In his widely quoted 2012 Wired article, Better Than Human: Why Robots Will — And Must — Take Our Jobs, Kevin Kelly explains why he believes that 70% of current jobs will no longer exist in future decades – including professional gigs such as law or medicine that were immune from previous upheavals in the labour market. If you don’t find this notion a little terrifying, I suspect that you are not being completely honest with yourself. In this world of robotics and breakneck change and disintermediation, all of us will be challenged to stay relevant; in fact, this will become our most important job. I try not to tell too many stories about Jack Welch, my former boss, but this is one time when a little reminiscing is justified.
In the early 1990s, I was working for GE and participating in a study of Japanese industry. This was a time when GE, like most American companies, was really struggling to understand the secret to Japan’s growing global economic dominance. One of the often-cited factors was Japan’s commitment to stable lifetime employment, a core practice at all large Japanese firms at the time. Jack’s response to this challenge was to say that GE would never commit to lifetime employment, as it was just too difficult to predict future business needs; however, Jack did promise that a career at GE would guarantee future employability resulting from GE’s leading-edge management practices and technology.
I remember thinking that this seemed like a bit of a weak rejoinder to the Japanese challenge, although history has proven Jack to be on the right track. The most precious thing that an employer can offer is the opportunity to stay relevant. Not all of us are fortunate enough to work for an organization that is committed to our professional development, and so it has become even more important to take personal responsibility for staying relevant. Beyond hard and soft skills – things that in our contemporary business culture might include “monetizing social media,” “enterprise risk management” and “managing virtual collaborative teams” – there is the much more daunting challenge of learning to re-invent ourselves, potentially many times, during the course of our professional lives.
Re-inventing ourselves is disorienting and terrifying. It involves giving up all of the positional power and privilege that we have built through a first successful career and accepting that we are now virtual beginners in a new endeavour. Some of our skills might transfer, but it is a foolish delusion not to accept that we have much to learn. The path through a new career follows similar rites of passage as our previous career, and it is crucial to not find this de-motivating, in the sense that we find ourselves “at the same place that we were 20 years ago.” Cultural anthropologists, beginning with Arnold van Gennep, mapped out the path to social (or organizational) maturity through the liminal process of rites of passage. What has changed in our contemporary business culture is that we can no longer run this gauntlet once in our adult lives and then put up our feet as tenured executives. We must have the resilience to enter this disorienting liminal state several times in our careers, always ready to fall off the ladder, dust ourselves off and start over as a beginner in a new career.
After having chosen a dramatic career change myself (from public company CEO to coach and advisor), I can say that it is invigorating to start in a new direction with the freedom of a beginner’s mind. It sort of feels like starting a new game of Monopoly – full of potential and with $200 in my pocket – and without the burden of having to pay rent on Boardwalk!
Artist credit: Victoria Cowan (click on picture to be directed to her website)