Having just finished reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (which I heartily recommend, whether you read his The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable or not) I’ve been giving some thought to what this means from the point of view of one’s own career.
Most people go looking for a job when they leave school. Periodically they go looking for a new job. Every so often, on that journey, looking for a new job is forced upon them (through reorganization, merger, or a moment of “let’s cut costs and you belong in this year’s ten per cent”).
This is living in the world of the fragile. A job — any job, from “would you like fries with that?” to Executive Vice-President and above — is secure only so long as events do not take over. Bring on a recession, a tough new competitor, an acquirer with money to burn, a sociopath above you, a major loss in court, or half a hundred other things beyond your control, and all of a sudden the job isn’t there for you any longer.
That’s, by the way, the first part of personal due diligence: keeping a weather eye on approaching events.
Some people are willing to trade for a little more security. They try to find a port in the storm that is robust. Think mighty oak tree instead of sapling.
So they go to work where the place is “too big to fail”, or in the public sector (we’ll always have schools, or universities, or hospitals, or bureaucrats in offices), or in the military, or a host of other places “deemed to be secure”.
There, they may not have the lifestyle of the rich and famous (unless “too big to fail” is a bank) but they have a defined benefit pension, can’t easily be fired, and as long as they can conform to the norms are secure. Besides, no one is buying up universities, or school districts, or armies, are they?
Well, as Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, and other southern Europeans have discovered, robust the public institutions may have been, but when the money runs out yes, they do fire tenured professors, civil servants, soldiers and policemen, and a host of other robust institutions. A big enough external event, in other words, can topple an oak tree.
Let’s look the other real alternative to fragility. It’s not robustness, it’s antifragility.
Taleb talks about your neighbourhood’s restaurants. Individually, these businesses are fragile. Food fashion comes and goes: you can be a great Tuscan eatery, and when nothing but Asian fusion will do your tables will empty and you’ll go under. The average run for a restaurant is five years. Yet a neighbourhood tends to have the same number of eateries in it year after year — and chef-owners that close “The Hot Pot” are back in the year with “The Bistro”, and then, on the next cycle “Bean Sprout Gardens”. The restaurant trade, in other words, is antifragile: it survives condo-building tearing down blocks, deep recessions, supply chain disruptions, labour shortages and a host of other issues.
By choosing to work where the structure of the “industry” is antifragile, and learning how to roll with the punches of the ups and downs of the individual parts, truly safe careers are built.
Now some of us are more resilient than others. We know that our own lives must be periodically redecorated (it’s called learning new things) just as the chef-owner who likes his location and wants to stay in business has to periodically redecorate the place, change the menu to fit new tastes, and learn how to cook new food.
We’re doing personal due diligence not from the point of view of avoiding trouble coming at us, but from the point of view of riding the waves.
Now when your children are approaching the take-off point, it’s natural for parents to sit and muse on “what job will they have”. After all, no one wants their child to be adrift in a cruel world.
It’s hard to sit there and not think of jobs, in fact. But it’s necessary.
You see, your child should study what they can be interested in and enjoy. (Picture taking a mathematics degree when you hate math. Really picture that. Now ask yourself why your child should suffer through a degree because “there’s a job at the end of that one, and there isn’t one at the end of what you like”.)
Rather, you have to think about how to turn your child’s interests into an antifragile, resilient future for them. You have to point out all the different places that their chosen subject would apply to. You have to point out what they could do with their life, not just what job and title might lie at the end of the graduation ramp.
It’s easier, of course, if you live a resilient life in an antifragile community already. But any of us can do this. It just takes breaking with our own entrainment from when we were young.
For here’s the reality of tomorrow: following generations will have fewer university graduates than current ones do. That’s because the widespread expansion of universities has created a glut of graduates. It’s why job specifications demand ever more education, but the job doesn’t change. Anything to weed through tens of thousands of résumés!
That which cannot go on, will not go on. It never changes as quickly as it can be seen, but change it will. With that, one of the pillars of robustness will fall, too (there are already far too many people capable of teaching in universities or researching at universities than there are teaching jobs, or research grants to support — add declining enrolment as people realize a degree does not lead to work and the implosion of that oak tree will be mighty indeed).
But no one asks the entrepreneur for his credentials. No one asks the innovator for his paperwork. No one asks the fledgling restauranteur who he studied under.
Instead they judge the work done: is it good? Will I pay for this? Do I want more of it?
Never forget, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. Steve Jobs did a half year at university. Does it bother you that your computer was the creation of someone without degrees?
Thought not. But in both cases it was the creation of someone who didn’t want something fragile for themselves.
Think about it. It’s never too late to improve your own resilience.