The Four Career Strengths

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What we have to decide — once we’re okay, once we’re not living on three dollars a day, once we have a roof, once we have health care — is we have to decide, “How much more money, and what am I going to trade for it?” Because we always trade something for it, unless we’re fortunate enough that the very thing we want to do is the thing that also gives us our maximum income. — Seth Godin

A popular career goal is to find work you love and make a killing at it. And there are a zillion ideas on how best to balance enjoyment and moneymaking. Generally, though, the more of one you get, the less of the other. Fun jobs usually don’t pay as well. It’s a binary choice: pleasure or cash. 

Joseph Campbell famously suggested, “Follow your bliss.” But Stephen Pollan replies, “To search for work that’s fulfilling emotionally is noble but quixotic, especially today.” Pollan suggests you labor for the money and then fulfill your emotional needs elsewhere with friends and hobbies.

Each has a point. On the one hand, at the end of your life you probably won’t wish you’d spent more time at the office. On the other, it’s hard to watch your kids’ faces redden with shame every time you drive them to school in your rusty beater.

Most people take the cash and put up with the boredom.

We perform our work duties repetitively — over and over, forty hours a week, month after month — for decades. Even the most stimulating hobbies grow tedious at that rate of effort. If we search for pleasure on the job, we’re sorely disappointed. (As the saying goes, “That’s why they call it work.”) No wonder we’re exhausted at day’s end and can barely keep our eyes open in front of the TV set.

Even if we labor at something we love — an art or science, a sport, an outdoor activity — we can get caught up in endless paperwork and the constant hustle for funding or clients. The calling we once loved becomes encrusted with an overgrowth of dull chores.

Maybe we’re looking for the solution in the wrong place. Perhaps there’s more to the issue than “fun versus money”.

One of the joys of life is to create value for others. And some of the sweetest words in English are “Thank you!” and “Good work!” We’ll gladly toil all day just to hear them. Besides, nearly every business produces things people want to have, so there can be at least some sense of mission, no matter where you work.

Another of the great joys is is to attain mastery in a craft or skill. The auto mechanic tunes an engine the way a woodworker turns a table leg or a stylist trims a head of hair. When we do it right, we get a type of “high” that’s hard to imitate — the well-thought-out brief; the artfully managed negotiation; the report that solves the production problem.

Most jobs have moments of social fun. I sometimes visit a fast-food restaurant where the workers enjoy each other’s company, joking and kidding, and are warm and cheerful to the customers. At most offices, you can get a similar experience during lunch breaks and around the water-cooler. 

Of course, the money we earn is fundamental. It’s a great pleasure (and often a relief) to deposit those paychecks into our accounts.

Since it’s hard to get too much positive feedback from others, and because we can never sustain ultimate perfection in the things we do, the creation of value and the pursuit of craft are two stimulating goals that can help meet our need for career satisfaction. The fun we find at work, and the paychecks we receive, begin to seem almost like extras.

It appears, then, that we have four ways, not merely two, to fill out a satisfying work experience:

  1. Create value: The goods or services we provide — whether to a client, boss, or co-worker — add benefit to people and give meaning to the tasks we perform. Any way we can improve value will add to our experience in the workplace.
  2. Master the craft: To do great work, we must test ourselves and rise to the occasion every day. A good job well done is like a badge we pin on our souls.
  3. Have fun: We can look for and share positive social moments at work. Beyond the enjoyment, they help bond us to our cohorts and improve teamwork. 
  4. Get paid: The more we emphasize 1, 2, and 3, above, the more our earnings can improve, either here or at the next job.

Notice that “fun” has dropped a couple of ranks, and “value” and “craft” now provide most of the focus.

When you stress value creation and high quality, your work morphs from “boring routine” to “meaningful calling” and your experience changes from “punching a clock” to “answering a challenge”. The job no longer feels like drudgery and, instead, takes on a sense of purpose. Both Joseph Campbell and Stephen Pollan would be proud of you.

The fun and money? They’re just icing on the cake.

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A Robot Took My Job

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If you are getting paid in excess of the value you create, you are either (a) a bureaucrat or (b) soon to find yourself replaced by a machine. — Adam C. Smith & Stewart Dompe

Back when ebooks first became popular and everyone bought tablet computers to read them, a magazine carried a cartoon in which two men, garbed in Renaissance clothing, were standing next to an early printing press, and before them on a table lay a brand-new book. One of the men said, “These are nice, but there’ll always be scrolls.”

Over the centuries, people have invented countless labor-saving devices, and today we reap enormous benefits from them: vehicles to transport us, washing machines for our clothes, indoor plumbing for fresh water at the turn of a tap, electricity to light our homes and refrigerate our food and power our TVs. 

