By Reid Hoffman
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn. Follow Reid on LinkedIn.
The best-selling career book of all time goes by the whimsical name What Color Is Your Parachute? But when it comes to charting a career plan, that's the wrong question. What you should be asking yourself is whether your parachute can keep you aloft in changing conditions. The unfortunate truth is that in today's career landscape, your parachute -- no matter its color -- may be punctured full of holes. And if it isn't that way already, it could get that way at any time.
In his first chapter, Parachute author Richard Bolles writes:
After four decades in print, this is still the accepted wisdom today. You see similar advice all over. Habit No. 2 of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is, "Begin with the end in mind": You should produce a personal mission statement that puts your goals in focus. In The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren advances the idea that each of us has a God-given purpose for being on this planet.
"It is important, before you enter the job hunt, to decide exactly what you are looking for -- whether you call it your passion, or your purpose in life, or your mission.... Passion first, job-hunt later."
This philosophy has some serious strengths. It's important to have worthy aspirations. If you are passionate about something, you'll have fun, stay committed and achieve more. It's also right to invest for the long term: To find out whether you're good at something and whether you like it, you need to stick with it for a meaningful amount of time.
But while these strengths may have made them the right philosophies in past decades, today there are some huge problems with this approach to career planning.
It presumes a static world.
As we saw in my earlier post, the career landscape isn't what it used to be. Deciding where you want to be in 10 years and then formulating a plan for getting there might work if our environments were unchanging. It might work if getting from point A to point B in your career were like crossing a lake in a boat on a calm summer's day.
But you're not in a calm lake. You're in a chaotic ocean. Conventional career planning can work under conditions of relative stability, but in times of uncertainty and rapid change, it is severely limiting, if not dangerous. You will change. The environment around you will change. Your allies and competitors will change.
It presumes that fixed, accurate self-knowledge can be easily attained.
In fact, lofty questions about identity and moral purpose, along with deceptively simple ones like "What am I passionate about?" take time to work out, and the answers frequently change. It's unwise, no matter your stage of life, to try to pinpoint a single dream around which your existence revolves.
Just because your heart comes alive at a calling doesn't mean someone will pay you to do it.
If you can't find someone who wants to employ you to pursue your dream job, or if you can't financially sustain yourself -- that is, earn a salary that allows you to live the lifestyle you prefer while doing it -- then trying to turn your passion into a career doesn't really get you very far.
The successful ones do both. They are flexibly persistent: They start companies that are true to their values and vision, yet they remain flexible enough to adapt. They are obsessed with customer feedback, yet they also know when not to listen to their customers. They draw up light plans with the intent of developing true competitive advantage in the marketplace, but they're also nimble enough to stray from those plans when appropriate.
Sure, Bill Clinton decided on politics at age 16, and set his sights on the presidency almost as young. But most of us zig and zag our way through life. Tony Blair spent a year trying to make a go of it as a rock music promoter before entering politics. Jerry Springer was mayor of Cincinnati before attaining daytime television fame. Andrea Bocelli practiced law before he became a world-famous singer. Winning careers, like winning startups, are in permanent beta: always a work in progress.
It's important to understand, though, that while entrepreneurial people are always evolving, the choices they're making are disciplined not random. There is real planning going on, even if there are no firm plans. We call this kind of disciplined, adaptive planning ABZ Planning.
ABZ Planning: The Antidote To 'What Color Is Your Parachute' Approach
ABZ planning is an adaptive approach to planning that promotes trial and error. It allows you to aggressively pursue upside and mitigate against possible downside risks. ABZ planning isn't something you do once early in your career. It's a process as important for someone in their 40s or 50s as for a newly minted college grad. There is no beginning, middle, or end to a career journey; no matter how old you are or at what stage, you will always be planning and adapting.
So what do A, B and Z refer to exactly?
Plan A is your current plan, your current job, your current thesis about how you stand out in the marketplace.
My original career Plan A was to pursue academia because I thought it would be the best way to have impact on the world by spreading ideas about what made a good society. As I studied at Oxford, I learned much about how people come together, interact in groups and relate to society. But I also learned that career success in academia too often meant producing specialized writings that only 50 or so people ever read.
In my career, my realizations about academia led me to shift to a Plan B and find a career path that had broader impact. My Plan B was to build new software. Success in the software industry also meant "impact" -- but on a much broader scale than academia. In some cases, it meant building a product that improved the lives of millions of people every day. To pursue this alternative route, I first focused on building relevant skills and connections by working in the online divisions of Apple and Fujitsu. Second, I connected with people who could co-found a company of my own. Then, when I started my first company, I recruited as many smart advisers and participants as I could in order to learn and adjust quickly. And, in terms of company formulation, since my first company SocialNet was unsuccessful, both PayPal (founding team) and LinkedIn (co-founder) were my own shifts to new Plan Bs.
Keep in mind that you should rarely write down a specific Plan B, but you should always be aware of your parameters of motion as you are executing your Plan A. You should be thinking about the "adjacent possible." Your transferable skills. Other opportunities on the horizon.
Plan Z is the worst-case plan. First, identify how to measure when you're tracking towards a worst-case scenario. Second, it's the plan that tells you what to do should that happen. Maybe when your credit card debt bloats to a certain amount you cash out your 401(k) or get a job at Starbucks.
The certainty of a Plan Z backstop is what allows you to take on uncertainty and risk in your career. When I started my first company, Socialnet, my parents offered me a room in their house in the event things didn't work out. Living there and finding another job was my Plan Z. It gave me the confidence to throw myself into the business -- knowing that if it all went to hell, I wouldn't end up on the street. You want to be able to survive failure in order to play again.
Some text in this post is adapted from my recent book with Ben Casnocha, The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career.
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