#5 Career Resilience

#5 Career Resilience

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5.1 The Best Way To Attain Job Security

In the 80s, loggers were put out of work because governments around the world had decided to protect native forests for future generations. Protests by loggers were all over the news – it was an end to their livelihood and their communities.

To have our jobs taken away from us is one of the worst things that can happen at any stage of our lives, but the pain is amplified if it happens to us late in our life – to be labelled “not needed” when you still have so much to give; to be forced to start-over, when you have worked so hard to get to where you are; and, to compete against people half your age for work in a society that is prejudiced against older citizens.

We Gen Xers can avoid this fate, and take control of what happens to us as we age.

In the 80s, seeing what happened to the loggers and their families, I came up with a set of criteria to guide my career decisions. I call it the FLUID model1: The Pillars of Career Resilience.

fortyonwards career resilience FLUID model

Critics of this model might say, “shouldn’t we just follow our hearts and do the work that we enjoy most?” In the 80s, I saw workers being laid off in the thousands: miners in the UK, bank employees in Australia and manufacturing workers in the US. The 80s marked the end of life-long employment in Japan. I decided then, in my late teens, that loving what we do is important, but an insufficient strategy on its own.

Keen to fortify myself professionally, FLUID became my guiding career principle.

Right now, for us Gen Xers, it’s even more relevant than ever before. This is because the choices we make now will impact our career resilience in the second half of our lives.

5.2 What Explains Tom Cruise's Career Resilience

What do Reese Witherspoon, Jodie Foster and Tom Cruise have in common?

Tom got his first acting role at 19, and now at 57, he continues to star in action films as the hero and romantic lead.

What explains this? Good looks? Fame? Getting a lucky break early in life? It’s none of these. Other 80s stars had the looks, the fame and the luck but don’t have the same career longevity e.g. Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct), Andrew McCarthy (St Elmo’s Fire), Elizabeth Shue (Karate Kid), and Eric Stolz (Some Kind Of Wonderful).

What did Tom Cruise do differently?

His story is worth telling because it became fashionable to ridicule and hate Tom Cruise for a decade or so in the early 2000s. His association with the Church of Scientology got him in trouble with the media and public opinion, along with his relationship breakups with Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz and Katie Holmes. There’s also that infamous incident on the Oprah Winfrey show where he appeared to have lost his marbles2. Considered too risky, in 2006, Paramount Pictures cut ties with Tom Cruise, and tried to remove him from the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. Sumner Redstone, chairman of Paramount’s parent company Viacom, said: “We don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot…his recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.”3

I’ve been told not to use Tom Cruise as a model for discussion in this book because he is a controversial figure. Whether we like him or despise him, we have to give him credit for his longevity. A media storm lasting a decade ends most careers, or at least cripples them severely. For most of his career, Tom Cruise has starred in two to four films each year. At the height of the public disfavour, between 2007 and 2010, he averaged only one film per year. His “good guy” image took a beating off and on screen, and on screen he was cast as a ruthless killer in Collateral, he wore a fat suit in Tropic Thunder and played a Nazi officer in Valkyrie. This is how Hollywood stars fade into oblivion.

How did Tom Cruise bounce back? What did he do right?

Skills liquidity. Tom doesn’t have to rely on his good looks alone. He is a licensed pilot, he performs his own stunts, he has written a screenplay, and has directed a TV series5. Most notably, he has a track record for producing lucrative films (including Vanilla Sky, The Last Samurai and Mission: Impossible).

Risky BusinessThe Mummy
Top GunMission: Impossible (IV and V)
Rain ManJack Reacher (and sequel)
A Few Good MenWar Of The Worlds
Jerry MacguireEdge of Tomorrow
Eyes Wide ShutOblivion

Usefulness. Consider the table above. What do you notice? In recent years, Tom has focussed primarily on producing and starring in action hero films. Action hero films appear to fulfill an evergreen need (e.g. during an economic recession film studios are more likely to back action hero films above drama, art-house and romantic comedies). Some of us might prefer the films Tom starred in before 2000, but the seven films listed in the right hand side of the table grossed US$3.8B6.

