The Job of a Lifetime, No Longer Lasts a Lifetime

By Brian Fippinger

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I don’t consider myself that old, but when I began working at the age of 18, I assumed that I would have one career.   I thought there might even be a chance I only would have one employer.  After all, I started working for the Bell System and that was a place one could have lifetime employment.  Little did I know that by the time I reached 53, I would have had NINE careers.  Not nine jobs, nine distinctly different careers.  Nine different “lives” as it were.  I would become a “cat” when it came to career lives.

I have always assumed that I was in the vast minority.  That because of the circumstances of my life, I was unique.    But from the Frontline I found the common wisdom is that the average individual will have seven careers.  No one quite knows where that number came from, but it sure has staying power.  Of the ten entries on the front page of a Google search for “average numbers of jobs in a lifetime” the answers were 7 (six times) 6.9 (once) 10 (once) and who knows (twice).  The most solid statistical information came from the Bureau of Labor “BLS economist Chuck Pierret has been conducting a study to better assess U.S. workers’ job stability over time, interviewing 10,000 individuals, first surveyed in 1979, when group members were between 14 and 22 years old. So far, members of the group have held 10.8 jobs, on average, between ages 18 and 42, using the latest data available.” 

Multiple Career Changes Are More Common Than You Think

So I decided to do my own, informal study of how many of these job changes resulted in actual career transitions.  What I found was that I was not even close to unique.  That a high majority of the individuals I spoke to had made as many transitions as I had.  And, when we dug into the details, almost as many CAREER changes.

So if your career is not a single career, but a series of varying careers (take mine for instance….from Actor to Clerk, to Project Manager, to Engineer, to Analyst, to Consultant, to Manager, to Recruiter/Business Owner, to Coach), how do you keep yourself ready, nimble and sane?  Over the next several weeks, I will report from the “frontline” of this new way of looking at your worklife and we will examine together some ideas that have been helpful to others….and some that have been less so.

The Most Important Attribute For Success: Being a Lifelong Learner

Today, let’s look at what I believe to be the most important attribute of all for success in this ever changing job environment.  Being a Lifelong Learner.

What is a Lifelong Learner?  Wikipedia defines it this way, ‘Lifelong learning is the “lifelong, voluntary, and self-motivated”pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. As such, it not only enhances social inclusion, active citizenship and personal development, but also competitiveness and employability.”

To this I would like to add an important phrase, “Constantly Curious”.  I you are not constantly curious, you will not find areas to “self-motivate” your learning.

Unless you are actively (and constantly) seeking to learn something new, you will not be ready for the transition which is just down the road.  And by new, I don’t just mean that next version of software that just came out, or the new accounting regulation that FASB just passed.  I mean something entirely new.  Something outside of your comfort zone.  If not, you could end up like “Phil”  (name changed).

Don't End Up Like "Phil"

Phil is a client of mine who for the first time in 10 years found himself without a job.  Phil had been very successful as an IT Director and Strategy Consultant with various companies.  He was not hands on anymore, but a manager of people and process.  Someone who was very good at translating from technical language to the language of business.

He has a long list of success stories detailed in his resume.  He is in his mid forties.  Bright.  Well spoken.  Degreed.  And, now he is one of the long term unemployed.  He was confused with the lack of traction his resume was getting when he first came into my office.  “I have never had a problem finding a job before,” he said to me.  After a couple of sessions, and a review of his resume, one thing became clear to both of us.  The job he was looking for….the job he enjoyed doing…the one he had done so well at in the past…no longer existed.  He had become a manufacturer of buggy whips in an era of automobiles.

How had this happened to him?  He had worked hard.  Been successful.  What he hadn’t been was constantly curious.  It had been a long time since he had read anything outside of his direct field.  It had been years since he had pro-actively sought knowledge outside his small range of expertise.  He had become one of the best at a job that few companies were looking for any more.  It will take him a long time to dig himself out of that hole, not the least because, since he had not been trying new things, he has no idea what he might be interested in.  Simply put, he had stopped learning.

How many of us have fallen into this trap?  Have you?   Ask yourself, when was the last time I read a book that had absolutely nothing to do with what I do for a living, but wasn’t a mindless novel?  Can I remember that last time I mastered a new skill?  Do I know how to be a novice again?  Do I remember how to learn?

Once you have become an expert at something, it is hard to go back to point A again.  But that is precisely where we all need to be, at all times.  At the beginning, back at point A.

In this era of constant change, where your average job is less than 2.5 years (remember the study, 10.8 jobs in 24 years) you will be starting over..and then over again….and then over again.

How To Become - and Remain - a Lifelong Learner

There are a few tricks to becoming, and staying, a lifelong learner.  Here are some tips from the Frontline:

  • Keep a Beginners Mind:  Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki is quoted as saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”  When you find yourself in a transition, that is exactly what you need, “many possibilities”.  If you are constantly learning, looking at everything as a beginner, always trying new things, you will have options, choices.  If you can give up on the need of being the expert, and look at everything through “naïve eyes” you will learning new things everyday.  And finding more things you want to learn.  You will be constantly curious.
  • Always have a book you are reading that is about something….but not about what you currently do for a living.  This will keep your mind sharp and bring you ideas for your next career adventure.
  • Have a “To Learn” list.  Most of us start the day with our “to do” list, but how many of us have a “To Learn” list.  Be creative and think about areas that you want to know about and pro-actively get that knowledge.
  • Be pointedly focused in your thinking.  Albert Einstein once said, “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” Simply looking at facts is not enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.  Make up your own mind, do not take anything at face value.  Make sure you truly embody the knowledge.  Once you have accomplished that,
  • Do something with what you have learned.  Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on tennis isn’t the same thing as playing it. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush. If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.  Practices are what will make the difference.  We are what we practice, pure and simple.

Becoming a Lifelong Learner will not only prepare you for your next career, it will make you more attuned to your surroundings, more curious and ultimately, much more successful in every area of your life.

Author Note

Brian Fippinger is a Managing Partner of Q4 ConsultingQ4 provides Somatically based Career and Leadership Coaching and Workshops. Let's chat and see what Path we can create together.

Image credit: Pinstamatic


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