Most of these devices have substituted for human effort and thrown people out of work. Most of us who are employed tend to avert our eyes from this problem. After all, it’s something that has happened slowly over the decades, and people managed to adapt and find new work. But times have changed. Jobs are becoming obsolete at an alarming rate. We need to rethink this challenge.

At the dawn of the Industrial Age, the Jacquard Loom took work from weavers, who responded with the first labor action: they destroyed looms and demanded the machines be banned. A century and a half later, a story circulated that Henry Ford Jr and labor leader Walter Reuther were inspecting a new car factory, and Ford pointed to the fancy automated machinery on the floor, chiding Reuther, “How will you get those to join your union?” Reuther snapped back with, “How will you get them to buy your cars?”

Each invention has created markets for new kinds of work, and today most people are still working hard. We haven’t yet been obsoleted. But in recent decades, after recessions, businesses have failed to re-hire with the usual robustness. Economists now talk about “jobless recoveries”. The arrival of robotics, computing, and information technology has allowed for large-scale automation of routine tasks. Mid-level jobs (factory workers, office clerks) have succumbed to computerization, while low-skill labor (janitors, home healthcare workers) and high-skill work (attorneys, bankers, scientists) continue apace.

No wonder it seems as if there are more poor and rich people, while the middle class dwindles.

On close inspection, all this makes perfect, if discouraging, sense. Low-wage routine jobs involve the kind of motor skills anyone can do: vacuuming, making beds, taking out the trash. Yet these abilities are daunting for robotics.

At the other end of the spectrum sit computer programmers and researchers and financial managers and attorneys and doctors, all endowed with high-end technical expertise. These tasks involve a great deal of intuition and pattern recognition, abilities tough to program digitally.

What’s common about both groups is that their skills are hard to automate. It’s more difficult for a robot to pick up a glass of water than for a computer to play chess. Thus janitors and high-status professionals are safe. For now.

Soon enough, though, there will come a moment in history — the Singularity — when machine intelligence exceeds in all respects that of people. At that moment all bets are off about the future of humanity. Assuming we survive the lethal dangers of such a juncture, what then will become of us as workers, as employees, as money earners? Will we be tossed from our jobs because machines can do everything better? Will robots and automation act like Jacquard looms on steroids, laying waste to entire marketplaces of employment? How will people buy food, pay the rent, and maintain their vehicles if they no longer receive their regular income checks? 

Nay-sayers argue that there’ll always be jobs because, no matter how many robots can provide stuff, there are ever more things people desire, and therefore there’ll always be a demand for an extra pair of hands. The problem is that, in the Singularity future, automatons will likely reproduce themselves quickly, as needed, in anticipation of desires. In other words, robots will also out-compete us in job creation.

How might societies respond?

• Riots — It happened in the early 1800s with textile workers; why wouldn’t it happen again this time, when most jobs suddenly disappear?

• Transfer payments — There’ll be calls for minimum personal incomes, essentially welfare for all, paid by the rich, to give consumers cash so they can buy products and keep production churning along.

• Nationalization of ownership — Governments might be tempted — along the lines of third-world “land reform” transfers of acreage to the poor — to force a partial allocation of stock ownership to the masses, so that everyone owns a minimal stake in the machines of production and the income that flows from it.

• Collectives of the unemployed — Groups locked out of robotic prosperity will develop what resources they have and trade among themselves until they accumulate enough material wealth to buy their own robots.

• A paradise of freebies — The same cost efficiencies that allow automatons to displace human workers will make products so cheap that anyone with pocket change can buy them. A TV for a dollar. A car for a hundred bucks. Dinner for a dime. Combined with a national wage, this will create a society where everyone — employed or not — is, in effect, independently wealthy.

Until that happens: those of us who need jobs will want to adapt to the shifting work environment. Here are some ideas:

Be useful — Automation is as yet poorly developed in areas requiring complex human movement, which can be anything from house cleaning to fine arts. Robots are still basically clumsy and autistic. The last jobs to fall will likely involve simple labor and/or strong social skills. If you can jump in and help with a variety of tasks, and if you play well with others on a team, you’ll likely keep your job longer. 

Strengthen your technical skills — Anything technical can be automated, but that process is by no means complete. Your know-how can serve you for a number of years hence, so keep it polished.

Work on your marketing skills — Sales require a human touch — who wants to get a pitch from a machine? — and we’re all to some extent marketing ourselves at work. Don’t assume your job is safe simply because you got hired. Layoffs will be rampant, but those who can make clear their value to employers will last longer.