Independence. In 1993, Tom created his own production company. Whilst other actors wait to get a phone call from their agent or a great script to land in their lap, as co-owner of the company, Tom gets to decide which projects to work on and which directors to work with. Actress Reese Witherspoon did the same, creating a production company7 so that she could work on the projects of her choosing: “I dread reading scripts that have no women involved in their creation – because inevitably, the girl turns to the guy and says, ‘What do we do now?’” As producer, she has the creative control to make films with strong female leads and stories that resonate with her audience.

Different. Imagine you are in a video store before the year 2000. If you see a film by Tom Cruise, you’re likely to want to read the back cover to find out what the film is about. He might catch your eye, but the film is more important than Tom Cruise in helping you decide if this is the video you will take home with you. If you only knew Tom Cruise from the films he made after 2010, you would come to expect him as a reliable source of action and escapism. In the same way we associate Volvo with safety, we now associate Tom with Action. This is tantamount to brand value.

A lot of actors own their own company, and try to produce films. Owning a film production company might make you the boss, but it can also be one of the fastest ways to lose money. Analysis of 279 films by Stephen Follows shows that 49% of films lose money, and of these 7% lose more than two times their production budget. In other words, if your film has a budget of $100m, there is a 7% chance that you will lose $200m or more.

In the early 2000s, Jodie Foster suffered a number of unlucky setbacks including having a film shelved because actor Russell Crowe broke his foot on set. She shut down her production company in 2001, stating that producing was “just a really thankless, bad job”. Jodie switched to focus on acting and directing. Some might say that this is easy for someone with her wealth and popularity to do. I attribute her longevity to the strategic choices she made during her career. To name a couple: at the height of her popularity in 1991 (with the release of Silence of The Lambs), Jodie declined lucrative acting roles to direct her first film (she was aged 29). She also declined a role in the sequel to the Silence of the Lambs4 (sure money) so that she could concentrate on film production (risky money). At aged 57, Jodie Foster doesn’t have to rely on her good looks, she mixes between acting and directing. In the last decade she has appeared in 14 films, and directed a number of TV shows including episodes of Orange Is The New Black, House of Cards, Black Mirror and Tales From The Loop.

The point is that it isn’t enough to be our own boss: in order to have career longevity we have to enjoy our work (Fulfilling), we need a range of skills to enable our independence (Liquid), we need to produce things people want (Useful), and be unique and memorable in the eyes of customers (Different).

Reese Witherspoon, Jodie Foster and Tom Cruise have each built a model for themselves that ensures career resilience borne from strategy, and doesn’t rely on good looks and luck alone.

5.3 The best career advice you can give

People confuse “Job Security” with “Resilience. Sometimes these are opposites.

Let me explain by sharing the story of my friend, Joe. Three years ago, Joe came to me for advice on whether he should stay with his current employer, or start-up his own boutique consulting company. It’s a tough choice because Joe was in the running for promotion to Partner status with his current employer. As well as the money, seniority and status, his current employer represents the safer option. Starting a business is very risky – he stands to lose a lot of money and damage relationships with his current employer.

Applying the FLUID framework, we jointly came to the conclusion that job security at the larger consulting firm is illusionary. Take a look at this analysis:

Start company453433.8

Ratings are subjective; where 5 = good and 1 = not so good.

Starting a business made sense for several reasons: he craved the challenge that comes with doing something different (Fulfilling); it would give Joe a raft of skills that would be useful across other sectors and over time (Liquid); his income growth wouldn’t be reliant on the internal politics of a larger firm (Independent); and the experience would help distinguish himself from his peers (Different).

Joe has built a successful business over the past three years. More recently he was courted by a consulting firm to lead a business unit overseas. We used the FLUID framework again to weigh up his options:

Stay with startup353433.6
Go overseas453343.8

Ratings are subjective; where 5 = good and 1 = not so good.

This time, the results were too close to be conclusive. It was tough to give up on his business, but Joe decided to take the job overseas because he would have better work-life balance (Fulfilling), as leader of the practice he would continue to have some level of autonomy (Independent), and the opportunity to lead a business unit overseas would add colour to his resume (Different).

