The career ladder is dead.

“I’m a Director of a Careers Centre, and I have a confession to make.

I don’t believe in careers. Not as the traditional concept, anyway. ”

That was what I wrote to Channel NewsAsia when they asked me to write a commentary piece about job seekers struggling to find the “right” career for them and what advice I would give for people who were trying to decide whether to follow their passion or to “settle” for the jobs that were available.

In the future, I believe that instead of thinking in terms of careers, we will be focused on collective problem-solving. Every job is just a problem that needs to be solved, that requires certain skills to unlock.

The portfolio or gig economy is here already. Studies suggest that by 2020, 40% of American workers will be independent contractors. In a 2016 report from Barclays, 24% of workers under 34 had already worked in 4 industries. Compare this to our parents generation, where it was the norm to work in the same industry for their entire career.

The linear concept of a “career ladder” is now shifting to thinking about your “career web”, defined by lateral moves as well as traditional “promotions”.

But in the midst of so much choice, I also see so many job-seekers struck by analysis paralysis.

The psychologists call this “the paradox of choice”. My favourite example is the famous Jam study in 2000 by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper.

Shoppers were either given a choice of 24 jams or 6 jams to choose from. The larger display attracted more shoppers than the smaller one, but when it came to making a choice, the 24-jam crowd were only 1/10th as likely to buy a jam as the people who saw the smaller display.

Increased choice decreases satisfaction whether it’s jam or jobs. So many don’t choose and remain stuck.

Many of our youth also talk about how its hard for them to choose jobs that don’t align with their dreams and passions, or that they haven’t “found” their passion yet. In my experience, most successful people don’t “find” a passion. They grow it.

It’s very rare to have develop singular clarity about passions and purpose early on in life. What’s more important and practical for most of us to focus on cultivating curiosity about accumulating skills. Each new skill or pursuit you embark on is a seed. The more seeds you plant, the better your chance of finding that one or two strong seedlings that will take root and grow into a mighty oak tree of your life’s purpose.  And in fact, for most of us “older ones”, we know that your passions will change. What your passion is at 30 can be very different at 40 or 50. So its very important to cultivate curiosity and develop the ability to learn (heutagogy – self-determined learning).

My advice to job seekers in the age of what we call a VUCA (Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world is this:

  • Develop a diverse portfolio of skills and experiences. Start now.

I’m a huge Dilbert fan and Scott Adams, the celebrated cartoonist who created Dilbert, often talks about how he has layered a combination of self-described “mediocre” skills into a “talent stack” that is quite special.

There are people who had much better drawing skills and much better business insights than Scott Adams, but no cartoonist had the combination of both, which is what makes Dilbert so special and relatable to the masses of corporate workers out there.

I also have a diverse combination of modest skills – business, banking, social-emotional intelligence, public speaking, psychology, writing, and all of these have contributed to my career. There are definitely better business people than me, but many lack emotional intelligence. I’m often surrounded by smarter academics with great ideas, but many lack the ability to execute on their vision.

Each of us needs to develop our unique talent stack and it is in the collection of diverse skills, experience and prototyping that we amass enough data to be able to a better architect of our career and retain the flexibility to remain relevant in a constantly changing world.

The more skills you have, the better your competitive advantage. Practice your curiosity muscle. Try new interests, join clubs, hobbies, past-times, take a new route back home from work. The research suggests that curiosity is one of the biggest drivers of human potential and success in life.

  • Develop your social emotional intelligence and awareness skills

At NUS, we run a signature future-ready skills module for all our freshmen called Roots & Wings, which focuses on social emotional intelligence, mindfulness and personal leadership. Some people call these the “soft skills” but I hate that term. These are sometimes the hardest skills to practice and the ones that will make the biggest difference to your success at work, in relationships and in life.

A big part of our program is centered on developing and practicing 3 types of mindful awareness – self-awareness, interpersonal awareness and awareness of the wider world around you.

In a VUCA world, awareness is your “sensing” ability. If your sensors can only pick up certain datasets and are missing others, then you will be at a disadvantage.  You need the very best sensors in an ambiguous world so that you can pick up information others miss, or understand how to iterate or which direction to go when there is no black or white, right or wrong.

  • Talent is not good enough. Build Resilience and a Growth Mindset.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. When we teach about resilience, the most important way to develop resilience is practice a “Growth Mindset”, a term coined by Prof Carol Dweck from Stanford.

A Growth Mindset essentially means a state of mind where you believe that if you put in effort, you can grow your talent. The opposite is a Fixed Mindset, where you believe that talents are “innate gifts” and you’re either a certain type of person or not.

Fixed vs Growth is a powerful mindset choice that impacts every area of life. And important to note, you’re neither a “Fixed Mindset person” or “Growth Mindset person”, but most of us move up and down the fixed-growth mindset spectrum depending on the situation, often several times a day. In relationships I may be more fixed mindset – oh that person will never change no matter how much effort. In parenting I may have more of a growth mindset – I don’t have any experience being a parent but I believe that as long as I put in effort, I’m going to be able to be the best parent I can be.

When it comes to careers, in a Fixed Mindset most people don’t try new jobs because they are afraid of failure.

In a Fixed Mindset, you think if I fail at something, I AM a failure. It must have meant I’m not that type of person that is good at that.

In a Growth Mindset, if you try something and it doesn’t succeed, it means that you’ve expanded the boundaries of your learning. In a Growth Mindset, you think “I haven’t succeeded yet… but if I just keep applying effort, I can get there.”

In a hypercompetitive world, the effort we put in is crucial.

Angela Duckworth goes further to say effort is more important than IQ as it counts twice. Her simple formula:

Talent x Effort = Skill

Skill x Effort = Achievement

As you can see, pure talent without effort will never become skill. Pure skill without effort put in will not translate into results or achievement.

Of course luck, opportunities and other external factors come into play when it comes to success.

However I always tell my students, it’s not to say that a Growth Mindset will guarantee success, but a Fixed Mindset guarantees failure.

*A modified version of this article was published by Channel NewsAsia as a commentary piece here:


One Comment Add yours

  1. Doris says:

    Great article on the future of careers and the importance of the growth mindset. The info is as relevant for young graduates as it is for the senior preparing for retirement and wishing to continue to contribute to society.


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