Why you need to screw-up your career
To screw-up your career would on the face of it appear to be bad advice.
So please brace yourself. If you continue to read, your worldview may become destabilised.
Having dispensed with the niceties, I must inform you that you are the victim of a conspiracy. One that your teachers, family and current and past employers are in on. You have been sold the belief that a career is a good thing. Apparently with a career, you can acquire:
- Greater economic security
- Upward social mobility
- Greater influence.
Play the game well and the latter part of your career will in effect be a highly remunerated cakewalk. In short, you must allow yourself to be misused for the first half of your career, so that you enjoy the perks of misusing others.
Parents, concerned with the economic wellbeing of their progeny, steer them towards careers where the paths are well established. Think of these paths as inclined conveyor belts. You hop on at the bottom and enjoy the spoils of an upward trajectory.
Teachers promote this model in part for the well-being of the pupil and in part to condition them to be sufficiently compliant to not rock the conveyor belt system and unsettle the status quo.
Employers love the model because they need compliant workers, at least until they can be swapped out for low maintenance technology. Offering a career enables employers to dangle the carrot of a better future to the workforce. This can be useful if the work they need to do is soul-destroying and / or there is a high risk of disenchantment.
So hopefully you are starting to understand why all is not as it seems and why the ability to screw up your career is critical to your ongoing health and economic-relevance.
Stepping back for a second. Careers came into their own in the industrial era. Factory work was and still is inhuman given our natural tendencies. So, again creating a model that kept us tethered to the factory was necessary, particularly as we developed skills that gave us alternative ‘factory options’.
But as we enter the digital age, the industrial era of factory work and synthetic certainty is giving way to a more chaotic pre-industrial environment. Lawyers and accountants will no longer be needed as blockchain and AI gain traction. Surgeons and dentists are being replaced by robots.
What served your parents well, no longer works. Careers in their traditional sense are over.
So, here is some advice on how to screw-up your career:
The sunk costs fallacy is a mental weakness that essentially causes us to not abandon something we have significantly invested in. Promotions increase that feeling with respect of the associated employer. Anything that takes you away from being technically skilled and towards being a drum beating, carrot and stick waving manager is to be avoided. Because there is no place for managers in the digital age. The exception to this advice is if the promotion involves acquiring a leadership position. But again you should not allow your technical skills to wither. You may need to call on them at some point in the future
Very few people get to become a princess, astronaut or professional footballer. In any case, the market is too volatile to plot a path from where you are to some idealised state. Consequently, you would be setting yourself up for failure if you are rigid in your approach to work. Careers, by definition, are rigid and are unfit for purpose now that we have waved goodbye to synthetic certainty.
Drop the passion
We hear a lot about passion. It’s important but should not be the driver of your professional existence. Passion is a by-product of doing great work, not the reason for doing great work. Cal Newport’s book, ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ nails this.
Acquire skills you don’t need
You need certain skills for your current role. But what skills might it be useful to acquire to give you more economic options should you need to pivot at short notice? If you think of yourself as a one-person company, are you lacking in for example commercial, service or creative skills?
You are your biggest investment, so ensure you have a smart portfolio of skills to maximise the return on that investment. Please note, developing new skills is not the same as watching a Ted lecture on x2 speed whilst wolfing down a bowl of Cheerios, as you mentally calculate how much time remains before you will miss your train. Deliberate practice is required. It hurts and that is why greatness is not free.
Being professional is an innocuous way of conveying the message that at work you need to suppress your personality and humanity, whilst not rocking the boat. In a perfect scenario, you shouldn’t give birth, be sick or need to use the bathroom facilities during office hours.
The beauty of being an automaton is that you will be predictable. And predictable is good when you are a cog in the factory machine. But having to leave our true selves in the car-park each day and convey this professional image leads to cognitive dissonance and that saps our cognitive capacity for doing great work.
Though keep in mind that I am not suggesting that you become an asocial ass. But suppressing your gender, background, sexuality and so on is costly to both you and your employer. Nobody wins.
I’m only human
A model I would encourage you to embrace is that of a streetwise cognitive athlete. Your brain is your money maker. Your senses enable you to detect opportunities to receive the best return on your cognition.
A word of warning. Don’t drop tools and walk away from your current place of work if you have no financial crash mat. If you are good at what you do, you might consider opting to reduce the number of days you commit to, so that you can pursue other hustles. And the sooner you get those hustles up and running, the more confidence you will have in whether you walk away.
In any case, hoping that you won’t be made redundant is not a strategy.
We are social animals, so it is understandable that you might have reservations about leaving your high-powered career. “What will my friends and family think?”, “What about those ‘hard yards’ I put in to get to this point?” and even “What about my country club membership?”.
Well imagine yourself standing in your company car park with your box of belongings, on the wrong side of thirty, with no plan b. You have just joined a growing and nonexclusive enforced-leisure club.
If you don’t believe me, you can wait until you can see the digital tsunami coming your way. That will be an intense, and brief, experience. Alternatively, you can screw-up your career and adjust to the new realities of operating on the digital age savanna.
The industrial era party is over. This is bad news if you are a denatured professional automation. However, this is good news if you are prepared to be human.