David Foster’s post included a link to this column about career risk. The author argues that it’s risky to bind yourself for the long run to an apparently-secure institutional job, because institutions can fail and leave you hanging. You are better off to keep trying new things and accepting failures and short-term uncertainty, in exchange for greater long-term adaptability. I think he’s half right about this.
He’s right that it’s a good idea to accept opportunities and take calculated risks, but he’s a bit off in his framing of the overall issue. What distinguishes the resilient from non-resilient career paths in his examples isn’t risk-taking per se, it’s diversification. Instead of investing all of your career effort in a relationship with one big company that is the sole buyer of your services, you should diversify among multiple, smaller customers, none of which is big enough to put you out of action if they fire you.
This is basic risk management. It is difficult to assess long-term risk going into a venture, no matter how smart or experienced you are. There are too many things that can change over time. The big-company job or big institutional customer may appear to offer security but that’s an illusion. They can be belly-up in a few years for reasons no one can anticipate. The rational strategy is therefore to diversify your income among multiple sources as smart people have always understood. Just as independent professionals know to keep a large enough number of clients that a loss of business from any one client won’t hurt them much, prudent people with institutional jobs may use their income streams to finance investments in real estate or other alternative revenue sources. There is no one career path that works for everyone. As America transitions from its 2.0 institutional model to a more decentralized and individualistic system, people increasingly will need to take account of risk and diversification in managing their careers. That’s probably better for everyone in the long run.