar. He charmed his way out of it politically, but he will never charm his way out of it historically. There will be a textbook version for public schools and a Website version for snickering adults, but it was still a failure that will mark him as a loser.

Who won? Cuomo or Clinton? Cuomo. He will not be remembered.

What was true of Clinton will be doubly true of Bush II. He will go down in the history guild's assessments — dominated by liberals — as the worst President in American history, outflanking Harding and Buchanan. (I do not rank him as the worst, or Harding or Buchanan as the worst, who were pretty good, since they did nothing significant. But if there were a Mount Rushmore for Presidential disasters, his image would deserve to be up there.)

Yet Clinton and Bush achieved something unique in American history. No two men of rival political parties were ever elected in sequence to two-term Presidencies. They were political winners on a unique scale, and also legendary losers.


I recently read about Joe Green. Not Mean Joe Green, who was a famous Pittsburgh Steelers defensive player who became even more famous because of a Coca-Cola commercial. No, this Joe Green was Mark Zuckerberg's roommate at Harvard. Zuckerberg asked him to quit Harvard, move to California, and work on what became Facebook.

Mr. Green's father, a professor, recommended against it. He uttered some variation of that famous phrase, "Stay in school, boy." Mr. Green stayed in school. It was the conventional thing to do. It was the safe thing to do. It was the socially acceptable thing to do at Harvard.

Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. Michael Dell dropped out of the University of Texas (Austin). Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College.

Statistically speaking, "Stay in school, boy" is good advice. Over 50% of those who enroll in college don't take it. They drop out. After they do, they earn wages no higher than a high school graduate who never went to college. The drop-out's family is then stuck with canceled checks worth tens of thousands of dollars. What are these checks worth? A lot of regret.

Parents don't want this regret. They don't want those checks to cry out to them for the next 30 years, So, they try to persuade their children not to drop out.

In my first semester at Pomona College, a high-prestige school in southern California, I was not happy. I decided to transfer to the less expensive but then unknown University of California, Riverside. My parents were concerned, despite the fact that Pomona cost them more. I had a California state scholarship that would not transfer. But I wanted out, and I left. It was one of the best decisions in my career. I finished my education elsewhere. I was not a drop-out. I was a get-out.

That same semester, another Pomona student dropped out. She went to New York City. She graduated from Barnard College. Her name was Twyla Tharp. She became the most successful modern ballet choreographer of my generation. She made the right decision to leave Pomona.

I doubt that either of us left enough traces to be missed two months later, nor did we look back nostalgically to wonder if we had done the wise thing.

What was true of us was surely true of Ludwig von Mises. In the midst of the Great Depression, he decided in 1934 to leave Vienna, where he was the research director of the equivalent of the Austrian Chamber of commerce. He had a safe job. He did not have a safe location.

He was convinced that the influence of Germany's Nazi Party would increase across Europe. As a Jew, he would not be safe in Austria. He persuaded several other Jewish economists to leave. In 1938, the Germans marched into Austria. They eventually confiscated Mises' library. After World War II, it wound up in the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union fell, it was discovered intact. Had he remained behind, Mises would not have survived.

So, it works both ways. Some people grab the unique opportunity. Some don't.

How do you know when to grab and when to pass? There is no entrepreneurial formula. If there were, our choices would be automatic. But there is a pattern that can help us choose.


Mises in 1934 moved to Switzerland to take a teaching position. It was his first paid teaching position that he had been offered since 1906. That was seemingly late in his career. As it turned out, it wasn't. He remained in the classroom until 1969: another 35 years. But he did not remain in Switzerland.

In 1940, he and his wife made a run for it. They had to get to Portugal in order to get to the United States. They had to go across France. The Nazis were invading. There was not much time. They might be caught. They barely made it, due to the creative driving of a bus driver.

Why did he risk it? Because he was not confident that the Swiss government would let him remain in Switzerland. As it turned out, the government would have. But Mises could not be sure. So, he got out while the getting was good — just barely.

