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That Used To Be Me: How I Fell Behind and How I’m Coming Back

By Mark Guterman and Dan King

Photo of old workplaceIn his just-released new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Tom Friedman (along with co-author Michael Mandelbaum) urges us to reclaim the values, priorities, and practices that previously made us successful and to rediscover some of our most valuable traditions, which can and should be brought to bear in a new, third-party movement. Heady stuff, true — but the never-subtle Friedman makes it a rousing call to renewal.

In parallel fashion, we need to think about our work lives in new and different ways, in the spirit of a third-party movement. The old world of jobs and careers, while still the dominant paradigm, is rapidly becoming an out-dated and not-very-useful model from which to plan for the future. Our equivalent to a third-party movement, then, is to practice “meaningful life-long employability.”

Time and time again, our clients show that they have what it takes to be successful, having been so in the past. At the same time, they need to update, reframe and repackage their successes to better mirror the realities of today’s work world. As we’ve often said, “this is not your father’s (or mother’s) workplace.” It’s yours, and it’s a whole new ballgame.

Meaningful work comes when our careers are linked to our values. Our values anchor our career aspirations and clarify what’s important to us. It can be easy to lose touch with our values, particularly given the amount of change and uncertainty that surrounds our work and lives today. This disconnect results in stress, burnout and numerous physical ailments. That’s why revisiting our values is a worthwhile exercise, not only to reclaim that which is most important, but to give us a solid platform from which to move courageously into the future.

Many of us need to re-set our goals because there are profound and radical changes occurring all around us. Entire fields and sectors are being decimated, while many skill-sets are becoming obsolete (or easily outsourced). At the same time, whole new industries and fields are being created, demanding skills and mindsets attuned to new ways of working. Not so coincidentally, we’ve been here before.

Before people had jobs, they worked just as hard, but they worked on shifting clusters of tasks, in a variety of locations, on a schedule set by the sun, the stars and the seasons. The modern job was a startling new idea — and to many people a rather unpleasant and even socially dangerous one. Then as now, there was a need to upgrade our skills, build new experiences, and shift our thinking to a new reality. We must continually flex our goals, adapt our skills, and look for alternative ways to achieve meaningful work.

Meaningful work doesn’t come from some ethereal, otherworldly experience, but from both pragmatic and visionary actions — striving for excellence every day, seeking continuous learning and study, trying new ways of doing things, and stepping out of your comfort zone into risky territory – all linked to what matters most to you. You must be able to articulate your value proposition, while developing a disciplined approach to sharing how and where this can apply. And you need to be exceptionally patient and persistent in embracing a world that demands that you take sole responsibility for developing your definition of a full and meaningful worklife.

Instead of a world filled with jobs and careers, we need to assume a future where there is work that needs doing — problems to fix, challenges to solve, solutions to create — that may not always be packaged neatly into our current perception of a job. Still, the work needs doing – and it can and should be aligned with our values and goals, as it once was. It’s all part of our past. As Friedman says, “That used to be us and can be again-if we will it.”

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