The Antifragile Career, Part 3: Thriving at Your Job


“You don’t understand, you’re out.” These were the words my dad heard from the principal at the high school where he was a social studies teacher during the 1980s.  The school year was wrapping up and due to budgetary restraints and lower enrollment in the district, some of the teachers would be out of a job next year.  He had known there were some layoffs coming for some staff, but had been trying to negotiate for why his job should be secure.  At the time, he had three children under 13 years old and no backup plan.  He was the sole income earner for the family.  What he thought was a stable, steady public school teaching job, was suddenly very tenuous.

In today’s environment, it’s not enough  just to get a job and go on automatic pilot.  Jobs tend to be fragile.  Companies go out of business unexpectedly, governments are under increasing pressure to cut taxes, and technology advances at such a fast rate that what was once state of the art is now obsolete.  The list could go on and on.  Most people don’t realize how insecure their career actually is.

When my dad was told his bad news, he knew he had to spring into action immediately.  He had been unprepared at the moment, but there was still a slight chance he could be in a better position by the time next school year started.

He found a clause in the union contract that said if was qualified to teach a second subject, they would have to find a spot for him, due to his seniority.  So during one mad scramble of a summer, he was able to go back to school, call in a couple favors, and take a bunch of English classes — which enabled him to get certified to teach by the time the fall rolled around.  He had saved his job (even if he wasn’t the most popular teacher with the administration).

Things were stable for the moment, but this must have been a wake-up call for him, because the next year, he enrolled in law school and by working nights, weekends, and summers completed his law degree four years later.  Even though he chose to remain a teacher until he retired, he nonetheless had put him self in a much more powerful position.  He had taken a stressful event (getting a layoff notice) and turned it into something better ( a teacher with dual certification and a law degree).  That’s the definition of antifragile, right there.

You never know when you could receive a bolt of bad news out of the blue, but you can always do your best to prepare for the worst.  Here are some strategies for thriving at your job and keep your options open in case you have to switch jobs or even careers.

  1. Learn new skills on the job.  This is almost always free (no risk!). Some companies offer additional skills training.  Some might offer management training.  Both are good — and management skills are broadly transferable, even it is harder to move laterally sometimes.
  2. If your company offers international travel, take it.  It opens up new doors personally and professionally and you learn things about other cultures that you normally never would.  Plus it probably makes you a stronger player within the organization itself.  Double plus… they pay for it!
  3. Learn a new language.  See above.
  4. Take on a new project.  If you can’t travel, you can at least “explore” within the organization.  The more sills you have, the more valuable you become.
  5. Be friendly.  Be likable.  Go to lunch with people.  Hang out and chat with people once in a while.  This does two things:  1) it makes you more popular within the company (harder to fire) and 2) if you are let go, it gives you other connections in case you are looking for work.  Those people will want to help you and pass along any openings or advice that they have.
  6. Learn a non-related skill in your off time (or when you are at work, if you can pull it off).  If you have to (or want to) switch careers entirely, you need some kind of skill.  There are hundreds of things you could do but here’s a few ideas:
    1. Take some computer programming classes or just learn online and practice
    2. Learn how to cut hair, go to beauty school
    3. Learn about plumbing
    4. Make things and try selling them online ( cookies, crafts, t-shirts, artwork, etc..)
    5. Bartend or wait tables a few hours a week
  7. If nothing else, just do a good job at your current company.  It probably goes without saying, but the more valuable you are to your boss and your company, the more likely you are to thrive there. That will at least get you to robust within your own company.  Then you can start apply some of the other antifragile ideas above.

The more of these things you do while at your current job, the more relaxed you feel.  Eventually, you’ll be so confident about handling any situation that you will get bored if things are just the same old, same old every day.   You’ll actually crave variability and some randomness!  You may want to start that side (or second career).  And if one doesn’t work out, that’s fine… there is always another more exciting option to try….



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