Wednesday, June 5

Being A Big Fish In A Small Pond Works Until The Drought

Big Fish
Say what you will about statistics that claim people have as many as seven careers in a lifetime. I've seen studies that claim anything from five to 11, and wonder what might skew them.

The most common explanations offered up by researchers and reporters — job hoppers, immigrants, and young people — don't account for everything. The simplest answer is job evolution. A worker might make the move to management, opening up new career opportunities. Another employee might be moved from one department to another as a means of keeping them. An expert in one field might retire.

There are dozens of different reasons, but all of it points to one thing. The metaphor about becoming the biggest fish in the pond is rather pointless. It's a myth perpetrated by motivational coaches, training instructors and academics because they are in the business of selling skill sets that suggest expertise.

Careers don't work like they did in the 1950s. The job market has evolved.

The biggest fish in the smallest pond analogy only worked under the most pretentious and restrictive notion of the American dream that led people out into the suburban sprawl. The general concept was pretty clear cut. You graduated from high school, earned a degree for a career, accepted an entry level job, and then stuck with it until somebody promoted you to management, which eventually led to your retirement with a pension and gold watch. My stepdad had one of those dinosaur jobs, sort of.

After escaping foundry work for the airlines industry during its heyday before deregulation, he worked in telephone reservations before transferring to become a passenger services agent, a job track that lasted 40 years through no less than four or five buyouts and mergers while avoiding management.

Why did he turn avoid management? Managers didn't survive mergers. He preferred job security.

The chances of finding a one-track career job like he did (and being happy if not content doing the same thing like he was) is pretty slim. Most of his friends couldn't do it either. They all moved on.

Even if they could do it, there were no guarantees. Careers vanish all the time. Big fish travel agents, postmen, and meter readers have been watching their ponds shrink for some time. Architects, journalists, and visual artists like photographers and videographers are all struggling in the short term.

You can't always count on job trends either. Health care administration is hot right now, but it's anybody's guess what might happen after the aging population doesn't have a bubble. Government jobs remain hot despite the latest rounds of layoffs caused by tax shortfalls, but its growth is not sustainable. Anything in alternative energy has a ton of buzz, but the field is surprisingly erratic given its diversity.

The communication industry as a whole is in kind of a system shock too. Social media might have been exciting for some people, but it has left several disciplines in a state of confusion. Convergence has left people wondering whether public relations, advertising, marketing, social media, etc. are the best tracks to enter the industry. Most of them are disappointed to hear the truth. Almost none of them, exclusively.

In a world with unpredictable rain, it pays to be an amphibian. 

Amphibian Evolution by Rich BeckerThe modern market requires a different kind of thinking, even if human resources and headhunters have been equally slow to embrace the obvious. There are no degrees that are a waste of time. All of them provide skill sets that overlap, provided the student or working professional can enhance them.

The objective isn't to become a specialist anymore. And I'm not suggesting you become a generalist either. The answer lies somewhere in the middle, where you can weave together adaptive skill sets.

Once you have a foundation, through education or experience, look toward enhancing parallel skill sets as they become obvious. This has been the cornerstone of my career course over nearly three decades and it places me in an interesting position if I call recent events an intermission between acts.

The interwoven disciplines of advertising, business, journalism, and psychology have opened up any number of opportunities. Some only require a nudge if I was inclined to make a course correction.

As a stakeholder in several businesses, I have roles ranging from product development to executive management. As a communicator, I have experience as a strategic planner, creative director, journalist, copywriter, author, and some undeveloped talent in design. As an instructor, I could take a turn toward education and write instructional books. Or, if I wanted to, I could always dial back to pick up two classes for a degree in psychology (which has its own growing niche in business modeling). And there are several other skill sets, ranging from hobbies to oddities, that I won't bore you with.

I'm hardly the only one. Chan Luu managed her clothing boutique before becoming a fashion designer. Paul Gauguin was a stockbroker before becoming an artist. Charles Bukowski worked as a postman. Leonardo daVinci was an artist turned scientist, engineer and inventor. Benjamin Franklin was an author, printer, politician, and scientist (among many other things). Most founding fathers had woven careers.

The truth is that until the 1950s, multiple careers were more common than unusual. You almost have to dial back to the dark ages to find lifelong careers or family trades being prized as a profession. And in America, the concept was exceptionally foreign. Most people left Europe to escape the class system.

In fact, until suburbia entered the picture, few people wanted to be stuck with such a low glass ceiling. And nobody really wanted to make it worse with a dramatically tiered tax system either or mandatory social services based on the assumption that they would never make enough to pay for it. That came later, along with the big fish concept that suggested people find smaller and smaller ponds to feel important.

Make no mistake about it. If you recently graduated, your education has only started. Your goal isn't to become indispensable — the proverbial big fish in a small pond. Your goal is to become adaptable — the fish that can walk to the next closest body of water anytime the pool there feels a bit shallow.

The only way to do it is to create a braided career that includes one or two major areas of practice and several closely related minor skill sets that can become areas of practice on relatively short notice. Along with those skills, it also helps to learn something about the stock market. The 401 (k) is not enough to rely on for retirement like pension plans several decades ago.
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