Work multiple jobs — Even full-timers need to keep their options open in the current climate. Side jobs can expand into full-time work, or at the very least can backstop you if things go bad at your regular job.

Develop multiple streams of income — Any side job you can automate will provide cash with little effort, so you’ll have time to concentrate on the work that needs your full attention. Also keep a close watch on your retirement accounts and other investments, with an eye to growing them enough to support you before your expected retirement age. Forty years from now the world will be a very different place, so don’t assume Social Security will be there to prop you up, especially if you’re young.

Stay loose and adaptive — The world will change in surprising ways, and you’ll want to be ready to take advantage of it. If you rest on your laurels, or if you depend too much on one source of income, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a financial butt-kicking. It’s better to prepare so you can take advantage of changing circumstances.

None of this is bad news, not really. It’s different news. It may look like misfortune, but it’s simply a new set of conditions that contain opportunities. To quote an old sage: the prepared person is one who takes life as “an endless challenge, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges.”

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UPDATE: Robots will replace workers, reduce costs by 90%

UPDATE: Robots will take half of British jobs

UPDATE: Book The Future of the Professions

UPDATE: The job search as a full-time job

UPDATE: Automation will replace half of the world’s jobs in 30 years

UPDATE: A national income for the Post-Employment Age

UPDATE: Get ready to work alongside robots

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The End of Job Security

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If your job description isn’t already changing, it probably will in the near future. You can’t afford to stand still in your career. — Daniel Burrus

Today, a tap on your smartphone brings a clean, quiet, inexpensive taxi service to your door in less than five minutes. Another tap on your phone brings up a list of private rooms you can stay in while on a trip. Tap again and you get a roster of assistants who will bid to help you with nearly any type of project.

Meanwhile, workers grouse because they must labor at two part-time jobs instead of one full-time. They grouse because businesses are hiring help from overseas instead of locally. They grouse because corporations use robots instead of humans. They grouse because suddenly their work lives aren’t secure anymore.

What’s going on? Clearly employment is shifting and changing. Advances in technology bring conveniences to our lives while threatening our jobs.

Yet there’s more to it. The time of the corporate worker may be coming to an end, and we’re not ready for it. We are challenged, not merely to get a second job or write protest letters to our legislators, but to change our attitude.

Most of our great-great grandparents worked on farms. They had to bring in the crops, slop the pigs, milk Bossy, and batten down the barn against storms. If they got kicked by a horse, there was no emergency vehicle to rescue them. If the crops failed, they could starve.

The post-Civil War Industrial Revolution put huge factories in the cities, and people flocked there to find steady, if dull, work. Over the decades, factories and office buildings became the centers of our work lives. The entire culture shifted to adapt. It’s taken decades to get to this point, and it’s proven to be a tremendously prosperous way of life.

We’re raised to be workers in this corporate world. We start in families where Mom and Dad are the bosses who hand us chores and give us allowances. We grouse about them but depend on them. For school, we must get up to an alarm on weekdays, show up on time, do our studies, and receive our grades. We grouse about the teachers but depend on them. When we graduate, we find jobs where we must get up to an alarm on weekdays, show up on time, do our work and receive our pay. We grouse about the bosses but depend on them.

Today, most of us do as we’re told and receive our paychecks, all in a safe locale. We’re supported and protected by the institutions in which we toil. And now the rug’s being pulled out from under us.

High-speed advances in technology make for high-speed changes in the work world. Products and services get taken over by computerized processes. It’s no longer the age of “forty years and a gold watch” — it’s the age of the contractor and the entrepreneur. And most people aren’t ready for it at all.

In a corporate culture our work incentives are similar to what they were back at home and in school: do what you’re told, don’t make trouble, get your grades— er, pay. We’re rewarded for behaving like obedient children. It’s a tidal pull, and most of us succumb to it. We’re juvenilized by society. 

Just because we’re over 21 doesn’t mean we’ve grown up. We think, “Well, I finished school, got a job and a car and a place to live, and I’m dating a great person and we’re gonna get married and raise kids. I must be a grown-up.” But that’s a child’s idea of adulthood!

If you’re waiting in the placement office for someone to pick you, you will be consistently undervalued. — Seth Godin

There’s almost no conversation about what it means to be an adult. There’s no percentage in doing so for our elders, teachers, employers, and leaders. We’re easier to manage if we’re docile and well behaved. 

That we feel entitled — especially to various goodies from the government — explains why so many of us, in our work and civic lives, talk like we’re spoiled children. That we often spend our nights and weekends in front of TVs — or getting drunk — speaks to the paucity of our courage (and the drudgery of our safe jobs). Succumbing to childlike fears, we replace the great and ennobling quests of our dreams with mere recreation.

