Reinvention Driven by Constant Discomfort

This past weekend I was invited to moderate a discussion organized by my son Federico. The group brought together young professionals with varied yet complementary backgrounds and sought to catalyze a discussion centered on a few key themes relevant to this group.  Below I summarize my salient points to the discussion which are also broadly relevant to other young emerging leaders.

In the weeks prior, I had reviewed the gathering’s five key themes listed below with Federico and his former law school colleague Alejandro which, in essence, aimed to offer food for thought for a lively discussion among this group of brilliant young professionals:

  1. Envisioning the future
  2. Being disrupted or becoming a disruptor
  3. Managing success and failure
  4. Building a community
  5. Managing risk

Envisioning the Future

Two elements are clear for today’s young professionals: (1) their lifespan will likely extend beyond their nineties, and (2) they will coexist on a planet with 9 to 10 billion other people by the time they reach their mid-careers.

The implications of these two simple facts are manifold.  Importantly, their retirement age will pass well beyond their seventies, meaning that compared to my generation theirs will have an added 10 to 20 years to their careers.  At the same time, as our world becomes ever more interdependent and interconnected, they cannot ignore but must leverage the other 9-10 billion people that reside on our planet!

Figure 1: Envisoning the future is a skill that can be developed over time.

Figure 1: Envisoning the future is a skill that can be developed over time.

Interesting take-aways from this first discussion theme include:

  • Access to knowledge and information is ever easier because of the democratization process due to the world flattening.
  • Great value creation opportunities arise when the interests of the developed and the emerging countries are aligned.
  • Every 5-7 years you must re-invent yourself through constant discomfort while surfing the waves your career for once you become comfortable others are passing you by.
  • Longer life expectancy offers an opportunity for constant re-invention but demands that one also do so more frequently to compete.

Nonetheless, the ability to “connect the dots” and envision the future is a skill that can be learned and developed over time—and indeed mastered.  The beauty is that the future will happen and we can compare the future that we envision to reality.  In other words, one must become a “trend-spotter” that applies a model-reference approach, whereby you “see” what is coming and use that as a reference to continually adapt your own model to today’s reality.  But our ability to develop different scenarios and identify different options is hard intellectual work. More often than not we tend to give up because we lack the discipline to compare and contrast, thus missing the opportunity to train our “gut” overtime.

Disrupted or Disruptor

As the pace of change intensifies and the number of participants in the knowledge economy increases from the developed as well as the developing world, chances are that every single industry, human activity, and business endeavor will be re-examined for disruption opportunities, thereby creating new value and demolishing old paradigms. As a result, each one of us will likely either be disrupted or choose to become a disruptor.

Health care, government, education, and religion are ripe “industries” for disruption.  In other words, inherently protective “big” models should be targeted and revolutionized.  In doing so, one must leverage technology to optimize processes and reduce the buy-in price for consumers and suppliers.  Importantly, opportunities to become a disruptor are not limited to just scientists and engineers, for example, but rather, passion, interest and networking are more central to that process. Furthermore, innovation, often, happens on the margins or in other words where two different disciplines (i.e. computer science and art or electrical engineering and health) overlap.

I reflect upon my own career in the telecommunications industry, as I moved from one value creation wave to the next: From digital switching to end-user equipment, from transmission and access loop to mobile, and from wireless to the mobile web––all that in a span of less than 30 years. My example goes to show how each wave of value creation was followed by a wave of value destruction. Similarly, I observed first-hand similar trends in the much younger and far less regulated computer industry. In fact these waves were the similar but just faster and the ups and downs more abrupt! In other words observe broadly the patterns. Experienced “trend-spotters” are able to map trends from one industry or area of human behavior to another.

The most important conclusion of this part of the conversation was the need for personal reinvention. Throughout our careers, the nature of our work will change as we change jobs and shift between industries––sometimes we will welcome the chance while other times it will be an unwelcome surprise.  Well-paid activities will become completely commoditized as satisfying jobs will become obsolete because of new technologies or business models or both.

As my youthful audience pondered on my words, their solemn silence was not completely different from that of my students in class.  Were they concerned, or in disbelief?  My response would be to accept the process of reinvention as the new norm and thrive in it!

Managing personal success and failures

Waves of value creation largely driven by technological innovation and market disruptions will challenge our professional careers. This will happen either because we have embraced a new venture, and thereby becoming disruptors, or because others are disrupting us.  Either way, one’s professional journey is ever riskier.

Figure 2: Every career transition represent an opportunity for failure, though the cost of avoiding the transition could be higher.

