How to upcycle your career

Herman Singh explains how you can build a more coherent life strategy by redefining what success looks like.

We are all born with an inbuilt drive to aspire and succeed. We often refer to this as ambition and it is seen as an attractive and desirable trait in others.

We all want to improve ourselves and to win. We are attracted to individuals with dreams, vision, and hope. We are encouraged to do so, and we are built up as heroes in our own families and schools. We are the chess champ at the local club, the most valued rugby player on the schools under 15 team, the darts champion at the local pub, the head prefect in school or passed top of our grade. We are lauded for our achievements, we build confidence in ourselves and we believe our own PR.

This creates an illusion of infallibility that leads us to build and grow our self-belief and a dogma that one must persist and persevere with a task even though its relevance has lapsed.

We are taught that there is no replacement for hard work and that only losers quit. We rationalise failure, exaggerate our roles in collective success and create excuses of external forces when we fall short of objectives. We are brought up with a very specific perception of ourselves and the world.

We are then let loose on an unsuspecting world where we discover that these simple rules may no longer be relevant life lessons. We realise that all our successes were in carefully crafted sports, or endeavours within tight, clearly defined rules, with well understood tactics and strategies honed over many years.

We learn that we were really executing someone else’s plan against a well-balanced enemy and with well understood outcomes. We were a big fish in a small pond and engaged in trivial pursuits. When we enter the enormous ocean of life, we realise that we have been practising and living in an artificial world that only partially reflects the realities of life.

The world is filled with individuals who have come short in their career challenges and have had to step aside from their roles, shocked and rattled by the reality that they were not good enough or not the chosen ones. We all follow our ambitions to get to the top even though the path gets increasingly narrow and cluttered as one approaches the upper echelons. We are trapped in a cycle of incremental or sustaining innovation where we are looking for progress through small iterations in grade, level, title, and salary.

There is a clear flaw in this type of logic. First, up is not the only way to progress. Second, the odds of success in career progression drop rapidly the more senior you are. Third, the probability of remaining there when you get there is low and declining. For example, the average CEO of large cap firms in both consumer and industrial sectors is just five years and dropping. It dropped from six years in 2013. CEO turnover at the 2,500 largest global listed companies is 22 percent a year. For smaller firms it is even worse.

Another part of the flaw is that our ambition often exceeds our competence. Our reach exceeds our grasp. The Peter Principle kicks in – we are finally promoted into our level of incompetence. We have literally been set up to fail.

The final nail in the coffin is our tendency to double down when faced with obstacles. This raises the ante and both locks us in for longer, but also means we don’t explore better alternatives.

Upcycling your career
The sooner you learn that you are on a treadmill that is a road to nowhere, the faster you can begin the process of upcycling your life and building a more coherent life strategy.

You need to redefine what success looks like for your career. The answer up to now has always been “success is when I get my boss’s job” or when you become the CEO. The sad reality is that only a few will achieve that, and even fewer will retain it for more than a few years.

A redirection of focus to create a more sustainable career that runs for decades rather than just the next promotion might not feed the ego as much, but will result in a more successful achievement of life goals. We have lost sight of the fact that life goals are the strategic objectives and that your career is only the means to get you there. There could be many paths to that endgame and your current career is only one of them.

Goals for your life such as retiring at 55, remaining healthy and active until 85, getting a beach house, travelling the world (once we have collectively fought off Covid-19) or funding a school, clinic or bursary scheme are all laudable objectives. They are life goals and we each have a hazy view of them for ourselves as we struggle to cope and win on a daily, if not hourly, basis. In business we would call this a strategic objective or the end game. Many of us unfortunately do have a clear view of what that is, and often they are merely aspirations with no check on reality.

A key first step in upcycling your life and career is the need to be clarifying and documenting our life goals and testing them for realism before we begin working backwards from them to establish what it is that we should be doing now to achieve them.

Retiring
Let us look at retiring at 55. I have recently argued that we should be prepared to work until we are 70. Covid-19 has changed all the rules. Developing learning for the first 22 years of our lives, then working and building up savings for the next 35 odd years to retire for the final 18 years might not work anymore. Why?

Pension fund returns are collapsing, income is down within a short time in many industries, salary and wage increases are stagnant or declining, bonuses are hammered, share options are restricted, dividend payments are challenged, savings are depleted and fixed assets are devaluing for ourselves and for many industries. All this is happening while costs are escalating, and your kids and extended family may end up moving in with you or require your support.

It's not clear how long this will last nor how long it will take to recover with estimates ranging from between five to 10 years – if ever. The best strategy in these difficult times is to keep your head down, manage your costs smartly, be conservative, and work as many jobs as you can for as long as you can while remaining healthy in the process.

In an age of extreme uncertainty, the optimal strategy might be to be as agile, fiscally fit and conservative as possible. Companies, however, might force retirement from 55 onwards. What will you do then?

Life goals are the strategic objectives, and your career is only the means to get you there. There could be many paths to that endgame and your current career is only one of them. We therefore need to start with establishing life goals early as the North Star for your plan to upcycle. We often confuse our pension plan as our life goal and again this is just another enabler of your life goal.

Aligning your life goals to purpose
The three supporting elements of upcycling’s endgame are to firstly design them to align with your personal life purpose and values, secondly to test how viable it is and thirdly to assess how many optional paths one has in order to get there i.e., strategic optionality.

Alignment of your life goals to purpose is a very personal thing and not the subject of this column. We have seen Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and other billionaires give away their wealth to noble causes while they are still alive. Others bequeath it on their passing. Some make it their life’s purpose to make major breakthroughs for humanity while they are still on this earth even while they try to get off it, like Elon Musk.

Viability is a function of many things, of which affordability is the most important given the uncertainty in the economies of the world. Another is your own health and likely lifespan. So your life goals must be severely stress tested, or you could be aiming for the wrong thing with all of your activities. Viability is a function of assessing affordability, but also risk and reward. The example of saving 10x your salary by the time that you are 70 is a case in point.

Optionality or the number of paths to get there speaks to the “how” and this is where creative energy is focussed. There are many strategic options for building a strategic path for your life. The key question here is where do you want to play and how will you win?

What we want is a portfolio of options that we can assess and then to select one or a few to pursue. A fad for a while was the portfolio life, of which I personally am a fan, but it is indeed not for everyone. What are these options that can make up a portfolio? They can include many things and range from full time jobs to the gig economy, from content creation to running a small business and from kicking off a startup to getting into drop shipping ecommerce. Or all of them! Hence the term portfolio life.

This much talked about concept refers to the fact that many people need to do many things to better fit their profile, as no single thing would be either viable or attractive enough. Often individuals set their lives up so that they enter the gig economy, take a share in a small business, invest in blue chip shares for the dividends and then do a bit of private consulting, or they may even start to get into exploring the creative side of their existence.

A key point from this is that a full-time job and therefore a career is only one of the options that presents itself as a possible outcome. Many individuals chose to both take on a career and to develop a side-hustle. There are many other options and identifying this and choosing which ones to explore is the main thrust of my new book, Upcycle your Career.