Not Taking Risks Is The Riskiest Career Move Of All by Anne Kreamer

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.”

How 'Finding Nemo' Changed One Woman's Life by Anne Kreamer

I'm a firm believer that you cannot change your life without getting out of the house.  And that inspiration can be found in the most unlikely places.   Kiki Kienstra told Studio 360 how a kid's animated movie was the catalyst she needed to jump start her settled career.

From the Studio 360 blog:

"Kiki Kienstra had a good job teaching kindergarten, a nice apartment, and a community of friends. “I didn’t have a big need for change,” she remembers. “You know, everything was fine, so why rock the boat?”

One day, on a whim, she saw Finding Nemo, a Pixar movie about a clownfish named Marlin on a quest to find his missing son. At one point, Marlin and his traveling companion, Dory, find themselves inside a whale. They must decide whether to continue to cling to the whale’s tongue or let go and face an unknown future.

“I realized when I saw that scene that I needed to make a decision about my life,” Kienstra says. “Just staying in my life — just hanging onto the tongue — I wasn’t doing anything. I needed to let go of the tongue and see what happened.” When she let go, Kienstra packed up all her things and followed her dream to teach in a foreign country."

Listen here.

Growing A New Life by Anne Kreamer

Eileen Hugelier

Eileen Hugelier

Lack of institutional loyalty, by both employers and employees, means that most of us constantly churn through different notions for professional reinvention. As a hobbyist gardener, and as the growing season looms, I found the The Wall Street Journal profile of Eileen Hugelier, who "now spends her days designing, planting, pruning and tending gardens around her leafy hometown of Farmington Hills, Michigan, particularly inspiring.  "At 60, she's the owner of Roots & Shoots Gardening, which she founded in 2002."  If the notion of creating a new model for working life that includes a built-in, annual sabbatical is compelling, read on.

"In all likelihood, Ms. Hugelier would still be working in an office if she hadn't been laid off in 2001. She spent 32 years working in a variety of office-management roles for a manufacturing company in Detroit that ended up filing for bankruptcy. 'I was one of the last to be laid off, but it was still a shock," Ms. Hugelier says. 'It felt like a death in the family to see the company go under.'  Shock soon gave way to practicality—a need to pay the mortgage and medical insurance. An avid gardener and (to keep reading)

Plan C: From Trial Lawyer To Sound Engineer. by Anne Kreamer

At the height of the recession, Studio 360 interviewed scores of people transitioning from one career to another. When Mark Solomon lost his job as a trial lawyer, he decided to create a new career for himself as a sound engineer and designer.  Listen below as he describes his journey to self-reliance, starting with his "Aha!" moment about the sound of the movie WALL-E.

Listen here.

Reading Now by Anne Kreamer

Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes. I read William Bridges book years ago when I was in a period of professional reinvention after leaving the corporate world.  In rereading it as research for my next book, I was gratified to discover that it remained as lucid and relevant today as it was when first published over a quarter century ago.  For anyone in the midst of change, and who among us is not, it is an essential primer.  Here are a few excerpts: "Why is letting go so difficult?"

"For some people, these times of change and renewal always seem to involve new relationships, but for others they involve new places or projects.  For still others, it is some new state of mind that appears first, a new feeling or self-image or goal.  Sometimes the beginning results from careful and conscious effort, but for most people important new beginnings have a mysterious and sometimes accidental quality to them.  That is interesting because most of us think we ought to 'take charge' of our lives and 'plan carefully' when we're trying to start again after an ending.  As we shall see later, most of us do that prematurely, for our most important beginnings take place in the darkness outside our awareness."

"The most important fact is not that there are one or three or four or six identifiable periods of crisis in a lifetime; rather, adulthood unfolds its promise in an alternating rhythm of expansion and contraction, change and stability.  In human life as in the rest of nature, change accumulates slowly and almost invisibly until it is made manifest in the sudden form of fledging out or thawing or leaf-fall."

"Sometimes the transition seems to rise up from inside -- a wave of boredom directed at things they used to find interesting or a mistrust of things they used to believe in wholeheartedly; at other times, the transition is precipitated by eternal changes -- either in their personal lives or in the organizations where they work.  Either way, people usually try to put things back the way they used to be.  If the transition is significant, however, that isn't likely to work."

"The task is to find the connection between the change in your work or career and the underlying developmental rhythm of your life."

"One of the difficulties of being in transition in the modern world is that we have lost our appreciation for this gap in the continuity of existence.  For us, 'emptiness' represents only the absence of something.  So when what's missing is something as important as relatedness and purpose and reality, we try to find ways of replacing these missing elements as quickly as possible."

"Not in his goals but in his transitions man is great. Ralph Waldo Emerson."

