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An Interview with Ben Casnocha

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This interview was excerpted from a recent post on Study Hacks, an e-mail newsletter dedicated to tips, tricks, and hacks for getting the most out of the college experience, and based on the philosophies laid out in How to Become a Straight-A Student and How to Win at College.


My friend Ben Casnocha recently published his first book, My Start-up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley. Ben has an interesting story to tell. He first got involved in the tech boom when he was 12, and by high school he was heading a multi-million dollar company. What makes his book interesting, however, is that it bypasses the rah-rah, self-congratulation common among the young entrepreneur set, instead capturing, with remarkable lucidity, the complexities of trying to balance being a teenager and running a business. It also replaces the generic advice endemic to the genre ("follow your dreams and it will all work out") with practical mediations on issues such as the role of luck in big successes and the proper care and feeding of mentors. The overarching theme of My Start-up Life is that many of the skills related to entrepreneurship can be applied to any endeavor.

What makes Ben relevant to Study Hacks is that he is heading off to college in the fall. I thought it would be interesting to interview Ben regarding how his experiences will shape his path through higher education. Our conversation is reproduced below. For more information on Ben, his book, or his popular blog, check out his website.


STUDY HACKS: Your book promotes the idea of being "CEO of your own life." What does that mean?

BEN: It means adopting the entrepreneurial world view in all that you do -- not just starting a business. It means thinking different, challenging the status quo, striving for impact, and generally maintaining a commitment to carve your own life path and not outsource that vital task to anyone else like a parent or professor.

SH: You're heading off to college in the fall. How do these ideas apply to this new environment?

BEN: To be CEO of your college life means you will think about what you really want to get out of it. You won't just accept the default. You won't just sign up for random classes. You will talk to people, cold call professors, sample widely, ask for exceptions, explore nooks and crannies; in short, you will be entrepreneurial in how you create a four year experience.

SH: How does the social aspect of college integrate into this framework? Or, in other, cruder words: is it possible to be CEO of your own life and still get chicks?

BEN: Absolutely.

SH: But are you worried about not conforming to the typical behavior of your fellow undergraduates? That is, downplaying work, and trying to act uncaring. How do you think they will react to someone who is following the beat of his own drummer?

BEN: I will conform a little. To be part of a group, we all need to give up a little of our individuality. However, in general, I think college is the time when most of us begin to extend ourselves in new directions, so I'm expecting that "beating on your own drum" will be embraced more than in high school.

SH:Let's get specific: name three things you plan to do in your first year of college to help you get more out of the experience than the average undergraduate.

BEN: 1. Reach out to 5-6 professors who won't be teaching me but who sound interesting anyways. Take them to lunch. 2. Engage in the ecosystem AROUND the college. For me, this is Los Angeles and all that it offers. 3. Talk to the Registrar and Dean about flexibility in my schedule so I can pursue various extracurricular activities. In high school, I had great success at persuading them to loosen the normal academic requirements and schedules.

SH: Give an example of an extracurricular activity that would require a special course load.

BEN: Anything that's both extensive and intensive. Extensive means it involves a wide range of activities (starting a business certainly is extensive) and you probably have to be in various locations. Intensive means it has to consume a lot of energy to be done right.

SH: Another specific question: how does your experience as an entrepreneur affect how you will tackle schoolwork?

BEN:I will strive to pass my classes but not over optimize. The reason most A+ students don't make good entrepreneurs is because they don't settle for good enough. I pay close attention to diminishing returns. I want to get as much as possible out of each class I take, and once I've reached that optimal point, devote the rest of my time and energy to other activities. This may mean that for some classes I spend little time if they don't seem stimulating.

[Ed: We'll have to introduce Ben to STRAIGHT-A -- with the right strategies, there is little difference, in terms of effort, between learning the material and scoring top grades.]

SH: Let's do a sample scenario. I'm an undergraduate. I'm not quite sure what I want to do with my life, but I'm ambitious, and would like to do something big and important before I graduate; I just don't know how. One thing I'm really interested in is clever technologies for helping to reduce global warming. Give me a battle-plan for jump-starting my life.

BEN: First, figure out if you're really interested in clever technologies to reduce global warming. Many people think they are interested in something, but turn out not to be. This is because we tend to absorb the interests of others as our own. The best way to figure out what you're interested in is to expose yourself to as much random stuff as possible. Sure, go to a few green tech conferences and do some research online, but also do other things. Explore some secondary interests. Talk to a priest and then a workaholic tech entrepreneur. Get varying perspectives. You'd be surprised how many people respond graciously to a stranger who reaches out and asks for their perspective. Then get going. If you do indeed decide to try to fight global warming, start taking action, start doing things, and build your plan as you go.

SH: What's the most frustrating misperception people tend to generate about you?

BEN: Hmm. Perhaps that I've figured out all the answers. I still have much to learn. A little youthful success is far from total understanding.

SH: Do you feel like people expect you to do something amazing at college? Do you expect this of yourself?

BEN: I think there is always pressure to one-up yourself at each new stage. I feel that pressure, yes. But it's not crippling. As for expectations, I consider the expectations of others, but it's subordinate to my own expectations and desires. This is a key distinction. Fundamentally, the more intrinsically motivated you are the better.