“The rest of your life is an eight o’clock class,” a colleague of mine likes to say to the new graduates he counsels. It’s a delightful metaphor, but I think that makes it sound too easy. It suggests that, in your professional future, just signing up and showing up will be enough.
As you’ve no doubt learned during the last four years, it’s possible to take a course, pass it, even get a good grade in it, without being fully engaged. This behavior will not work for you in today’s workplace. Anyone who takes a passive stance puts their job status at risk.
Back in the days when recruitment out of college led to a progressive career track with the same company (IBM, GE, AT&T, etc.) it was valid, but in the competitive, global marketplace you are entering today, it is not.
By buying into the mindset that a job equals security, you plant your feet in the slowly hardening cement of work you may not be well suited for or don’t like.
At some level you already know this. You may have observed that the job security your parents advocate is not what they are experiencing. It is also likely that you’ve heard— even if you haven’t darkened the door of the career services office on campus—that people entering the workforce today will change employers frequently and have multiple careers in their professional lifetime. But are you acting on this information?
The rest of your professional life will not be an “eight o’clock class” but an entrepreneurial adventure. If you’re launching it by being
fixated on how to get a job instead of how to learn to generate work, you’re not prepared for the realities of the current workplace—average tenure of less than three years, limited openings, outsourcing, hiring freezes, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies, etc. Nor will an exclusive focus on the job equip you to respond to the new discoveries you will make about yourself through experience and trial and error.
By buying into the mindset that a job equals security, you plant your feet in the slowly hardening cement of work you may not be well suited for or don’t like. In order not to fall into this trap, you must go beyond the exclusive quest for a job and commit yourself, no matter how sick of school you may be, to one more course of study—how to be in business for yourself. It just may be the most important thing you can do for your future.
The Other Shelf
In the business section of the Harvard Coop bookstore, there are two well-stocked shelves, one labeled “Careers” and the other “Business Start-up.” This is not surprising given that our culture views launching a career and starting a business as two separate things.
If you were one of a group of panicked, jobless graduates let loose in the bookstore like the bulls of Pamplona, you would most likely make a beeline for the career section to look at titles promising techniques for putting together the perfect resume, answers to tough interview questions, how to get a job in 24 hours (I’m not making that up), etc.
It’s predicable that you would do so because in the model of work that has been passed down to you, someone either seeks work as an employee or starts a business, not both!
But in the world of work you must learn to fly in once you leave the nest of your education, claiming and sustaining a satisfying and secure career will require an entrepreneurial mindset and business development skills. To develop these indispensable assets you will need to access the resources on the business shelf as well. Begin by reading:
- Free Agent Nation, by Daniel Pink, to open yourself up to ways of earning a living which stretch far beyond traditional jobs
- The Entrepreneurial Imperative, by Carl Schramm, President of the Kauffman Foundation (a good name to mention if you parents start to question your sanity) to imagine the day when starting a business will be as “common as getting married or parenting.”
- The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael Gerber, to understand the challenges of running a small business, which is exactly how you should think of managing your career.
- Ground of Your Own Choosing, by me, to position yourself in the workplace where you have the greatest advantage. (This one isn’t on the shelves yet, but it will be in the Fall, just in time for you to have finished the first three. In the meantime, you can find out more here.)
This is not exactly beach reading, I know, but you still may find it fascinating, and it is only by understanding the bigger picture that you will be able to articulate your value in the language the real world is speaking— the language of bringing value to a
The language of traditional job search, repeated over and over again in the books on the career shelf, has something in common with Latin or Greek. In bygone days, learning a classical language was a part of the foundation for education, but it was not how educated people thought or conversed.
Likewise, knowing the language of traditional job search should be seen as a baseline point of departure rather than a useful way to communicate.
You are entering the world of work in a time where jobs as they have been known since the Industrial Revolution are rapidly being replaced by other forms of work. Because your search for work will be conducted in the middle of the chaos of this transition, you will still have to be fluent in careerspeak, the Latin of traditional job search, but when you use it, be aware that it is a dying language, and you are likely to see the day when your children won’t.
In the meantime, try as much as you can to translate your internal and external conversations into the language of business ownership, starting now!
Investment in Product Development
Up to now your parents have been your venture capitalists or you have been financed through “business start-up” (i.e. student) loans. These investments in your product development have provided you with the opportunity to convert the raw materials of your intelligence, curiosity, and stamina into a prototype which is ready to be tested in the marketplace.
Your task will be to continually refine and enhance this product and to effectively market and distribute it. This means that you will have to do all the things that Nike, Apple, Starbucks and every other successful company does to keep its products exciting and visible in the marketplace. You will have to take leadership responsibility for your own future and learn how to manage your career as if it were a business, which is both difficult and very rewarding.
By now the eight o’clock class may be looking good to you, but think about how old it gets by mid-semester and multiply that feeling many, many times, and you’ll get an inkling of what a traditional career path will be like by mid-career.
When you think in terms of a job, you are looking for someone else to create work for you. When you think like a business you hold the power to create the work you do yourself.
The learning curve in the new world of work is pretty steep for people who grew up in an earlier age, but you have the advantage of starting fresh, and if you can keep from being lured into equating a job with security and instead build your future around your own capacity to create work you will do well.