Yesterday’s definition of a successful career is obsolete. Everyone knows that the conventional careers our grandparents enjoyed—hard work, martinis with lunch, and a 35-year commemorative plaque followed by a warm retirement party—likely won’t be the script for the current generation. Even Baby Boomer careers are more likely to be characterized by their pivots and distinct chapters, than by long-term employment with one organization.
For today’s young adults, the old-fashioned career ladder concept simply doesn’t make sense. To be successful, Millennials must think of themselves as entrepreneurs, regardless of career path. Globalization and an increasingly digital landscape mean that we’re now climbing jungle gyms, not ladders. Career success can’t be predicted based on that first entry-level job alone, and not only are people changing jobs more often, but they’re also switching industries with more ease and speed than ever before. Take a scan through your network: how many people do you know who have climbed sideways or even down? Who has taken a leap of faith and jumped from one set of bars to the next?
Social media, cloud computing, big data, and broadband networks have redefined collaboration and competition, and the tidal wave of new technology shows no signs of losing steam. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman captures this sentiment in his books That Used To Be Us and The World Is Flat. Our world is changing rapidly, he argues, primarily due to the interrelated challenges presented by globalization and technology.
These combined forces have contributed to the current economic storm. Employers have more access to highly skilled foreign brainpower and labor, and it’s easier than ever to outsource routine jobs to machines, computers, and robots. Many startup companies in Silicon Valley, the Boston area, Austin, and elsewhere are bursting with creative ideas and are a hotbed for tech talent, yet don’t require the same mass of employees that characterized America’s post-war economy, creating fewer jobs.
One of the smartest ways to navigate this new normal is to think like an entrepreneur. In his recent book The Start-Up of You, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and his co-author Ben Casnocha encourage taking on an entrepreneurial approach to building a career. What does this mean? “You must understand that you need to create your work, your jobs, and your career,” says Hoffman. Focus on building your network, accept the fact that you are a work in progress, and, most importantly, commit yourself to ongoing learning and development.
More than most people, entrepreneurs are successful because of their ability to find, build, connect, and collaborate with others. Hoffman argues that an individual’s power is raised exponentially by the strength of his or her network. That idea of “Iwe” networking is crucial for entrepreneurs, as it’s often their link to prospective business partners, sources of funding, and potential customers.
“Networks help you find your way,” says Hoffman. “They create a sonar map of intelligence, expertise, information, and insight. They tell you where the opportunities are, how to achieve those opportunities, and also how to take the intelligent risks for breakout results.”
Another hallmark of the entrepreneurial mindset is curiosity, discovery, and iteration. In the tech world, this state of continuous improvement is called a “beta test phase.” Companies release their products knowing they aren’t perfect, and gather valuable external feedback from users. For example, after launching in 2004, Gmail spent the next five years in beta while its millions of customers used it in real time. By 2009, when Gmail finally emerged from the beta stage, (most of) its kinks were ironed out, enhancements had been made, and it had built a loyal customer following.
Managing your career from a mindset of permanent beta forces you to acknowledge that you’re not a finished product and that there’s always more personal and professional development to be done. Additionally, permanent beta celebrates lifelong learning and allows for continuous growth and discovery. We’re traditionally brought up to be risk-averse and take action only after thoroughly considering all outcomes. Permanent beta is a different way of thinking, empowering you to take quick steps on new career ideas and embrace calculated risk, knowing that the outcome doesn’t have to be perfect.
Embrace your career as if it’s a living, breathing, growing startup. As the founder of this startup, invest in yourself, build your network, and learn from your permanent beta discoveries. Whether your career leads to working for a huge organization or launching your own venture, apply your entrepreneurial talents, skills, and mindset as you chart a course forward.