The Backyard Parables -- Finding The Soul Of Your Garden by Anne Kreamer

Mid-summer gardening season is the best time to read one of my favorite books by Margaret Roach. She was an editor at The New York Times, a fashion and garden editor at Newsday, the first garden editor for Martha Stewart Living magazine, and the editorial director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.  But it is her most recent chapter, that has proven the most inspiring.  In her 2011 memoir And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading In the Fast Lane For My Own Dirt Road, Margaret shared her journey from an urban, over-stressed, unhappy corporate executrix to a rural one-woman horticultural incubator of plants, ideas and community.  For anyone considering their own "plan c" all I can say is, read it. Of her new book, The Backyard Parables, Elizabeth Gilbert has written, "As a passionate, hopeful, and often self-delusional gardener (the only kind of gardener there is!), I loved this book.  Margaret Roach writes with intelligence, compassion, and -- most of all -- sanity.  Her work is a blessing."

Here are a few pearls from her life-earned wisdom.

The Backyard Parables revised cover

I particularly love Margaret's advice to learn, again, how to to see -- with your heart.

"Making any garden, but especially one with more than one-trick-pony performance in spring or summer, requires a combination of tactics, not all of them horticultural. There must be water that remains unfrozen, whatever the weather—even a little water, a trough or a birdbath or a small-scale in-ground pool with the right-sized floating heater to keep it open, not iced over. No other element works harder than water to sustain the garden’s community; we are all made of it. And yes, you must also select good plants with a range of features and peak moments, and site them well—easiest to accomplish by first going inside and looking out the window, imagining what the desired view is before digging any holes. But that’s all the intellectual part—make a water feature, choose multi-season plants— that’s part of the “how-to.”

I am fairly certain that to make a 365-day garden you must also learn all over again how to see—to see beyond the big blue Hydrangea and other obvious show-offs, right down to the shapes of buds and textural complexity of bark, and the way the play of light and shadow, sounds and smells, and even movement contribute to the living pictures. When I go lecture to garden groups, a process that builds to a crescendo of incessant (insane?) hand- waving as I speak, I always notice that I touch my chest reflexively when I talk about this last bit, as if to say, “You must learn to see with your heart; the eyes won’t do in the hardest months.” You must look viscerally, not somatically; it will take you in the direction of the light. This critical cultivation of the other senses forges a deeper communion between garden and gardener, and recognition of the one life cycle “it” and we are both part of."

And as a complete math-phobe, by connecting gardening to art and music, Margaret has helped me forge an entirely new relationship with my garden.  I'd always thought of it in terms of its palette, but never its rhythm.  I want to be "one part artist, one part scientist, and one part honeybee!"

"Actually, though I spared the uncannily numbers-savvy child this thought at the time, gardening is like mathematics, too— and not just in the way nature engineers things like the branch- ing pattern of trees, as Leonardo da Vinci noted more than five hundred years ago, or designs patterns such as honeycombs, spiderwebs, or butterfly wings that can be described mathematically. In the garden you need to know when to giveth, and when to taketh away, or it just doesn’t amount to anything out there but an incalculable mess. There is a rhythm to the goings-on, albeit somewhat more improvisation than John Philip Sousa; it’s never the same from one season, or year, to the next, or even day-to-day. And then there is this further layer of complexity to the calculation: Forces other than yourself will be doing both adding and subtracting all the while, too, right alongside you but without the respect of advance notice, making any possible mathematical proof a moving target.

There is a higher aspect to this comparison of codas and computations. Galileo famously said nature speaks the language of mathematics, and various prominent contemporary scientists, including the late Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, agree. “To those who do not know mathematics,” Feynman said, “it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature.”

On this latest point, the math of really seeing, I think it helps to think as if of three minds: one part artist, one part scientist, one part honeybee—to be one part of each and to witness nature from that triple perspective if you can, and without prejudice. But don’t forget your abacus, because in much of the day-to-day of making a garden out of a tiny corner of the natural world, there is counting, lots of counting, and keeping track."

And not only did The Backyard Parables change the way I see and experience my garden, Margaret also has given me the benefit of her years of trial and efforts -- quintessential insider's tips -- to make sure my new vision will be realized.  Talk about blessings!

You Call That Lucky? Actually, Yes. by Anne Kreamer

I’ve never really allowed myself to think about luck in my working life. I shied away from the subject because it felt belittling to my efforts to admit that some — a lot? most? — of my professional successes might have been determined by circumstances beyond my control. But a line in Nobel Prize-winning Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow got me thinking:“Luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome.”

All this time, had I been wrong?

Loosely defined, luck is something that occurs accidentally or randomly and benefits one professionally or personally. The longer the odds of the particular turn or twist happening, the greater the significance we’ll assign to our sense of how “lucky” we’ve been.

Does the formula for success involve luck?

