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Crash the Gate: What the Class of 2014 Needs to Know About the New Route to Success

02/06/2014 02:25 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

It's 2014, and yet moldy old formulas for career success are lingering well past their expiration dates. But as I'm planning to elaborate on in a commencement speech I'll be giving later this year, I finally see an end to that antiquated career path (find a big company, get your foot in the door, play by the rules, work long and hard, climb patiently up the ladders, and be sure and make nice with all the gatekeepers).

That path is crumbling, so why waste time and energy following it? Busting economies and booming tech innovations are breaking up the old systems and opening the way for new ones. What's the point of loading up on debt and sweating your way through the well-worn rut of college when more dynamic and creative approaches can produce better outcomes faster? Fellowships, apprenticeships, gap years, travel and even straight-up dropping out to hack can be great routes to success.

However you define success -- learning, money, status, influence, satisfaction, fun, philanthropy -- there are plenty of ways to achieve it. It's there for anyone who has the smarts to come up with an idea, the cojones to give it a go, the diligence to execute it well and the ability (and, OK, maybe luck) to time it right.

It might seem safer to kowtow to the gatekeepers, but long term it's going to be better to crash the gates, to break the rules. But do it creatively and effectively, with an eye not just on being rebellious for its own sake, but also on generous thoughts for the future. The next generation of success stories will come from the people who rewrite the rules.

The recent history of the media industry most clearly illustrates the weakening of the gatekeeper culture. In music, the all-powerful gatekeepers used to be mainstream record labels and Top 40 radio programmers; book publishing's legendary editors decided which authors were worthy of publication; a handful of executives controlled newspapers, magazines, radio and television; and movie moguls determined what got made, and who starred in it.

Look at those fields in 2014.

Any band can record music, shoot a video, put it online and build a following. Singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer split from her label and raised $1.2 million to fund her 2012 album through Kickstarter. Her message for musicians applies to other fields: "Show me 1,000 talented musicians... and I'll show you 1,000 ways to make a career in music."

In print, legacy publishing houses are losing their power. Of the best-selling ebooks of 2013, "self-published" came in third with 99 titles, ahead of HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. Magazines and newspapers are seeing circulation declining, revenue bleeding and staff rapidly diminishing. Yet amid this decline, teen style blogger Tavi Gevinson succeeded on her own terms with the online magazine Rookie.

In TV, series such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, both commissioned by Netflix, make us wonder about the future of last-century TV. Who needs it? In last week's New Yorker, Ken Auletta asked just that question -- in a profile praising Netflix, founder Reed Hastings' ability at "taking advantage of what he calls viewers' 'managed disaffectation' with traditional television" -- and pointed out that the audience for the broadcast networks is one-third what it was in the late '70s, "lost to a proliferating array of viewing options."

Ditto for movies: The news about the Sundance Film Festival, as just one indicator, is that "most of the esoteric fare will land on small screens, not big ones," in the words of the New York Times. Domestic box office receipts for the most notable indies are down from their peak in 2006. "The very concept of a 'sale' -- the old Sundance measuring stick--has shrunk along with a diminishing theatrical audience," continues the Times. "Companies that once paid millions of dollars for the right to distribute a film will now often acquire a picture for no money down. Instead they promise to put it in front of viewers and give the filmmaker a cut of the proceeds, if there are any."

It's no coincidence that there's new scrutiny on internships in media -- and in other industries, too. Smart young people are starting to see that sucking up to the gatekeepers isn't necessary, now that the value of what's behind those gates is in doubt. In an environment where jobs were coveted, the appeal was a chance to learn the ropes, gain valuable experience and maybe get a paid position. Wow. The demeaning reality was more often a chance to get smart kids to do a bunch of menial stuff for little or nothing. Now that the end goal is less attractive, internships are on the way out as interns see through them. Some have even sued.

Media isn't alone in this phenomenon: Fast fashion brands such as H&M, Ikea and Zara crashed the gates with affordable fashion and furnishings for everyday people. They completely uprooted the old model of having "high fashion" for people who could afford it and plain old clothes for everyone else.

And then there's Bitcoin. The virtual currency -- an open-source peer-to-peer payment system created by a hacker or hackers using a pseudonym -- is looking like a real contender to the traditional banking system; TechCrunch just reported on its potential "new stability." Banks, governments and credit card companies are getting nervous.

If something as seemingly unshakable as the monetary system is on the verge of being uprooted, how can there possibly be a reliable road map for careers anymore? Here's the advice I would offer to anyone entering (or keeping up with) the job market today:

  1. The five biggest U.S. cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) will become less important. They're the last bastions of industries still ruled by gatekeepers. Go south and west, young men and women, where there's plenty of buzz and few gatekeepers. These regions are where the new jobs will be.
  2. The career paths of the future have yet to be invented, and they'll keep changing anyway. Assume that your career is yours to invent. Jobs that sound like they existed five years ago are probably doomed.
  3. With internships on the way out, brand "Me" is the future. Nurture yours. If you have the drive and the smarts to get an internship, you probably have what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
  4. Unusual combinations of skills and backgrounds will be valuable. Even if you take the college-corporate path, think creatively about where and what. Big-name schools might not be worth the expense. Nontraditional degrees can give you an edge when everyone else has taken the safe, obvious courses. U.S. News and World Report recently featured a list of 11 hot nontraditional majors that lead to jobs, including cybersecurity and computer game design.
  5. Personal networks will replace corporate hierarchies and recruiters, so invest in friends and fans. Treat your relationships as long-term investments with the potential to grow into collaborations and new ventures when the time is right. You never know when that time will be until it comes. In the meantime, enjoy the connections.