Are You Making High-risk Career Choices?
I wouldn’t consider myself to be a thrill-seeking risk-taker. Maybe compared to some, but not when I look at some of the crazy stuff my friends do. I also felt like I was being reasonably careful about the choices I made for my career path.
But, conventional wisdom and many of the things that I thought I should do actually ended up being risky decisions. The high risk only revealed itself slowly over time, once I was far down the path and it was almost too late.
Like many others, I had made myself vulnerable to serious financial risk with the career choices I had made.
Sooner or later, we all become vulnerable in our careers. The reality is that the majority of us are always vulnerable, even if we don’t realize it or admit it to ourselves. Eventually, something will happen that wakes you up to this fact.
I learned the hard way. I made a number of mistakes at various points in my career. I was vulnerable on more than one front. I promised myself that I wouldn’t let it happen again.
- I was supporting my family with a sole source of income—mine.
- That source of income was a corporate job where one boss controlled my fate.
- We lived in one of the most expensive places in the U.S.
- We weren’t crazy spendthrifts, but we weren’t careful enough either.
- I worked in Tech, which is wonderful, but highly volatile.
- I got promoted up to the point that new roles above that level were few and far between.
- I committed one of the cardinal sins in the SV Tech industry: I got older.
…it has fallen to Matarasso to make older workers look like they still belong at the office. “It’s really morphed into, ‘Hey, I’m forty years old and I have to get in front of a board of fresh-faced kids. I can’t look like I have a wife and two-point-five kids and a mortgage,’ ” — source
One source of income controlled by one boss
If your primary source of income is from one job and you have a single boss who controls your fate, you are vulnerable. I think this is true for most of us, for the majority of our career. It certainly was true for me. I had a few other smaller income sources, but the majority was from my full-time corporate job.
You may be thinking that this is all well and good because you’re doing a great job and get along well with your boss. But, that can change. If and when your great boss leaves (e.g., lands a great new role somewhere else), you may or may not end up with a new boss who works out just as well.
If your organization is merged with another one during a re-org, you may end up reporting to someone new. If your company is acquired, your entire job description might change, as well as your reporting structure. I’ve been through all of these. Some didn’t end very well.
It’s a roll of the dice. You don’t usually have much personal control over corporate mergers, acquisitions, or re-orgs (unless you’re C-level or on the Board). You do not get to handpick your new boss. You may even be quite surprised by who is hired for that role (buy me a drink sometime and I’ll tell you a story). If you don’t mesh well with this new person, or he/she isn’t a good manager or mentor, your promising career path is now less certain.
A high cost of living
If your regional cost of living is so high that your rent or mortgage consumes a lot of your income, then you are vulnerable. I used to live in one of the most expensive places in the world: Silicon Valley. In 2015, a Zillow analysis found that San Francisco residents spent about 41% of their income on a monthly mortgage payment or 47% on rent. Ouch.
When your housing costs suck up almost 50% of your income, you are living on a razor’s edge. In the San Jose metro area, the median housing price is more than $1.2M. The salary required to afford such a home is more than $216,181 with a recommended $600,000 down to fit the mortgage comfortably in your budget. The median household income for the San Jose metro area in 2018 was $114,411.
Let me tell you, the average employee in San Jose isn’t going to be able to buy a home anytime soon. When the cost of housing alone is so high, you can’t save much money. When you can’t save and create a financial cushion, you will eventually run into trouble. Bad things happen. If you heavily depend on a single source of income to make ends meet, sometimes paycheck to paycheck, you are vulnerable.
Industry volatility and the future of work
If your profession disappeared or your industry collapsed, and you do not have a significant financial cushion to survive as you rebuild your career and change professions, you are vulnerable. Ask the residents of Sidney, NE what it is like for almost 1/3 of the city’s jobs to disappear almost overnight. What is your backup plan?
You can be making all the right moves in your career. You can be doing a great job, getting promoted, and the future looks bright. But, the world is changing faster and faster every year. The future of your industry and your profession is far from predictable.
A study published in 2013 by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University estimated that 47% of jobs in the U.S. would be automated over the next two decades. A more conservative study on the risk of automation estimates that around 66 million workers in 32 countries have jobs that are at high risk of being automated (i.e., no human worker required). The growing work in artificial intelligence and robotics is creating job demand for more scientists and engineers, but it will clearly eliminate millions of blue-collar jobs (e.g., self-driving trucks, robot baristas, robot cooks). Give it a few more years and white-collar jobs will start disappearing too (e.g., AI software writing AI software).
Outsourcing and offshoring will also continue to be a trend. Tech jobs, for example, have been shifting out of the U.S. for many years. It was happening on a fairly massive scale when I was at eBay back in 2002–2006. IBM now has more employees in India than in the U.S.
But, jobs are also moving out of the traditional Tech centers in Silicon Valley and Seattle into other locations in the United States. Apple and Amazon have both announced new campuses being built elsewhere. Tesla decided to build its Gigafactory in Nevada, not in California.
If you’re lucky, you will continue to grow older
Dear young people, I am your future. Ok, now that I’ve scared you, let me explain. If age discrimination makes it harder and harder to find employment in your chosen profession, you become increasingly vulnerable with every passing year.
