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Safe-proofing your career: How do you play your chips?

Imagine you have 1,000-unit worth of chips.

They come in different denominations: there are a few lofty 100-unit chips, a few fifties, lots of tens and fives…

You are playing a black jack game called "Career". In the past, it used to be chess. You would typically play one board at a time. The opponent was known. The moves were regimented, if not scripted. The boards would be swapped only on rare occasions. Careers were predictable.

Black jack is a different type of game. You don't get to choose the hand, but you get to play it as you deem fit. And you get to place the bets. Are you betting on:

  • ... a black swan? It's a losing strategy: don't bet on highly unlikely events unless you have the gift of Sight.

  • ... a weak signal? How can you find out what that is? Rita McGrath from the Columbia Business School talks about the skill of seeing around the corners and spotting opportunities before they are obvious to others. What are the subtle changes in your field or area of interest? Snow melts at the edges.

  • ... a trend? But then - so does everyone else. If you are to ride the trend wave, make sure that you are making a no-regrets investment. Develop portable or entry-ticket skills; those that will be useful no matter what. It could be a certification for some fields, such as being a scuba diving instructor, or a qualification to practice law.

  • ... a certainty? Betting on what is certain to happen is smart but only if the win exceeds the costs of betting or is greater than doing nothing. The strategy here is to figure out where the biggest return is. It is likely to be around your personal edge. It may come, for example, from a unique combination of skills, a rare valuable talent, or a scarce resource, such as access to decision-makers, information, or capital.

The chips are your energy and time. Both need to be applied for meaningful outcomes. The former is replenishable, the latter is not. This raises the stakes. Particularly for big bets. Imagine investing in a 4-year degree to learn a very narrow discipline that becomes obsolete overnight because of technological disruption.

This can be daunting. Paralyzed by choice, some do nothing. Which could be ok… for a short while. There are situations when a breather is needed to collect your thoughts, regain the energies, and find the focus. Or you may give your chips to someone else so that they focus on their careers with you playing a supporting role. You flip the game and create your own definition of success. In doing so, you use the chips to bet on a balance and life satisfaction vs. a promotion or a higher salary. Another strategy is to diversify the options, optimize the game, and play several hands. Research confirms that there is a positive spillover effect when people have side hustles in addition to their main job.

Choices… choices...

Our advice?

  1. Play the long game, not just the one in front of you. There is no one answer. Optimal choices depend on your appetite for risk, your life stage, your qualifications, your personal circumstances, etc.

  2. Do annual checkups to assess your game. Don't hesitate to reallocate the chips if you are not getting the career outcomes you want. I remember Ram Charan sharing a story about a young CEO who would religiously block several days at the beginning of each year to decide how he would reallocate his time and energy to make space for what truly mattered.

  3. Ask those you trust for their opinion whether your bets make sense. Being further removed from the situation, others tend to give us better advice than we would to ourselves. Getting an external perspective will also give you awareness of how other players see you. Personal branding and positive networking are differentiators in getting a career edge.

Finally, ask yourself: are your chips still worth 1,000? And for how long? The opportunity cost of your time has a nasty habit of climbing up each year.

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