Here was his thinking. To guess wrong on staying seemed riskierthan betting wrong on leaving. But it was nip and tuck. He could have made the wrong decision. But he was focused. This decision was life-changing, but he could not have known this at the time. He saw it as life-preserving.

In the United States, he never had a paid position again. Donors paid his salary at New York University from 1945 to 1969. The university limited its largess to offering him a title, "visiting professor," and the right to teach graduate students in a weekly seminar. Among the auditors was Murray Rothbard, who became a major intellectual figure, though not in academia. Ron Paul would not be running for President if it were not for Rothbard and Mises. I would not be writing this report.

When Zuckerberg quit Harvard, he had a vision of what he could accomplish if he left. He compared it with what he could accomplish if he stayed. He saw Facebook as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which it was. If he missed it, nothing else comparable would come by.

Joe Green did not see it. He listened to his father, who gave conventional advice — advice that may have been based in part on the fear of a pile of canceled checks stamped "Harvard University."

Gates quit at the end of his sophomore year in 1974 without a comparable vision of an opportunity not to be missed. There were no microcomputers. IBM's Boca Raton PC operation came six years later. Gates had not gotten the call from Boca Raton to see if he had an operating system to sell, which he didn't. (He went out and bought it: Q-DOS.) He just wanted to pursue computers. He could have waited two more years to finish, but he was impatient. He preferred to do something outside of academia, which could help him in his calling, rather than take notes, take tests, write term papers, and get his degree and a job. He got a good job anyway at Honeywell.

Mick Jagger made the same decision to leave the London School of Economics in his freshman year. He might have made a very good bond salesman. Some of us think he should have. But he didn't, and he still doesn't think he should have. He might have gotten even less satisfaction.

This is the issue of fire in the belly. A handful of people have fire in the belly. They can put it out only by breaking ranks, breaking free, and devoting their time maniacally to some unique cause that no one else sees with equal clarity. These people change the world. But there are more who follow this path and fail than succeed.

It is that willingness to fail that marks these pioneers. We remember the pioneers. We never hear of the failures.

Along the dirt trail from Independence, Missouri to Oregon, there are graves. Each successive wagon train of entrepreneurs heading west saw those graves. They did not turn back. A few should have. But the price of settling the West was that trail of graves.

Madame Currie worked with radium too long. It killed her, but not before she changed the world.

Then there was Col. Custer. The bravado that made him a general in the Civil War caught up with him and his men in 1876. But he is remembered in history as few colonels ever are. (That did not do any good for his troops.) His lack of good judgment marked the high point of the plains Indians. There were people who, as children, read of Custer's defeat, who lived to see television images of men walking on the moon. Custer's Last Stand (capitalized) was more than a grave marker. It was a civilization marker. He got more than 15 minutes of fame.


There are dead-end jobs in life. But most of them can become stepping stones.

For several years, I spoke for 90 minutes several times a year to unemployed men and women who lived in the toughest part of Memphis. If you have seen "The Blind Side," you know about this part of Memphis. It's where the chief character of the movie, Michael Oher, grew up. He made his way out by way of football. Most residents don't, unless they move into other blighted parts of the city. (Note: there are some nice middle-class sections of the city where blacks live. Even the ghetto area is better cared for than socially comparable parts of other cities I have seen.)

My job was to persuade 15 to 20 adult students that they should stick with the jobs which the Jobs for Life program would get them. The program's placement rate was close to 100%. But the drop-out rate was high. They gave up easily. That was their weakness. They had the brains to get and keep entry-level jobs. They lacked long-run future orientation. As Mises called it, they were high time-preference people. As Edward Banfield called it, they were lower class.

Their moment of decision would come when boredom on the job challenged the "action" or irresponsibility. It was my job to persuade them to stick with the program. I pulled no punches. I told them what they knew. The jobs they could get would be dead-end jobs. I did my best to persuade them to look at those jobs as stepping stones, not dead ends. The jobs were dead ends. Their careers were not — unless they quit.

