How to succeed in the New World

Ravi Venkatesan
3rd Jan 2018
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As we bid farewell to 2017 this year draws to a close, it’s a great time to reflect on what you’ve learned and set yourself a few simple goals for the new year.

Success race goals

I graduated from business school in 1992 as part of an incredibly fortunate generation. Globalisation, information technology and cheap capital drove a wave of prosperity that lifted many boats, including mine. The future may be less benign. To use a cliché, it is likely to be Volatile Uncertain Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA). Globalisation has reached a zenith. Economic growth is sluggish in most places. Every country is flailing about trying to discover a new social-economic-political order. The impact of climate change and environmental degradation is frightening. Robotics and software automation are beginning to gobble up existing jobs.

On the other hand, the technologies of the fourth Industrial Revolution promise to create a magical new world and amazing new opportunities. Every industry is being disrupted, but entrepreneurship is thriving creating the next generation of companies and new wealth. While the future looks murky, on balance I believe that it holds amazing promise for anyone reading this piece. If you are reading this, you’re educated, connected, already at least middle-class, reasonably healthy and therefore better off than 95 percent of the world. If you are willing to work hard, take some risk, be a leader; there never has been a better time to be alive.

There is no doubt that in the short term, there will be fewer stable jobs. Employers are becoming more short-term and transactional.

Increased competition, automation and industry disruption are putting the squeeze on employment. So traditional ‘jobs’ that offer decent wages, security and careers will be fewer and fewer. Middle managers are a particularly endangered species. Moreover, we are living a lot longer and the world has a marked preference for younger people so holding on to a job will become even tougher once you turn 45.

Talking about jobs, who wants a job anyway? While a good job provides many needs- money, challenge, learning, community, identity for instance- many jobs come with significant compromises. A lot of workplaces and many managers are uninspiring and unfair. A job can create dependency and insecurity where you grimly hold on driven by the fear of no options. Sometimes life’s circumstances are so tough that you simply have to lump it in order to survive. But for many readers on Linkedin, this would not be the case.

If you have ability, self-confidence and some resources, your aim must be to quickly shift from being a job-seeker to an entrepreneur who creates jobs.

At the least you should aim to quickly develop the skills and self-confidence to be self-employed. Even if you have a job that you like, it is useful to think of it as a “project” or a “gig” that may last a few years. Your role is to deliver a great outcome, learn a lot, build a good reputation. If it leads to another gig with the same firm, great! If not, you simply move to another gig. While this may sound mercenary or scary, I have personally found this mindset to be very liberating. The whole point is to quickly get to a point where companies need you much more than you need them. This is freedom.

To set yourself free, you need clarity around your core skill or talent, and the ability to develop this so it becomes valuable enough that people will pay for it. The skill can be writing code, a gift for clear communications, or talent for fixing things. It can simply be a flair for organising things and getting stuff done, which is the foundation of strong execution. The ultimate timeless skill is the ability to build trust and lead people; that can never be automated away. Whatever it is, become uniquely good at this and people will take notice and this is the nucleus around which you can build a sustainable economic engine.

A positive attitude-the ultimate differentiator


The good news is that despite all this, there will still be good jobs. However the competition for these will be a Darwinian survival of the fittest. The biggest challenge that every job-seeker will have is to differentiate herself from others who may have a similar education and IQ. Over time, I have come to learn and believe that the biggest and most sustainable differentiator is a positive attitude. For decades, managers were told to “hire for attitude and train for skills”; this wisdom is both powerful and timeless. How do you characterise such a positive or “success mindset”? Over a long period of time, having observed thousands of people, I have concluded that these five factors are particularly important.

  1. A strong ambition to be successful and the willingness to take initiative and work super hard to be successful. This is in contrast to those who wait to be told what to do and then do the least possible to comply.
  2. Optimism in the face of adversity and failure rather than succumbing to pessimism, negativity and cynicism.
  3. Taking personal responsibility and accountability for your life and actions rather than feeling like a victim of others (boss, parents, spouse) or life’s circumstances. A willingness to accept mistakes, openness to feedback, the desire to learn continuously are characteristic attributes.
  4. Solution rather than problem orientation. Many people spend too much energy whining, wondering why a problem exists and whom to blame. Successful people quickly focus instead on possible solutions.
  5. Belief in people and faith that most people are internally motivated, are responsible and don’t need constant supervision or simplistic rewards.

