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Career self-liberation: how ready are you?

Gabe Heilig

Founder, Action Resumes—Pentagon

Career independence in a Post-Good-Jobs Economy
Open your laptop.
Turn on the news.
There will be stories about jobs.
Where are the jobs?”
“Where will new jobs come from?”
“What can we do to create more jobs?”
And: “Can we create good jobs—or is this the new normal?”
And if it is: then what?

Until quite recently, work was packaged inside assembly-line jobs like the ones in Henry Ford’s automobile plants. To make cars that were affordable to large numbers of people, he needed to create an inexpensive process of manufacturing cars. The solution: he hired workers to do precise, repetitive tasks in specific sequences.

In the model of employment Ford made famous, having a job became the act of following instructions about what to do, when to do it, and when to stop doing it and start doing something else. A job became not what workers were capable of doing on their own but what they were told to do, because these actions were based on instructions that fit the plans that ran the factory.

For several generations during the 19th and 20th centuries, doing a job came to mean little more than “performing pre-defined actions.” In these jobs, very little independent thinking was wanted or welcomed. In fact, too much thinking got in the way.

Thinking about those plans was not a worker’s job.

Soon, Ford’s assembly line model of how work got done was turned on its end, tilted vertically and became the modern glass-and-steel office building: a structure for moving data, decisions, and documentation of these decisions through a corporate bureaucracy. Instead of engines, what were being assembled were pieces of decisions: about insurance policies, mortgages, all the myriad legal, financial and data-related facts that drive corporate activities. But the process was very much the same: precise actions, done according to instructions, with minimal variations.

Today, although many jobs like those in Ford’s factories remain, our economy is changing in front of our eyes; and it is changing profoundly. Global competition, the Great Recession and its “jobless recovery,” the use of Just-In-Time manufacturing that creates an “inventory” of workers to be called on only when they’re needed, then quickly sheds them when their tasks are done—these factors have changed the nature of employment itself.

For workers, getting a job has become the economic equivalent of Russian roulette. People who rely on jobs for economic security are almost certainly going to lose them at some point. What’s more, the companies that own these jobs also frequently disappear through mergers, acquisitions, and outright failure. We all know this. We can all feel the collective shudder as it rolls through the economy. Workers work harder, thinking it’s the only way to appear essential in their jobs.

Why do they work harder?

Because it’s the one thing they can do to increase their sense of safety, thinking that “ I’m safe; the boss knows how hard I’m working.” As a result, many workplaces have become fear-driven environments. Through their overtime and their weekends at the office and all their untaken vacations, workers keep trying to say: “ No—not me, boss—please, not me.”

Bosses may find the resulting rise in productivity and employee pliability easier to manage, but companies also suffer from the lack of creative risk-taking that flows from this fear-driven state of mind. Frightened people do not innovate effectively. Instead, their mental universe shrinks and they begin hunkering down, trying to wait things out, hoping everything will all somehow just go away.

Caught in their fear, however, our entire economy suffers. Shrinking in the face of major challenges is an understandable human reaction, but it is not likely to be effective. To grow as professionals, we will have to get beyond our mental limits. Somehow, we have to inhabit our sense of confidence more fully and fill it with potential opportunities.

Making ourselves smaller is not the way to grow.

We need ourselves at the outer limits of the best we can see ourselves being and doing; and we need each other at the same level of excellence and imagined effectiveness. Somehow, we have get past our fears and summon the courage, imagination and willpower to make the attempts creators need to make to get from Here to There.

No one builds these bridges for us. We have to learn how to do it ourselves. We have to begin that journey on the hard ground of current reality, walk across our bridge of dreams onto solid ground on the other side. It’s like saying, “ I’m going to run the Marine Corps Marathon,” and training to the point where we know that we can run it—and finish.

This is the magic that creators learn to perform: the magic of turning our ideas into actualities. And in today’s Post-Good Jobs Economy, these ideas and realities involve being paid for what we do. It’s not a trick in the sense of being an illusion, but it does involve creating a situation that contains what you want—and then getting it. In this economy, that’s magic. And, like magic, it takes practice to pull this off.

The purpose of the next few articles will be to share perspectives, mental maps, tools and action plans that can enable individuals and small teams to accomplish this, by giving you ways to practice and tools to practice with—so that, like magic, it starts looking easy to others who observe, and starts feeling easy to those who do it.

But to get there, we have to begin at the beginning: with the concepts, ideas, and vocabulary we are going to use to talk about these activities and initiatives you can take.

Gabe Heilig has been a consulting speechwriter for the White House and has assisted over 5,300 people in advancing their careers. If you have a question, other people probably have the same question you have. Let’s hear them! You can reach Gabe at gabe@ideadesign-dc.com