This piece first appeared in Harvard Business Review.
Mark was a survivor. Until he was fired in 2012, six months shy of his 50th birthday, he’d done everything right — rising through the ranks of the book publishing industry, from editorial assistant to associate editor to senior editor, then into management as an editor-in-chief. But as e-books and Amazon destabilized the industry, and waves of consolidation contracted available jobs, Mark (not his real name) admits today that he hadn’t “paid attention to the writing on the wall.” He confessed that he’d spent the 18 months prior to being fired living in denial as his team was reorganized. “Despite that,” he says, “I clung to my job rather than start thinking about how to leave. At that point, I couldn’t conceive of a life outside of the confines of corporate publishing, of not being at the center of the club I’d been a part of — and a star in — since the age of 21.”
Mark’s story is a cautionary tale for us all. In my experience, Mark’s kind of wishful thinking — that things will sort themselves out on their own — rarely works out. Not taking action has costs that can be as consequential as taking risks; it’s simply less natural to calculate and pay attention to the “what-ifs” of inaction. In today’s marketplace, where jobs and job categories are being destroyed and invented at an accelerating rate, I’d argue that the riskiest move one can make is to assume that your industry or job is secure. Just ask former employees of Countrywide, British Petroleum, or Newsweek if you doubt me. Former Chief Talent Officer of Netflix, Patty McCord, says that companies should stop lying to people about their job security, because there’s simply no such thing.
Research I conducted in 2012, 2013, and 2014 with the global advertising agency J. Walter Thompson for Risk/Reward, my forthcoming book, suggests that anxiety about our job futures weighs heavily these days. More than half of the respondents to our surveys — all over the U.S., with people ranging from janitors to CEOs, old as well as young — were thinking of changing not just their jobs, but their careers. Think about that. Half of all Americans long to do something dramatically different with their working lives.
But it’s hard to jettison a career decades in the making in the pursuit of something new. There’s an enormous gap between dreaming about doing something different, particularly if one has spent years building skills and rising through the ranks, and actually doing anything about it. It’s terrifying to think about just letting go of one’s hard-earned law degree and years invested on the law-firm partner track in order to write for television, as an acquaintance of mine has done. Most people dream, but fail to act.
What stops us? There are all sorts of complicated financial and behavioral barriers to risk-taking — loss and risk aversion, the sunk-cost fallacy, poor planning — but basically it boils down to the fact that as human beings, we are wired to resist giving up the known for the unknown. None of us tolerates ambiguity well — particularly when the losses and gains underpin our livelihoods or the projected long-term happiness of our families. Psychologically, particularly during tough economic times, people feel driven to hold onto an unsatisfactory job rather than gamble on something with uncertain odds that might be better in the long run. And we all have different levels of innate risk tolerance that inform our calculus for evaluating probable gains and losses. So how can we turn self-defeating inaction into sensible action?
Start by building vibrant networks. In Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, Herminia Ibarra, an organizational behavior professor at INSEAD, writes that people’s existing “contacts [don’t] help them reinvent themselves…the networks we rely on in a stable job are rarely the ones that lead us to something new and different.” There’s a reason, when we’re interested in making a 45- or 90-degree career shift, why most jobs suggested by headhunters rarely feel right. The majority of people we know in one line of work can only imagine us continuing to do the same thing. So as we meet more people employed in a wide range of professions, our ability to imagine ourselves doing something different grows stronger.
Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter discovered that the contacts most helpful to people looking for new jobs were neither their closest friends, nor new acquaintances, but rather people with whom they had relatively weak ties that had been forged and maintained over several years. In addition, the more different their contacts’ occupations were from their own jobs, the more likely people were to successfully make a major career change.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to change in our working lives is the sense that any significant change has to be all or nothing. I either quit my miserable job or just suck it up and grind along.I’ve got to make a comprehensive business plan before I test whether my English muffin/croissant hybrid and baked-goods truck can generate enough income for me to live. I’m good at structuring logical arguments so I should quit sales and become a lawyer. Instead, we need to break problems into small actions. The more logically-oriented person might, for instance, test-drive the legal profession as a paralegal before assuming the expensive three-year commitment of getting a law degree. The amateur cook with a killer recipe could approach a local bakery with his novel product to see if they’d be willing to sell it, getting market feedback before spending time crafting a business plan for a new venture. The person in the miserable job could volunteer weekends in an organization they think might make them happier — learning what the work is really like from the inside before chucking it all on a dream that may be a fantasy. Then, armed with real-world data, each of those hypothetical career-changers would have more clarity and about the correct next steps. The trick is to start with the immediately, manageably doable and do.
We need to continue to find new challenges, and to acquire the skills to meet those challenges. Moreover, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, the act of committing to goals also provides structure and meaning to our lives that leads to more overall happiness. She quotes G.K. Chesterton in this regard: “There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.”
Real life, by necessity, is improvisational and interactive, crafted incrementally through our responses to the particular circumstances at this moment in time, and the next, and then the next. As author Tom Peters wrote, “I have said and mean with all my heart I’ve only learned one thing ‘for sure’ in 48 years: WTTMSW. Whoever tries the most stuff wins.”