The point not to miss here is that Joe’s earlier decision to build resilience (to start a business) created the latter career opportunity (to be entrusted to run a practice overseas). And the decision to take the job overseas further improves future prospects.

When people come to me for career advice, I often coach them towards the options that give them the greatest resilience over the long run. Resilience is just one of many criteria for making career choices. Other important criteria include: financial reward, your chances of success, how long the commute is, the work conditions (e.g. will you be safe), the people you will work with, and whether you will be working for a boss that will look after your career. All things considered, I’d argue that prioritising resilience yields better financial payoff and fulfilment over the long run. For example, if I picked a job because it was “cushy” or it paid better, but didn’t meet the other FLUID criteria, I’d face the risk of being out of work for long periods of time if anything should happen.

Getting people to consider the five criteria under FLUID is the best career resilience advice you can give.

5.4 The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Career

As we age, as our hair turns grey and our wrinkles show, we’ll encounter ageism. Imagine in our sixties contesting for a job against candidates in their forties. It doesn’t matter if we have a sharper mind, have more energy or be more savvy with technology, the assumption people make is that beyond sixty we are slower, have less stamina and more likely to be stuck in old ways.

How soon before we are considered “over-the-hill” in the minds of others? For us Gen Xers, this might happen sooner than we think: within 10-15 years?

Do we accept this fate? What if we still love what we do? What if we still have a lot to give? What if we feel we are at the top of our game, but others deny us the opportunity, or use our age for political gain? Do we let others decide if we’re still fit for work? Do we accept society’s prejudice and fade into insignificance?

Here are five tips to help us master our destiny.

I. Use the FLUID model to assess your options. Do this by redrawing the table below on a piece of paper or spreadsheet. List your options in the cells coloured blue, and provide a subjective rating between 1 and 5 in the cells coloured yellow, where 1 = not great, and 5 = great.

FLUID Model Template

Option A
Option B
Option C

To help you come up with a rating, the table below fleshes out “what good looks like (i.e. a rating of 4-5), as well as what not-so-good looks like (i.e. a rating of 1-2).

FLUID Model Rating Guide

Give a
rating of
4-5 if...
You can see yourself enjoying this work well into your 70s and 80s; there are people who do this work in their old age; there is scope within this profession to learn, move into different areas or work with different people so that you stay challenged; you find the working meaningful.You are able to switch to different functions, employers, industries or serve different customers with minimal friction; your capabilities (or those that you will attain) will be useful anywhere you go; you brand and your relationships span across industries; you have a broad range of skills.You create tremendous value; you are indispensable; you serve evergreen needs; your skills or product will be needed no matter what happens in the economy.You serve multiple customers or you can find new customers relatively easily; you have strong negotiating power against employers, customers and suppliers; you get to control your brand and the quality of your work.You are able to differentiate yourself from your competition; people recognise your brand and what value you stand for; you have a competitive advantage that is hard to emulate; there are not many like you.
Give a
rating of
1-2 if...
The work is mostly suited for younger people (e.g. fashion model); people can't do this type of work for long; you're likely to feel stale after 5-10 years.What you have to offer is very specific to a single function, employer or industry; you'll have to start-over or invest in considerable training if something happens to your job (e.g. IT support for a very specific software).It's difficult to attribute the value you create to you; employers or customers can live without you; your industry is vulnerable to disruptions e.g. changes in economic conditions, technology and government regulation.Your welfare is heavily influenced by a small number of people (e.g. 1-5 people); you can be easily put out of work by 1-2 people; you have little autonomy.You can be easily substituted (e.g. replaced or outsourced); you might be skilled, but there are many others like you; you don't have a particularly strong brand.

Remember, this is a subjective measure, and you know your own professional circumstances better than anyone, but it can also help to speak to an expert in your profession or industry for advice.

