The Wisdom of Job Insecurity: Don’t be Lulled by Falling Unemployment

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(Forbes article) The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that the unemployment rate fell to 5.9%. That’s the lowest it’s been since July 2008 and many will undoubtedly feel more secure in their careers. But should they? Perhaps job insecurity is a good thing.

Surviving in today’s economy means having the flexibility to let go of the ideas of the past, the courage to constantly reevaluate plans for the future, and the presence of mind to adapt to life, as it is, in the moment.

In his seminal book The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts asserts that any sense of security is an illusion, an attempt to deny the reality of life and its inherent uncertainty. He goes on to argue that, “The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.”

What does this philosophy have to do with freelancers and entrepreneurs?

Simple: The job security you think you might enjoy as an employee actually doesn’t exist, and has never existed. As Woody Allen put it, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
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Job security is a balancing act, and sometimes a tough one to navigate without falling off your path.

Entrepreneurs and freelancers understand this more than anyone. For those of us working independently, everything changes from one day to the next. Clients come and go. Deadlines shift. Even the types of skills that you must bring to a job can change on any given project. But tossing aside expectations of sameness provides advantages, including seeing things for what they are, instead of what one hopes or fears they will be.

This clarity offers an advantage over competitors who only view the future through the lens of the past, full-time workers used to the predictability of a 9-to-5 job, and companies that continue to operate day in and day out as if the world around them isn’t changing.

In 1995 Bill Gates sent out his famous ‘Internet Tidal Wave’ memo, remaking the strategy of Microsoft MSFT +0.72% for the Internet age. It was truly an attempt to turn an oil tanker on a dime.

To what degree Gates achieved his ambitious goal remains debatable. Microsoft already had deep investments in Windows and Office, two products for which the Internet presented at least as much of a disruptive risk as a synergistic opportunity. Though arguably one of the most flexible and adaptive large companies in the world, not to mention one of the most profitable, Microsoft’s strategies and products clearly began to exhibit an anxiety about the changes underway in the technology landscape, a fear of being left behind and a fear of leaving.

Instead of competing head-on by building Internet-native tools and services, Microsoft tried to have it both ways, protecting existing revenue streams by doubling-down on their existing desktop products, tying their networking protocols, development languages, and even their web browser to Windows with proprietary implementations of common web technologies. This is ironic, since Microsoft’s success was built on the PC’s disruption of the enterprise computer industry, only a decade earlier.

And this is far from uncommon. When confronted with change, mature corporations often exhibit a form of organizational anxiety that manifests as large-scale paralysis, a functional inability of the company to successfully adapt to changes in the market. Individually, the company’s employees may see the transformation coming, but collectively, they are powerless to act, allowing a more agile and focused competitor to swoop in and establish a foothold.

A harsh wake-up call comes and the company that was living in the past is jolted into the present, often through aggressive restructuring and layoffs. Only now, 20 years and two CEOs later, is Microsoft aggressively embracing the changing landscape that Gates recognized was inevitable back in 1995.

Without the cushion of huge cash reserves or heavy diversification, entrepreneurs and freelancers must remain in the moment, actively engaged with their clients and customers, consistently taking the pulse of their market and responding accordingly. This is a core tenant of the The Lean Startup philosophy popularized in the last decade, which large organizations are now trying to emulate.

Entrepreneurs, by virtue of being smaller, are more flexible. They can react more nimbly to rough seas before hitting an iceberg. They don’t need to turn an oil tanker so much as adjust the sails on a clipper ship.

Along with constant and direct interaction with clients comes the opportunity for ongoing feedback. Are customers demanding a new service, or tweaks to an existing one? Does it make sense to outsource an unprofitable product or streamline a fragmented offering?

Entrepreneurs can’t afford to be in denial about changes in their market. They need to constantly respond as the landscape shifts. And with that engagement comes a presence of mind, a confidence that their products and services are valuable to customers here and now rather than in some vaguely recalled past or idealized future.

The lessons found in The Wisdom of Insecurity still endure years later. As entrepreneurs know all too well, in our increasingly complex and rapidly evolving world, we all need to focus not on the past or future, but the present moment. ..

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