Figure 2: Every career transition represent an opportunity for failure, though the cost of avoiding the transition could be higher.

Throughout one’s own journey every transition is risky and it is exactly during those transitions that the opportunity for failure is greater.  For today’s young professionals, it will require 5 to 10 reinventions to remain competitive (unless we accept commoditization –and hence lower compensation– or early retirement). Then, the question is not if but when you will fail. Hence, the ability to manage one’s own personal failures is a necessary skill.  Using the metaphor of a surfer, falling off as we tackle a new wave is bound to happen.  What becomes really important in that process is how quickly we get back on our feet and surf the next wave!

Building community

As I reflect on my own experiences, I recognize that life for my generation was simpler and more predictable.  At the time I finished my PhD at the end of the 1970s, America provided the comfort of being the unchallenged world power as it dominated industries and global markets. Its financial resources and military might provided cover for the American “belle époque” and one’s search for their own American Dream.  Indeed, family, religious and community institutions thrived in America in times past and reinforced one another.  Unfortunately, today’s society is more rooted in vanity than in shared communities.

These rooted American institutions also helped provide opportunities to experience a shared sense of responsibilities in the success of the common enterprise and a genuine sense of belonging to many. However, for a multitude of reasons the strength of these institutions has declined significantly in the last 40 years.  Nonetheless, a fundamental human need, I believe, remains the same: the need for most individuals to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Figure 4: Community building depend on the sense of shared responsibility in the common enterprise.

Figure 3: Community building depend on the sense of shared responsibility in the common enterprise.

Current generations, however, must reformulate their communities as they combine their physical presence with their virtual one.  In doing so, they must engage in the hard work of not glossing over the differences but addressing and confronting them in search of the liberating experience of finding truth. If conflict arises due to the dizzying pluralism of choices, values, beliefs and visions of life, we must engage in the hard work of forming communities of dialogue as we all search for truth and understanding[1].

These communities will constitute our support network during our failures while keeping us accountable in the construction of the common enterprise during our successes.

Managing Risks

Evaluating and mitigating risk is central to personal re-invention.  Indeed, those who have already risked and succeeded are leading the charge in industries throughout the world.  This call inherently recognizes that what was once the American Dream is eroding and that, as the American “belle époque” becomes more uncertain, our professional journey becomes riskier.  As a result, we have no choice but to embrace risk as an inherent part of the journey and, in so doing, reject a “herd-follower” model and instead build a society of risk takers.

Individually and collectively, we are not predisposed or well trained to take risks.  It is in our nature to seek safety and security. One must only reflect upon how they oscillated to the life, personal and professional choices they have taken.  Even such notions of free-will neglect the fact that even formal careers and employment inherently hinder risk taking, as if such institutions brainwash or lock one in a utopian predictable path of career progressions.

Overcoming the temerity to take risks requires recognizing that we will always have a limited understanding of the unknown.  An apt analogy to this conundrum is that of a labyrinth: as we overcome life’s travails, we must find an exit while under resource and time constraints without knowing if an exit actually exists!

As we approach the entrances to our own labyrinth we must ask ourselves whether we are personally prepared for failure. Too often we trumpet our successes, but by highlighting failures and the lessons learned we may better arm ourselves for the unknown labyrinths that lie ahead.  Indeed, in doing so, one will find that often taking that first step, such as starting a new venture, is often less risky and challenging that typically imagined.

Closing Comments

Personal and professional lives pose many labyrinths.  The growing complexities of modern life make certain that such challenges will increasingly present themselves.  Your communities will help you traverse and learn from similar experiences, and provide you with trustworthy partners that want to join in and support your personal and professional ventures. Along that journey, humility is central as is the ability to ask questions and to reach out for a helping hand.  Ultimately, our ability to embrace the discomfort zone and proactively seek reinvention and renewal are central to our success in both our personal and professional journeys.

Beating the odds of success is greater than you think!

Until my next blog-post – Carlos B.


[1] This paragraph was adapted from the paper by Nicolás, Adolfo, “Depth, Universality, and Learned Ministry: Challenges to Jesuit Higher Education Today.” Remarks for “Networking Jesuit Higher Education: Shaping the Future for a Humane, Just, Sustainable Globe.” Mexico City. 23 April 2010. Available online: http://www.sjweb.info/documents/ansj/100423_Mexico%20City_Higher%20Education%20Today_ENG.pdf.

About Carlos S. Baradello

Investor, thought leader, and advisor in areas of corporate innovation, born global entrepreneurship and global scaling.
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