II. We can increase our career resilience with small moves. Many of us won’t be in a position to change jobs or careers now. We might instead look for ways to increase our career liquidity, our usefulness, our independence and our uniqueness. For example, family doctors can increase their usefulness and differentiate from peers if they become a recognised expert in skin cancer or sexual health. Artists who can illustrate using multiple applications increase their usefulness. UX designers with career experience across industries have more resilience than those who work exclusively in one industry.

Even if we are unable to, or have no current plans to change jobs, it is still beneficial to (i) list the career options in front of us; (ii) rate each option using the FLUID model; and (iii) identify the risks and opportunities to increase our resilience.

III. Be the decision maker, not the decision taker. Sports careers might be attractive because of the potential for fame and fortune, but the careers of sports people are fragile because fans can be fickle, and their fate is heavily affected by a small number of individuals (e.g. coaches and sports team owners). My advice is this: take a closer look at your industry to understand, who has the most independence? Decision makers aren’t always the people at the top. Even Michael Jordan, considered by many as the greatest sports athlete ever lived, didn’t leave on his own terms. Similarly, journalists might appear to wield significant influence in society, but the number of employers in the marketplace is limited. Even celebrity columnists can be put out of work. Captains of industry (i.e. CEOs, VPs and other executives) might appear to be in positions of power and influence, but how often do they get to leave on their own terms? What do executives do between the ages of 65 and 100? Business owners may appear to be the most independent, but the welfare of entrepreneurs can be affected by a small number of people including suppliers (e.g. your supplier can raise prices and you have no say nor ability to pass on the cost), customers (e.g. one client makes up 80% of your business), investors and regulators.

IV. Go out on a limb. If you’re thinking of switching careers to become a writer, the validation that comes with getting signed by a publisher might feel great, but you might be better off starting a blog or self-publishing. This is because you have more freedom to write what you want, evolve your voice to fit your audience, hire editors and cover illustrators you trust, and sell directly to your readership. By comparison, the fate of authors (especially unestablished ones) can be affected by publishers, critics and retailers. Those who self-publish have the added advantage of acquiring a broader range of useful skills including marketing, fundraising and digital capabilities.

V. Dabble in whatever takes your interest. It’s hard to predict how the future will change. Doctors may appear to have resilient careers, but what if the government changes regulation permitting nurses and pharmacists to do more of the work currently performed by doctors? What if the government relaxes the restrictions on foreign doctors to work locally? What if biometric and AI technology enables patients to diagnose and treat simple ailments without the need of a doctor? Conventional wisdom says we should focus on our profession. The downside of this advice is that we risk becoming redundant if our industry gets disrupted.

To summarise:  

  1. choose careers that have longevity
  2. acquire skills to make you useful to many
  3. increase your independence by being prepared to go out on a limb
  4. don’t stop yourself from pursuing interests outside of your area of expertise.

Altogether this advice seems common sense and hardly remarkable, which I think is its strength.

We live in a culture that believes wealth is our primary means to attaining resilience. And let’s face it, that’s partly true. But isn’t being able to work where and when we want, for as long as we want just as important? We expend so much effort on accumulating wealth: contesting for raises, investing, negative gearing, flipping houses and budgeting; yet, we spend proportionally less effort looking after our career resilience.

The stakes are as high as it gets: to be in control at the stage of our lives when we are most vulnerable.

Thank you

I’d like to thank my Father for his advice on career resilience over the years. And thanks to Penelope Terry and Dr. Jocelyn Rikard-Bell for reviewing early drafts of this paper.

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© James Lau  July 8, 2020

  1. By Liquid, I mean our ability to move with minimal friction from one employer to another, one industry to another or to serve different customers . Think of it as “career liquidity”.
  2. Sample: https://www.nickiswift.com/34655/tom-cruise-became-hated-hollywood/
  3. Film studio sacks Cruise: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/film-studio-sacks-cruise-accusing-him-of-creative-suicide-413112.html
  4. Foster says no to Hannibal role: https://www.theguardian.com/film/1999/dec/29/news
  5. Tom Cruise biography: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000129/bio
  6. Tom Cruise Worldwide Box Office: https://www.the-numbers.com/person/540401-Tom-Cruise#tab=acting
  7. Hello Sunshine: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hello_Sunshine_(company)

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