How fortunes and opportunities are made—and lost

As you’re reading this, the new school year is beginning. The one just past was filled with stories of students who invested time, energy and money to earn degrees in anticipation of starting to build a life. Many have nothing to show for their efforts but debt. That doesn’t diminish their degrees; it speaks to the power and the whims of the market.

Tastes change, values change, needs change. BlackBerry misjudged all three when it dismissed the iPhone. Bill Gates once observed that he could see no reason why anyone would need a PC with more than 640K of memory. Now it’s not about the memory, it’s about the PC itself. Microsoft was a year behind the market in seeing the potential and promise in the Internet—and almost missed it. The business press is now calling Jim Ballmer’s tenure at its helm Microsoft’s lost decade.

The masthead of The Economist reads:

First published in September 1843 to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”

We’re all in the midst of that contest. PDD’s sincere hope is that we won’t be reading the same headlines a year from now we were reading a year ago.

The Swinging Sixties were notable for the Vietnam War, the first manned landing on the Moon, the election and subsequent assassination of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, the British Invasion and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. All of those events occupy their rightful place in history. The 60’s also saw the coming of age of commercial computing. But that history is still being written.

The stampede to be among the first to profit from the work spawned by data processing and the salaries that went with it fizzled. The novelty had worn off and being in the industry or thinking of being in it had become “uncool”. People turned their backs on the idea of making it a career.

The industry they turned their back on gave birth to the smartphone you’re holding, the apps it’s running, iTunes, Google, Android, streaming video, 3D movies like Avatar and the latest Star Trek, and social media. There’s no way of knowing how many of the people who bought into the “uncool” label lost out and how much they lost. That includes the fortunes—large and small—they didn’t make that other people did, and still are.

Microchips have become smaller, faster, more energy-efficient and all pervasive. Think “smartphone”, high definition TV, Netflix, Sirius XM. We’ve learned how to “print” three-dimensional objects on a desktop. Nanobots may soon be performing surgery autonomously inside the human body. Laser eye surgery has become routine.

This should not be taken to mean that IT is the be-all and end-all by any means. The latest National Occupational Classification lists 30,000 job titles and it’s 7 years out of date. But the data the next edition will be based on isn’t and it’s already out there. The market for labour is a market for ideas and the demand for those ideas will just keep on growing. The words “good” and “bad” when applied to choosing and preparing for the work your children are going to do are as out of date as Bill Gates’s 640K PC. If we have to work for a living, we should be thinking in terms of “relevant” and “irrelevant”, demand and supply.

The screen you’re reading at this moment represents the wherewithal to assign those rankings for the benefit of your children and yourself. The choice is up to you. Pre- and post-secondary school isn’t only about academics. It’s about developing the mindset to compete in a world where we may become a nation of shopkeepers. PDD anticipates that 1/3 of corporate staff will be permanent and salaried with benefits; 1/3 permanent part-time staff; and 1/3 staff on demand. That’s another way of saying that many of us will be self-employed out of necessity, if not out of choice.

The Personal Due Diligence Project represents competitive advantage in a very competitive world. You can test that premise by calling or sending us an e-mail. We hope you do. In the meantime, we wish you and your children the best of luck and every success in the academic year just beginning.

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