These are not traits that we are all born with. These are traits that winners consciously cultivate in themselves. Stephen Covey said that becoming an adult is fundamentally about taking responsibility for oneself and the word responsibility derives from “response-ability” i.e. the ability to consciously choose how we respond to any situation and choose the kind of person we wish to be. The good news is that no matter how you are today, you can cultivate a positive mindset through conscious effort. And that’s how we stand out from the herd.

In nature, some animals like gazelles display a behaviour called “stotting” where they jump up and down in place signaling to predators that they are vigorous and hard to catch.

Being passionate, proactive, dependable and excellent is the equivalent of stotting in the corporate jungle. In contrast, being “average”, waiting to do what’s told, a pessimistic or victim mentality will likely be lethal to your job prospects.

Learning agility

Image : shutterstock

A second success imperative in the new world is to ability to learn and renew yourself continuously. With the world around us changing faster and faster, there is a very high risk that we will become obsolete and left behind. Psychologists and HR experts increasingly use the term “learning agility” and see it as one of the strongest predictors of long-term success in a VUCA world. Learning agility is not just the ability to learn new skills like repairing a robot or a new programming language. Rather, it encapsulates a person’s ability to quickly size up a new situation or problem and decide what to do. Learning agile individuals are curious, have an open mind, enjoy taking on new and big challenges, learn quickly from experience, and are able to grasp new concepts and complex issues. They thrive in ambiguous, changing situations and are tenacious in the face of obstacles and setbacks.

In short, “learning agility is about knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do”. (Korn-Ferry)

Again the good news is that developing learning agility is like building a muscle-–the more you use it, the stronger and better you become. The more you start observing things and try to understand why, the more curious you become. Once you start reading, the more you like it. Even more importantly, every few years try to push yourself to take on a big new challenge that takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to reinvent yourself. These big challenges are what I call “crucibles of leadership”; it’s how you develop learning agility, character, resilience, leadership and self-confidence. Doing this repeatedly has been key to my own professional success.

I was 22 when I left India for graduate studies in the US with $20 and a small scholarship. In 1996, I decided against all advice to return to a newly emerging India taking up a risky CEO job that no one else wanted. In 2004, I left a flourishing career with Cummins for Microsoft despite the risk of failure in a very different industry and culture. In 2011, I left a good CEO role at Microsoft India to try my hand as an author and social entrepreneur. I have since helped turn around a men’s fashion business and am now working with a large government bank. I know that taking on such new challenges every few years has been crucial to making me adaptable and confident instead of becoming a rigid, obsolete and fearful person as I age.

 Manage Yourself or Someone Else Will

Image : shutterstock

A final success driver is the ability to manage yourself. Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Rajat Gupta, Jeff Skilling, Martha Stewart…. These are but a few exceptional leaders who flamed out spectacularly because of their inability to manage themselves. For many of us, the biggest risk may not be flaming out dramatically so much as the inability to achieve our potential and destiny. The blunt reality is that sooner or later the biggest obstacle to your success is the person in the mirror. To reach your potential, you have to learn to get out of your own way. This is what “managing yourself” is all about.  It means becoming more aware of your strengths and managing your weaknesses. It means becoming aware of and eliminating your mental ‘malware”- the pernicious, subconscious, self-limiting assumptions of yourself and the world (e.g. “I could never do that” “Who would hire me?” “People can’t be trusted”) that you have picked up over years of conditioning.

Some things in life are glaringly obvious- the importance of managing your health, your key relationships, your money- but many of us seem powerless to do these things well. We succumb easily to temptations because we are human. But ultimately it is the power to prevail over your weaknesses, to do what is necessary rather than take the easy or tempting path that will determine your destiny. The culprit is the “monkey mind” and this is what must be tamed if you are to be happy and successful. Our monkey mind is always darting around, in the future, past or somewhere else, seldom here. It values and craves what we don’t have and takes what we do have for granted. It plants temptations and doubts and fights doing what is good for us. Over the years, we have gradually ceded power to our mind where it now controls how we feel and what we do rather than the other way around.

To be happy, to flourish, we need to reverse this. There are different paths to this, none easy. The only one that I have personally found to be effective is meditation but you have to experiment and find what works for you.

As we bid farewell to 2017, it’s a great time to reflect on what you’ve learned and set yourself a few simple goals for the new year. What new skill will you learn? What big challenge will you take on? What about you really holds you down and what are you going to do about this? What will make you feel successful a year from now?

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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