In case you didn’t know: In Cambridge, bicycles rule the roads. In the the more studenty parts of
the city at least. Ok, it’s nothing like what you get in many Asian cities, but by European
standards it’s not bad, as demonstrated by this video (embedded below, or
follow this link to YouTube):
Of course, I do
virtually all my travelling around town by bike – the traffic is congested, the bus service isn’t
particularly good, everything is fairly flat and close together, so it’s by far the most sensible
option. And during all this cycling to work or visiting customers, it was just a matter of time
before I came to think of cycling as a general metaphor for my approach to work. So here goes.
Highly tenuous, but maybe mildly amusing.
I must start with a confession: I sense a kind of
simple-minded delight when I can overtake cars while on my bike. Which happens fairly regularly in
some spots. The cars are all stuck in a queue, but I can put my weight on the pedals, wiggle my way
past them, take short cuts via pavements and back alleys. Not only do I get to my destination in a
shorter time, and don’t have to pay for parking, I also have more fun in the process.
are the days where it’s cold and rainy. You get out the high-visibility jacket (praying that it’ll
save you from getting run over by a lorry), waterproofs, wrap up warm, and get out there on the road
nonetheless. Those are the times which put many people off cycling, and they require the greatest
level of determination. But, at the risk of sounding clichéd, it’s also invigorating.
of cycling is that you try to get somewhere quickly and efficiently, but completely out of your own
strength. This means it’s more satisfying, more flexible and more cool than any other means of
transport. Start-up business is just like that. You try to beat the big guys by being quick and
agile, by knowing the short-cuts, by avoiding the traffic jams. It’s a sociable experience if you
can convince a few friends to get on their bikes and come along too. And who knows, if you take it
seriously enough, you might get to cycle in the Tour de France one day.
Working in a corporate, in
contrast, is much more like taking the bus. It’s comfortable, but not much quicker than cycling, and
it’s always the same route. If you climb the corporate ranks and get into a more senior managerial
position, the experience is more like driving a car. Now you have control over some pretty strong
forces, but you have to play very carefully by the rules, otherwise you cause accidents.
the car of corporate careers may take you further in terms of distance, but I don’t think it holds
the same level of satisfaction as cycling. Think of the Tour de France. You can still be part of it
if you’re a car driver – unfortunately you will not be part of the race itself, but your job will
be simply to carry the TV cameras. A sideshow, not a main actor.
I think this metaphor is working
surprisingly well. Let’s see how far we can push the comparison between different career paths and
different means of
Academic research is like walking. It’s definitely the best way of
getting around a new and unknown place, or one with difficult terrain. You get to enjoy lots of nice
flowers and other details along the way, but it’s slow – you can’t expect to travel very
Corporate careers are like taking the bus when you start out, and like
driving a car when you are more senior. For many people that’s the best way, it’s pretty safe,
and maybe a bit
Start-up business is like cycling. It’s hard work, but you get to
discover new and exciting places, you get there pretty quickly if it’s not too far, and you get the
satisfaction of doing it out of your own strength. Also, when you’re cycling and you have a bit of
spare time, it only takes an instant to become a pedestrian, so you have some of the benefits of
academic research too.
When a VC (venture capitalist) invests in a start-up business, I see it as being a
bit like attaching a rocket booster to your bicycle, putting on a helmet, lighting the fuse and
holding on tight. The kind of thing you might expect to see on
Top Gear. With a bit of luck you will leave all the cars
behind, find yourself at a garage which will transform your bike into a heavy-duty motorbike, and
you can go driving around the nicest places in the world for years to come. With less luck, you will
fall off and get a few bruises, but probably you will laugh at the kick you got out of it, and
you’ll immediately start searching for another bike and another rocket booster to give it another
To conclude, I’d say that these are all good ways of getting from one place to
another, and clearly some people will prefer one type over another. But you should know what the
options are, and make a conscious decision. The same thing applies with work.