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What FedEx can teach us about turning our chores into careers…

Last Updated:

May 24, 2024

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Welcome to Edition #53 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? You should double dip!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? FedEx, the world’s third-largest package delivery company, started as a college homework assignment.

It’s 1965. Frederick W. Smith, a student at Yale University, just wrote an economics paper proposing a more efficient delivery system. His hypothesis? That computers—which were just coming to market—were useless if they couldn’t be fixed quickly.

This one hypothesis led to an idea: a delivery system that would “guarantee overnight delivery”—making computers fixable in a day. 

As myth has it, his professor gave him a “C.”

Despite the “mediocre” grade, Smith couldn’t let the idea go. After returning to the US after serving in the Vietnam War, Smith realized that his predictions were correct: Delivery systems could not keep up with businesses’ technological needs.

So, Smith returned to his idea from 6 years prior—and started designing a new delivery system.

His system introduced two innovations:

  1. A “hub-and-spoke” network where packages were first sent to a regional distribution center (a “hub”) and then sent to their final destination (a “spoke”)—in contrast to a  “point-by-point” delivery system where packages were directly sent from warehouse to destination.
  2. The use of both planes and trucks, unlike any other delivery services at the time.

Smith took 2 years to test his idea using a 25-city network and empty boxes. Then, in 1973, Smith launched his new company, “Federal Express Corporation.”

At first, Federal Express lost money. Then, after 26 months of losses, the company broke even—and just one decade later, made a billion dollars in revenue. 

Today, FedEx (renamed to match the nickname customers had given the company) has been named one of the “TIME100 Most Influential Companies” as well as one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For”. Just last year, the company brought in a revenue of over $90 billion. FedEx also delivered the first COVID-19 vaccine in the US (thank you Kaitlin Karikó!).

So, the next time you find yourself doing homework (or researching something at work), remember Smith—who took an assignment he had to do and transformed it into something he wanted to do.

Frederick W. Smith, founder of FedEx, in 1976 with a Federal Express plane (via Commercial Appeal).

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Your “have-to-do’s” might be the secret to unlocking your hidden “want-to-do’s.”

In your career and life, there are things that you have to do and things you want to do.

What Smith did was take something that he had to do (his homework) and “double dip” to morph it into something that he wanted to do (build a business).

Faced with a homework assignment at school or work—and thinking ugh? Try filling in these blanks:

1. “I keep daydreaming about _________.”

E.g., “I keep daydreaming about launching my own YouTube channel.”

2. “What if I pitched the idea of _________? Then, I could use _________ to double dip and _________.”

E.g., “What if I pitched the idea of creating a YouTube channel for my company? Then, I could use my day job to double dip and learn more about how to set up a channel from scratch.”

Sometimes, the “double dipping” opportunity will be a perfect match because there’s so much flexibility in your assignment that you can take it in whatever direction you’d like (school projects are great for this, as my wife Shuo and I teach in our UC Berkeley class as told in this Fast Company article).

Other times (like in the example above), you’ll merely be able to use your “have to do” to learn a bit more about your “want to do.” Still, you’re double-dipping—and, as a result, saving yourself time.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: When I was in my second year of business school, I knew I needed a certain number of credits to graduate. The problem was, I had 6 credits left and no classes that excited me. So, I pitched the idea of an independent project to a professor… and came out on the other side with my book, The Unspoken Rules.

Double dip!


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