Which risk is greater?


More and more of us have discovered that our résumés don’t fit into a nice neat pattern any longer.

They’re punctuated: companies we worked for went out of business, were acquired (and we were purged as a part of “making the deal pay for itself”), or outsourced our jobs.

We’ve got bits and pieces of self-employment scattered in and around the jobs we’ve held. We’ve got multi-industry backgrounds, not necessarily by choice, but simply by having had to chase down a new position time and again.

There’s a lot of advice out there these days saying that this kind of broad background is precisely what employers want. So how come your résumé never gets past the scanner or low level clerk handling incoming applications?

(There’s also a ton of articles written about how CEOs value humanities degrees, because they create flexible thinking employees. Seen many of those on the CEO’s team lately? They’re not being presented as candidates by executive search or by being passed on by the CEO’s admin assistant or human resources VP. Going to the top, in other words, doesn’t get you past anything much these days.)

We are in an economy with a binomial distribution (for those of you who are not math-orientated, that simply means if you drew the data out as a curve, it would have two humps). You can be firmly in one or the other, but moving between them can be a nightmare.

Both are what people who do work in complexity call “fitness peaks”. You have to take on a lot of risk to leave a fitness peak and try to cross over to another one.

In one of the humps, or parts of the economy, or fitness peaks (they’re all the same thing), linearity rules. Here a résumé showing steady progression up career ladders, staying pretty much in one industry, with only occasional hops from one company to another, is the expected norm. People with a lot of outside experience, or a “difficult” résumé (if you’ve ever looked at yours and said “but the chronological sequence doesn’t really tell anyone what I have done”, you’ve got a difficult story to tell), are rejected as “not one of us” out of hand.

For companies that so far have avoided being eaten in the eat-or-be-eaten world of M&A, or for whom their markets haven’t fallen into difficulties yet, nothing has disturbed the equilibrium of continuing to do more of “what’s worked for us up to now”. Whether hiring you as a consultant, or hiring you for an open position, “fit” to norms will be everything.

Over in the other hump, all that diversity is definitely prized — as long as what it adds up to is (a) accomplishment and (b) proof you can dance. “Dance?” Yes, change, adapt, flex, and stay on the leading edge of changes in society.

Right now that second hump is smaller than the first one. But their relative sizes are changing. More importantly, the nature of work in the second hump is changing as it expands.

It’s not filling up, in other words, with companies offering nice jobs with all the perks that have “seen the light” that their old linear thinking was wrong. Instead, it’s filling up with opportunities to “do a little something”.

A growing number of positions these days depend on funding from grants, or shares of project results, or a host of other “risky” approaches. Now these situations also come (generally) with people in charge who recognize that somewhere you have to be bringing in a buck or three. The grocery store checkout clerk wants cash for food, not promises, share certificates, or “I’ll get paid when the foundation makes up its mind”. So they recognize that you’ll be living a portfolio life, where they don’t own you 24/7 and in turn someone else is putting a few coins in your jeans.

But the résumé you build living like that (I speak from experience, having done so for a decade now) is a nightmare for anyone stuck in the linear mould.

If you choose to build your prosperity over in linear-land, you’re taking on two big risks. One is that this zone is shrinking, not growing. It’s tied to the economy as a whole, and requires that it be growing most of the time for the linear model (in the private or public sectors, or in major not-for-profits) to be sustained. That’s not the economy we’ve had since 2008, nor is it likely to be one we’ll have anytime soon.

The other risk, of course, is that your particular employer (because you have to choose one to work at) prospers — and yet, at the same time, isn’t taken out of the game for its prosperity.

The risks over in portfolio-land are different. You might work hard and never see a dime. You might fall off the bleeding edge of change, not for lack of trying but because you just don’t get into the right things at the right time. You have no security day-by-day. But the hump is growing in size and complexity, so opportunity is growing here even though the economy as a whole isn’t.

Now, you may ask, what lies in between the two?

That’s the realm of traditional entrepreneurial life. Open a store, open a small factory, open a software house, you name it.

Ultimately these are preyed upon both by the big players in the economy (and especially governments looking for tax revenues: it’s the little guys who pay full freight on business taxes, not the big ones) and, if the entrepreneur isn’t careful, she or he misses out on the virtues of the portfolio world, too.

Bottom line: you can make a living in any of these zones, but you are taking on risks doing so. So which risk is greater (for you) and which risk do you want?

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