I taught them about the difference between calling and job. Their job would put food on the table. Their calling was the most important thing they could do in which they would be most difficult to replace. For the women, it was their role as mothers. They saw that. No problem. For the men, it should have been their role as fathers. I gathered that few of them saw this.

Mine was a hard sell. The program's drop-out rate for men was higher than for women even before the initial program was over. These men did not have a calling. So, their failure rate was high.

The first job was a dead-end activity. I told them this. It was a training opportunity. The calling was long term. That was what would guide their progression of success. Their calling would convert dead-end jobs into stepping stones.

I would like to think that my presentations made a difference, but I don't know. The program did not collect statistics on how many quit their jobs before and after I was brought in.

Still, what I focused on to make my presentation has proven useful in my writing and lecturing. I made a similar presentation to Ph.D.-level scholars. A few said it helped them to focus.


Mises in Vienna had a dead-end job: literally. He got out while he still could. The job in Switzerland probably was not a dead-end job. He taught graduate students. But, as it turned out, it would have been a dead-end career position. Europe did not want him after the War. The man who had gotten him the job, his disciple Wilhelm Röpke, retained influence by means of his disciple, Ludwig Erhard, who became finance minister and later Chancellor of Germany.

Mises was needed in the United States, but he could not have known this when he fled Switzerland. He arrived in 1940. There would not be even the tentative beginning of an Austrian School revival until a year after his death in 1973. He saw a few disciples extend parts of his legacy. The Foundation for Economic Education, up the Hudson 25 miles from New York City, was Misesian. It had marginal influence, and none academically. It would not have been clear to Mises that the dead-end job at New York University was a stepping stone for people who read his books from 1945 until his death in 1973. His position gave him a very tiny bully pulpit. But a small one in the United States was far greater in its impact than a graduate school in Geneva.

The hard money newsletter phenomenon began in the mid-1960s with Harry Schultz. There had been other pro-gold letters, but Schultz helped make it a phenomenon. If there was a patron saint of that movement, it was Mises. He began to get a hearing by way of writers who were outside of academia. There is no way that Mises could have seen this in 1940. The technology existed, for there was Kiplinger's letter. But there was no indication that the newsletter would become a recruiting tool for Mises' ideas.

He faced a real dead-end situation in 1940. He got on a bus and headed across France for the border with Spain. He made his way to New York City, not knowing what he would face. He won the cigar.

His jobs were a way to put food on the table. They let him write his books and articles. He never made enough money from his writing to support him. That was not the purpose of his books. His position at NYU helped to get his books published by Yale University Press, where the senior editor liked what he had to say. Mises did have an academic position. The editors at Yale probably did not know that it was an unpaid position. The title sounded good. That was what it took for the editor to get Mises' books into print: Human Action, Theory of Money and Credit, Socialism, and Theory and History. All of them are available for free downloading in the Literature section on

Mises as a scholar believed that a scholar's influence is best assessed by how many times other scholars cited his books. He was wrong. His growing reputation has come through other means than footnotes in academic treatises. It has come, above all, through a maverick Congressman's constant barrage of criticism of the Federal Reserve System. How could Mises have foreseen this in 1940, 1960, or 1970?

This is a reminder for all of us. We do not always live long enough to see the results of our efforts. But we should be able to see what our callings are. Mises understood his calling: writing his books, not teaching the people who were enrolled for credit in his seminars at NYU. A few of the auditors were the key to his future impact, not the enrolled students. He may have seen this in 1969, the year he retired. He could not have seen it in 1950. In 1968, he was the oldest full-time professor in the United States. He held on as long as he could.


As a brief overview of your calling, consider these factors:

  1. Where do you have a clear-cut advantage over your competitors?
  2. Is this advantage visible to others?
  3. Can you leverage this outside your present job?
  4. Can this leverage extend beyond your retirement?
  5. Can this leverage extend beyond your death?
  6. What are the technical tools of your leverage?
  7. Are you skilled in the use of these tools?
  8. Are your competitors equally skilled?

You should give careful consideration to these issues. Your calling may not depend on correct answers, followed by consistent implementation, but asking these questions will help you begin to extend your influence.

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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