Behavioral and Applied Management experts have developed mathematical formulae that attempt to quantify these slipperyvariables. But I think there are more intuitive ways for us to think about luck in our professional lives. Here’s my take:

Learn to Recognize Luck When the Universe Knocks: 
Early in my working life, an instance of luck significantly altered my career trajectory.

After graduating college as an art history major, I found work as a lowest-level-possible assistant at a big New York bank. The clerical work wasn’t remotely gratifying but — and here’s where luck enters — on the vast, 100-employee banking floor I happened to be assigned a desk directly in front of a woman who soon after went on to work for Children’s Television Workshop.

When I called my former colleague to see if she’d be willing to talk to me about her new job, she mentioned she needed a secretary — as they were still called in the late 70s — and hired me on the spot. (Professional Lucky Moment, No. 1.)

I certainly had no influence over where the bank seated me. And I was not such a go-getter that the phone call to my former colleague was inevitable. But the two combined just happened to connect me to children’s media, which turned out to be one of the consuming passions of my life.

Be Prepared to Be Lucky: 
How we chooseto think about luck in our lives is tied to whether we tend to see the world as the glass half-empty or half-full. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman offers his own formula for how professional success happens:

Success = luck + talent

Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

But for those of us who weren’t born with any single innate talent, here’s my personal twist on how professional success happens:

Reasonable success = luck + preparedness

(I’m not the first to have this thought. Benjamin Franklin aphorized that “diligence is the mother of good luck,” and a century later Louis Pasteur famously wrote that “chance favors only the prepared mind.“)

But learning how to put that notion into practice takes, well, practice.

I worked incredibly hard as a secretary (see Professional Lucky Moment No. 1), so when Professional Lucky Moment No. 2 happened, I was prepared. Not too long after hiring me my boss was fired, and I was able to step into important parts of her job.

What were the odds of sitting in front of a young woman at a bank in the late 1970s (there were three in the division at the time) who would leave to work in television? Not good. And the odds that person would be fired as soon as I’d learned the ropes, allowing me to move quickly up the ranks?  Approaching zero.

But in both instances I had the sense to recognize lucky moments, and, more importantly, take advantage of them.

In Great by Choice, Jim Collins explores the relationship between hard work and luck. He posits it’s discipline that increases the odds of having a return on our luck. And I couldn’t agree more.

(By the way, I’m not unique in believing a random seating assignment was one of the luckiest breaks in my career. See what Liar’s Poker author Michael Lewis said about it in a commencement speech he gave at Princeton.)

Remember, What Looks Like Bad Luck Isn’t Necessarily: 
But we can’t be lucky all the time. In 1996 my husband was fired from his job as editor-in-chief of New York magazine – a stroke of spectacularly public mega-bad luck.

As my husband wandered New York, trying to envision what he might do next, his cellphone rang. The call was from a literary agent he’d met a decade earlier, demanding that 1) she represent him and 2) he write “a big book.”

And so at age 42 he became a novelist – and when that first novel was published a couple of years later, he was waiting to be interviewed on a New York public radio show, when he happened to see a job posting on a bulletin board and that job – which he landed – was creating the weekly national arts-and-culture program Studio 360 which, almost 13 years later, he is still hosting.

So, was my husband, lucky? Yes. But ask him on the day he lost his New York magazine job and he wouldn’t have said so.

And me? Yes, I count myself lucky as well. Or maybe I just know to open the door when luck comes knocking.

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Run Your Family Like A Business? by Anne Kreamer

  "A new generation of parents is taking solutions from the workplace and transferring them to the home.  From accountability checklists to branding sessions, the result is a bold new blueprint for family happiness."

Bruce Feiler of the Wall Street Journal reports on new approaches for navigating the tricky shoals of work-life balance.

"Like many parents, the Starrs were trapped between the smooth-running household they aspired to have and the exhausting, earsplitting one they actually lived in. "I was trying the whole 'love them and everything will work out' philosophy," she said, "but it wasn't working. 'For the love of God,' I finally said, 'I can't take this any more."  What the Starrs did next was surprising. Instead of consulting relatives or friends, they looked to David's workplace. They turned to a cutting-edge program called agile development that has rapidly spread from manufacturers in Japan to startups in Silicon Valley. It's a system of group dynamics in which workers are organized into small teams, hold daily progress sessions and weekly reviews.

As David explained, "Having weekly family meetings increased communication, improved productivity, lowered stress and made everyone much happier to be part of the family team."

Why We Make Bad Decisions by Anne Kreamer

In 2005, Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of Stumbling on Happinessdelivered this TED talk on why we make bad decisions.   Economic instability, employer churn, and the permanent state of uncertainty clouding the workplace, make the issues Gilbert explores even more relevant today.  As Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning author of Thinking, Fast and Slow put it another way, "nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it."