Unless you know some secret that I don’t, you will continue aging. Working out a lot really does help, but it’s no fountain of youth. You may be thinking that you’re going to strike it rich with one of your startup gambles and be the next 20-something billionaire like good ol’ Zuck. Or, you’re planning on moving up the career ladder so quickly that you’ll be a C-level executive before ageism strikes. I wish you the best of luck with either one of those strategies!
For the rest of us though, the reality is that we’ll do well in our careers, get promoted, and enjoy what we’re doing. But, we won’t become so fabulously wealthy that we can retire at 30 and never work again. Or, we know that we’d be bored with retirement and we still want to keep working, but doing something we love.
Some professions don’t seem as rife with age discrimination. My optometrist is far from being a spring chicken, for example. But, that might be more due to owning his own business vs. being an employee.
Sorry if I’m the first one to break this to you, but you’re not immortal and you will grow older (wrinkles, gray hair, and all). If you are in a profession or industry that has issues with older folks and you can’t—or won’t—retire, then moving up the career ladder and finding new jobs is going to get a lot harder with each passing year. Without a backup plan, you will be vulnerable at some point.
Moving up the ladder has some drawbacks
If you have a more senior job title with a pretty good salary, a new job search can take 6 months to 2 years. Some experts also estimate that it takes about one month to find a job for every $10K of expected salary. So, if you are looking to earn $120K a year, your job search could take up to 12 months.
Unfortunately, the higher you climb the career ladder, the more vulnerable you become (despite the obvious perks). Look around at your current organization at work. How many individual contributors are there? How many managers? How many directors? How many VPs, SVPs, and C-level executives? It is a steep pyramid.
There just aren’t as many senior-level positions available, especially if you have several years of experience and are expecting a fairly high compensation package. It’s great to move up in your career. The majority of us want that. But, it does leave you more vulnerable when it’s time for a change.
I was a VP at Yahoo. I have first-hand experience with this challenge. It’s why I only interviewed for a few months before deciding to start my own consulting business. I didn’t have the patience or desire to wait for a year or two to land that perfect next job. So, I decided to create my own job, and make my own luck. I’m glad that I did!
“I am a great believer in Luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.” — Coleman Cox.
Ok, enough of the bad news. There is a way to considerably reduce the risk in your career path before it is too late. You can intentionally make choices that help you eliminate vulnerabilities. You can choose to become more invincible in your career.
What is an Invincible Career?
Having an invincible career means that, as much as possible, you have removed single points of failure from every aspect of your overall career ecosystem. No single event can disrupt you for very long. None of the issues that I mentioned earlier will be allowed to sabotage your long-term career and life plans.
In fact, you may even become stronger as you are exposed to adversity. You bounce back from any setback; wiser, tougher, and more prepared for what comes your way. Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to this as being “antifragile” and wrote a book on this phenomenon called Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.
Before you can forge your own invincible career, you need to understand your existing and potential areas of vulnerability. I ask the members of my community to use various challenges and exercises to identify, mitigate, and eliminate points of vulnerability to give them the confidence required to make the best decisions for their career and life.
Benefits of an Invincible Career
In general, the primary benefit of an Invincible Career is that you get to work and live your life on your own terms. You forge resilience into your strategies and plans.
You understand that the most successful and wealthy people actually have multiple sources of income. You stop leaving yourself vulnerable with only one source. You stop limiting your income to the daily hours you can work.
Tom Corley, the author of Rich Habits, conducted a five-year study of the rich and poor. Upon studying the self-made millionaires, he found that:
- 65% had three streams of income
- 45% had four streams of income
- 29% had five or more streams of income
You also no longer live in fear of upsetting your manager or losing a great boss.
You no longer worry that the ups and downs in the industry might capsize you.
You have a backup plan so that you don’t become too reliant on a single profession, or get edged out by ageism. I personally plan on working in my business until the very end. I’m doing something I love, working with people I really enjoy, so I see no point in stopping.
You also don’t let golden handcuffs keep you chained to a company that is no longer serving your career well (been there, did that). You find or create work that is aligned with your personal values and leverages your core talents and strengths.
The positive ripple effects of living this way are enormous, with far-reaching impact. I can’t even begin to capture all of the ways your life might change. But, I’ve summarized what I believe it means to have an invincible career in terms of 10 core principles below. This is how I choose to focus my career and life now.
The 10 Principles of an Invincible Career
- Live where you will truly enjoy your quality of life
- Work where you want to spend your days
- Become an expert at what you do for a living
- Transform your work to be meaningful and satisfying
- Take control of how you want to do your work
- Work when you want, and as much as you want
- Work with people who bring out the best in you
- Achieve fulfillment by leveraging your expertise to help others
- Take charge of your career and never again feel trapped
- Empower yourself to never again feel vulnerable
Stay tuned for more details in upcoming stories about what each of these principles really means.
Take my free quiz to test your own level of invincibility!
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Larry Cornett is a Leadership Coach and Career Advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, two Great Danes, two chickens, and a stubborn old cat. He does his best to share advice that can help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter and Instagram @cornett.