One of the most evocative concepts in economics is “creative destruction.” In Joseph Schumpeter’s 1942 book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, he described this force as a quintessential part of capitalism. The new destroys the old. Whole industries disappear as people figure out new ways of doing things. This upheaval isn’t just a side-effect of capitalism — it’s how it works (incidentally, it seems to be one of the reasons Karl Marx, writing much earlier, and Schumpeter himself, thought the system could be doomed). Part of being in a market economy, wrote Schumpeter, is recognizing that it “not only never is but never can be stationary.” We live in a “perennial gale of creative destruction.”
When we think of gales, the image that comes to mind is often of shipwrecked souls battered about by such storms. It is of people tossed around by forces beyond their control: going into the newspaper business, let’s say, only to find that — in Rupert Murdoch’s dramatic re-telling of Philip Meyer’s more nuanced point — the last print newspaper will be published (and then hit the recycling bin) sometime in April 2043. It is this mindset that has parents asking the question of what careers they can tell their children to pursue that will be decently compensated and safe.
But what if you build your career knowing that there are no safe careers? Is it possible to figure out a way to enjoy the excitement of the tumult? Can one go windsurfing in Schumpeter’s gale?
I’ve been thinking of that in light of recent changes in the business of the written word. When I grew up wanting to be a writer, what I pictured myself writing was physical books (and perhaps articles in physical newspapers and magazines). One of the skills I learned in my brief tenure at USA Today was getting rid of “widows” — lines at the end of a paragraph that only contain a word or two. To fit more text into the space, you edit out the widows so end-of-paragraph lines go more than halfway across the column. Suffice to say, this is a slightly-less-useful skill in the digital age when we are not bound by the constraints of physical space. What is useful? Figuring out how to say anything in 10-25% fewer words. In general, that makes most writing better and is a transferable skill to any medium we might communicate through in the future.
Part of skimming along on the waves of this gale involves figuring out one’s essential skills — the things one is good at, or can become good at — and then figuring out all the ways such skills can be deployed. Pharmaceutical companies may be firing their sales reps, but the skill of convincing people to buy and do things is not going away. People who design beautiful things in one medium can learn to design beautiful things in another medium; people who look for trends and patterns in one industry’s set of data can look for trends and patterns elsewhere.
Because the movement of labor is not entirely frictionless, there are currently obstacles to smooth, windsurfing joy. Part of this is that we used to believe jobs were long-term things (see my article on Fortune’s advice to the class of 1956 for more on this). If you know this isn’t true, you behave differently: you take charge of your own training, you build a network of people across industries and organizations and tenures, you become more interested in pointing to things in your own portfolio of accomplishments than the dates and names of organizations on your resume. You behave differently financially too. There are few careers, these days, that allow you to assume your financial position will improve in a linear fashion on the basis of your W-2 income.
When people understand the new rules, though, they are amazingly adaptable. I love hearing stories of reinvention: former newspaper reporters now earning decent livings from work published almost entirely in electronic form, consultants who managed project work starting businesses that staff people to projects, former Wall Street analysts who run business new media companies, and so forth.
What’s your story of reinvention? Are you windsurfing in Schumpeter’s gale?
Photo courtesy flickr user El coleccionista de instantes