Don’t turn your career plan into a dumb bomb strategy

Herman Singh says a successful strategy can adapt to changes in the environment.

The challenge in today’s career and education sphere is that we need to make big decisions when we are too young, and those can lock us into a path for the rest of our lives. It is indeed rare that we do make the correct decision and so there are many individuals who end up being unhappy with their lives, largely because they have taken a trajectory based on early perceptions early that they did not alter as new information emerged.

This is a dumb bomb strategy, like that used in WWII.

Pilots flying WWII bombers had to identify and overfly their targets at 10,000m and drop their bomb loads with precision using optical guidance systems that calculated the trajectory of the payload through the air. They had to navigate through bad weather, locate the targets at night through clouds and compensate for their own speed and the wind speed during the fall, all while under attack from ground based anti-aircraft guns and incoming enemy fighters.

Surviving pilots would only know days later whether they were successful or not, and it was not unusual for entire squadrons of bombers to miss their targets completely. In the same way, when you launch your career as a teenager and pursue that direction without correction, then you are going to experience similar odds of success.

The odds that we will know enough in our teenage years to make the correct decisions for 30 years out are astronomically small.

We are called upon to pick subjects in school around 13 years old. Most of us make these decisions based on parental instruction or what our friends are doing. If you picked accounting, history, languages, and art in middle and high school then the odds of studying STEM or medical or engineering subjects at university are low. The opposite is also true. The rot sets in early in our lives.

As an Asian child, my choices were simple due to societal pressure from the community. It was going to have to be a doctor, lawyer or accountant. Failure to make those choices could relegate you to running the family business, a tea room downtown.

I chose engineering and as the first engineer in the family it was a hard sell. This was not a grand career with a track record of delivering success. None of my elder relatives had ever seen a well-off engineer or even met an engineer, for that matter.

And so it is today with game developers, data analysts, digital architects, or AI designers. Parents today do not understand these careers, much less are able to provide guidance to their kids on how to choose. What aggravates this are the career guidance counsellors who use tools that are very dated to guide students down dead-end paths because they themselves are not close to the needs of the industry of the future – paths that only reveal their true horrors when the individual is in their late 20s, by which time it has become much harder to make the change.

Why is it so difficult to make a change? Because of the sunken cost fallacy! I have already invested so much of my life in getting to this point, that going and restarting is a waste of many life years. It is an acknowledgement of failure and wasted money, but more importantly, wasted time.

Plus you are now behind the starting line in your new chosen profession. The 30-year-old in a room of 20-somethings. It's tough and it happened to me once when I decided to try out consulting mid-career, only to find that I was a 35-year-old in a room of 23-year-olds, and we all earned the same.

They were higher energy, closer to the latest learnings in the field, in a clique and well networked in the industry. And of course, there was no deference to my age or experience – I was just the “the old guy in the corner”!

I was like a lumbering buffalo chasing a herd of springbok. I lasted 6 months and then left to carve out a niche that, as it subsequently transpired, worked much better for me. It also turned out that most consultants only lasted three years before they churned out because the staff turnover rates in many professional services firms is over 30 percent per annum. If you are not a partner by 30 you are out. I had joined a race that I had no hope of winning!

There is also a component of compounding involved here. Small errors made early in life compound every year to create discrepancies after many years. Consider two individuals who are similar in all respects, but where one chose the optimal path and the other not. One could end up in a senior management job where the entry level salary is $250k per annum and the other maybe languishes in a commodity level job paying $50k per annum. If they both follow the recommended rule of thumb savings plan of 1x your salary by age 30, 2x by age 35, 3 x by 40, 6x by 50, 8x by 60 and 10x by 70, then ignoring future increases or inflation (because this is in dollars) the difference at age 70 could be as high as $2 million.

These are fundamentally different retirement plans. The curves start to deviate early, and the gap grows exponentially if left uncorrected. The earlier you identify and address this, the more years of compounding you have to address this.

This is compounded further by many employees assuming that the only way to succeed is to job hop. A CV with a year’s worth of experience each at 10 firms over 10 years is not 10 years of experience. It’s 10 times one year’s experience, and only a year’s worth of effective work experience as the candidate spends a year getting up to speed before adding value.

Job hopping to chase a quick salary increase may work in the short term but is a terrible strategy for the longer run. It also hides the deeper malaise, like a pain killing cream on a serious wound. It may create short-term comfort, but will result in long-term suffering.

The combination of committing to a path too early, using incomplete information, not recognising the need to change, reluctance to change, and not implementing optimal changes when the recognition is there, are what leads to the miss in our careers. This is compounded by poor career moves, bad bosses, bad employers, and unexpected events like recessions or Covid-19.

This leads to many people who are now trying to make the best of a bad situation later in life. Artistic plumbers and creative accountants and poetic engineers fill the corridors of life coaches and therapists. They are all building coping strategies due to the stresses baked into their lives. They are all suffering role conflict, an affliction that arises when the role that you are asked to play in life has a high mismatch with who you really are. They also are infected with affluenza, as professionals who are earning well but unhappy in their jobs.

The optimal strategy is the smart bomb or fire-and-forget strategy. This is one where you select the end game, lock and load, and then forget about it because it adapts, and ducks and dives as needed to adjust to changes in the environment and the target itself.

This was used in the Gulf War to great effect, where the pilots were able to plan and navigate better, launch from a distance, and be assured that the ordnance would guide itself into successful strike.

The key elements are gathering intelligence, building a plan, maintaining agility, regular monitoring, development of possible pivots and the ruthless implementation of the same. My new book, Upcycle your Career, will guide the reader further on how to accomplish exactly these tasks for their own careers.