In the book Risk/Reward (Random House, 2015), writer Anne Kreamer argues that while that the typical American worker is hardwired to spend the majority of his or her career at one company, not taking career risks early and often is actually setting men and women up for failure. In the following edited excerpt, Kreamer discusses what she learned from not having a linear career path.
Thirty-eight years ago when I started my career, I didn’t think of myself as a risk taker. But I realize now, having repeatedly quit one job for the next and hopped from one industry to another, I was doing something different from that of most of my contemporaries, or at least those I knew. This was not a strategic decision. I had a wide variety of interests but no particular skill sets, and I felt no urgent calling.
Rather than committing myself at the outset to one career, I experimented. My half-dozen distinct professional tracks (banking, international television, magazine publishing, consumer product development and marketing, independent TV production, journalism) and a dozen different jobs within those careers (assistant, sales, marketing director, business development, publisher, entrepreneur, producer, consultant, executive coach, public speaker, magazine writer, author) were all driven by opportunity (being in the right place at the right time to join exciting ventures--Sesame Street, Spy magazine, Nickelodeon); by trial and error and a willingness to start at the bottom again and again; and by a basic faith that, good outcome or bad, I’d cope.
Part of the reason I repeatedly made what I now see were risky professional decisions--what kind of person leaves a good job with nothing else lined up or even targeted?--is simply who I am. I’ve always been a fundamentally optimistic person, quick to make decisions and trusting in my gut to guide me in the correct direction. As one of two children from a middle-class Kansas City family, I also was brought up with a deeply ingrained sense of Midwestern can-do-ness--raised to believe that if I put my mind to something, I could figure out how to tackle the problem.
My spontaneous temperament coupled with the if-I-build-it-they-will-come problem-solving mind-set gave me the confidence to quit job after job, often with nothing else on the horizon. At different times, different triggers were the catalyst: boredom, a sense of a lack of opportunity, feeling undervalued for endless hours of hard work or time on the road, a punishing workload, enthusiasm to be part of something new and exciting--or a combination of more than one of these.
I used to enviously watch friends graduate from law school and eventually become partners in their firms, or others become physicians after years of dedicated training, or my husband go from being an entry-level writer to an editor-in-chief in a decade. How gratifying it must be to know what you wanted to do with your life! What was the matter with me that I couldn’t stick with anything longer than a few years? But now, more than three decades into my working life, I watch many of those same friends yearning to quit the inhumane 24/7 grind of practicing law in a big-city firm. Or doctors selling their practices because the U.S. health care system no longer seems focused on patient care. And others being laid off after decades of loyal work. As I see how the world has changed for those who once pursued the secure and steady career path, I no longer feel abashed by my zigzags, I feel lucky.
What once was viewed with skepticism--going wide and doing a variety of things versus going deep into one profession--can absolutely be a competitive advantage today. Particularly when we’re young. A 2014 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research discovered that the younger workers who sampled more occupation--viewing each successive job hop as a chance to discover the kind of work they find most satisfying--tend to be more financially successful in their thirties and forties. Henry Siu, a professor at the Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia, and one of the authors of the study, reported, "Job-hopping is actually correlated with higher incomes, because people have found better matches--their true calling."
I believe that amassing a range of skill sets and professional networks is a requirement to prosper in twenty-first-century work. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t aspire to work your entire life in one field, but it does mean that if you choose to be a lawyer, teacher, banker, architect, salesperson, or whatever, it is critical to keep abreast of possible changes in your profession. This notion of diversification can seem risky and counterintuitive in a world of increasing specialization, but specializing as a litigator, for instance, is not incompatible with maintaining an awareness of how those skills might be translated into different kinds of work: public advocacy and policy, educational reform, or work as an in-house counsel.
Over the years I’ve continued to develop new skills, forge new professional relationships, and allow new mental pathways that have served me well as each industry in which I’ve worked has been transformed. My multiple jobs in multiple industries have given me the chance to develop a variety of income streams; I like to think of it as having multiple legs on my career stool. I used to move sequentially from one position and industry to another--from television sales to textbook publishing to magazine marketing to toy development.
Today I do multiple things concurrently: I write books, contribute to print publications, consult with various companies--and am developing a plan to launch a Web-based home-furnishings business with a graphic designer and partnering with another friend to develop a new media app. Each project is at a different stage of development, but the key for me is that if any one or even two of them were to disappear or come to naught, I’d still have other solid revenue streams.
I know firsthand that today more than ever, the difference between professional success and failure lies in one’s mastery of the art--and yes, it’s an art--of taking risks.