Most of us sleep-walk our way through our careers, and now many of those careers lie in tatters. For the rest of us, it’s only a matter of time before the same fate befalls us. It’s not safe anymore. And we can’t go back.  

Something fell by the wayside as the farming past morphed into the corporate present. Those farmers had an advantage we lack.

Back then, you had to be responsible for your outcomes in an often dangerous environment. In the corporate culture, you can stay a child forever, but on the farm you had to grow up or die. 

The good news is that we can reclaim what the farmers knew. And we can use that wisdom to help us deal with an uncertain future.

That wisdom is responsibility.

In today’s uncertain, unstable work environment, we need to find within ourselves the responsible and adaptive person our forbears could invoke in troubled times. We need, once again, to become adults.

Responsibility involves being able and willing to take care of oneself, to take charge of one’s life. If we accept the challenge and take responsibility for our work lives, we will find, not danger and insecurity, but challenge and opportunity.

We need, especially, to be able to adapt to changing conditions, to roll with the punches. We need to “surf the wave we’re on.” The technology that threatens our job security also offers ways to improve our situation.

What we’ve got, today, is tremendous opportunities disguised as troubling shifts in workplace stability.

The information revolution is reversing the industrial revolution. What the industrial age did was it allowed individuals to team up in mechanized hierarchical ways to create factories and production. . . . In the future it’s all headed towards individual brands. . . . We’re all founders. We are all meant to work for ourselves. — Naval Ravikant

Here, then, are some starter ideas for navigating the roiling seas of the changing work environment:

• The career middle path: Computers and robots tend to replace human workers in areas where the task can be calculated and calibrated mathematically. Oddly, the simplest jobs are often the hardest to automate. (It’s more difficult for a machine to lift a glass of water than to play a game of chess.) Meanwhile, some of the most challenging and prestigious jobs — data analysis, disease diagnosis, factory management — are straightforward tasks for computing. Recruiters no longer prize MBA grads as much as good salespeople and entrepreneurial self-starters. Some of the highest-skill careers are disappearing, while many of the low-paying, low-skill, high-touch jobs still thrive. Safest, for now, are those mid-level careers — craftspeople, tradespeople (plumbers, electricians), sales — that require several skill sets or advanced people skills. Plan accordingly.

The 10 most difficult roles to fill are: skilled trade workers (eg. electricians, chefs, butchers, mechanics), sales representatives, mechanical and civil engineers, technicians, drivers, management/executives, accounting or otherwise financial professionals, office support staff, IT staff, and production or machine operations workers. — Daniel Burrus

• Multiple career identities: We often define ourselves by our jobs: “I’m a doctor” … “I’m a salesperson” … “I’m an artist” … “I’m a scientist”. Today it may be better to regard ourselves as people who juggle several opportunities at once. At the very least, don’t let the work define you:

• “I’m a sales person” — Instead: “I do sales work, and I’m developing some new product ideas.”

• “I’m an office worker” — Instead: “I do work for the [so-and-so] company, and I’m taking night classes and developing a home-based project.”

• “I’m a doctor” – Instead: “I treat patients at the local hospital and teach a class at the university, and I’m writing a book about medicine.” 

Think for yourself as a free agent, responsible for your own security and always on the lookout for the next great job. — Stephen Pollan

• Two part-time jobs: Many companies have responded to government demands for more full-time benefits by hiring part-time workers. We can bitch and moan about this, but we’d be behaving like kids who grouse about their unfair parents. Instead, we can invoke our inner adult and grab the opportunities at hand: 

• Two part-time jobs can add up to more money than one full-time job in the same field. 

• A couple of part-time jobs often allow for flexible scheduling, so a worker can arrange for a free day to visit the doctor (or Disneyland). 

• Workers can receive ObamaCare, so this part of the benefits is covered. Meanwhile, other bennies are effectively paid for by lowering salaries. (There’s no free lunch, kiddies. Remember: we need to grow up.)

• If you lose one part-time job, you still have the other, which is better than losing all of it at once. 

• It’s easier to replace one of the part-time jobs (if, say, you hate it) than replace a full-time bad one.

• Multiple jobs reduce boredom, not to mention the all-too-common feeling of being trapped in a 40-hour quagmire. 

Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are. — Theodore Roosevelt

• Multiple streams of income: It’s been said that the wealthy tend to have several sources of money. And several is much more secure than only one. The list might include:

• A main job

• A side job (instructor, sales rep, consultant, craftsperson)

• Investments: 401Ks, IRAs, savings, inheritance, etc 

• A percentage of a business you helped start

• A unique product for sale online or at stores

• A “long tail” older product that still generates a trickle of sales

• A group project — perhaps with friends, family, or co-workers — that’s growing into a money-making enterprise

I’m always looking for people who have created successful side businesses that ultimately bloomed into multiple sources of income for themselves. You can do this whether or not you are an employee, an entrepreneur, or anywhere in between. — James Altucher

• Multiple online sources of work and pay: It’s those smartphones that started all this, so you might as well take full advantage of them:

jobs.monster.com and similar websites offer clearinghouses for your job search.

Kickstarter and others provide a chance — for those of us without venture capitalists on speed dial — to raise short-term funds for start-up businesses.

WordPress.com offers free and paid web services so you can create a site to sell your products or services. WordPress claims to have over twenty percent of all the web pages on the planet. With an audience that big, it’s worth looking into.

TaskRabbit: Here you can bid to do contract work in many fields. (The website accepts only ten percent of applicants, so fill out the form carefully.) Also look into Angie’s List and Thumbtack.

Fiverr: Kind of a “TaskRabbit Lite”, this site offers quick cash for short jobs.

Craigslist: Not only can you sell all sorts of items here — your obsolete cellphone, that old desk you don’t use anymore — but you can find and make job offers, too.

Flickr.com: Here you can vend your own photos to a gigantic audience. Look also at photo-and-art sale sites such as fineartamerica.com.

Amazon Flex is hiring Uber-type drivers to deliver packages.

Handmade at Amazon: This new entrant in the home-craft marketplace will bring its huge consumer base to compete with the current leader, Etsy.

Amazon bookstore: Here it’s easy to produce your own books in electronic and print formats (I’ve published two) and present them to the world’s largest audience of book lovers. Plus there’s an in-house printing company that can produce your paperback (or music CD). Amazon also owns Audible.com, where you can sell spoken versions of your written works (I’ve produced four). [Amazon keeps getting mentions because its customer base is huge, so any product or service you post there will be seen by a zillion eyeballs.]

I should be used as a mercenary, not a lifer. – Timothy Ferriss

• Reading list for early adopters:

The End of Jobs by Taylor Pearson — “Those that don’t adapt are becoming trapped in the downward spiral of a dying middle class – working harder and earning less. . . . a shift into the Fourth Economy has made entrepreneurship the highest-leveraged career path . . . ”

The Rich Employee by James Altucher: “Participating in the Idea Economy will allow you to succeed and become wealthy right there on the job instead of thrashing in the startup slaughterhouse.”

The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss — “Forget the old concept of retirement and the rest of the deferred-life plan — there is no need to wait and every reason not to, especially in unpredictable economic times.”

Robots Will Steal Your Job but That’s OK by Federico Pistono — “ . . . the displacement of labour by machines and computer intelligence will increase dramatically over the next few decades . . . ”

The Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb — The author made a killing in 2008 by anticipating the big downturn. “In The Black Swan, Taleb showed us that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world. In Antifragile, Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary . . . ”

Purple Cow by Seth Godin — How to “remarkabalize” your product so it stands out from the crowd and generates its own word of mouth.

The Education of Millionaires by Michael Ellsberg — “Most of what you’ll need to learn to be successful you’ll have to learn on your own, outside of school . . . how to find great mentors, build a world-class network, make your work meaningful (and your meaning work), build the brand of you, and more.” Read a summary here.

Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner — These engaging books on “the hidden side of everything” will help you look at economic and financial trends with fresh eyes.

“You want to be continuously learning new things and evolving what you do . . . ” — Pedro Domingos

…The disruptive business model symbolized by Uber is still in its infancy, but it can mature quickly into an adult-sized opportunity for you … if you take advantage of the changes. 

There are plenty of big problems out there that need solving, and people will pay you for results. Don’t wait for the boss to hand you an assignment; take the challenge and find some to solve. If you own the process, you’ll reap the rewards.

Our working society’s childhood is rapidly coming to an end. Most employees will resist this and try to remain in the comfortable corporate crib. You, on the other hand, can access your inner adult, zoom ahead of the competition, and move toward greater prosperity, freedom … and security.

Besides: it’ll be a grand adventure.

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UPDATE: Employment growth largest in careers that require strong social skills

UPDATE: The contingent economy rises from the ashes of unemployment

UPDATE: Corporations are still hiring

UPDATE: Where are all the young entrepreneurs?

UPDATE: Marc Andreesson on how to plan your career

UPDATE: The job search as a full-time job

UPDATE: Watson computer replaces workers

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