Sinking Ships

Art by Miguel Gonzalez of Hernan Cortes scuttling his fleet off the Veracruz coast. On display at the Naval History Museum in Mexico City.  Source: Wikipedia
Art by Miguel Gonzalez of Hernan Cortés scuttling his fleet off the Veracruz coast. On display at the Naval History Museum in Mexico City. Source: Wikipedia

This is a post I couldn’t have written in my early 20s.  I simply did not know what I know now.  Instead, I’m writing with a little more perspective, 10 years later.  It’s a post that may have gotten me fired back in my 9-5 days. Some will find it irresponsible. But I can honestly say I’ve found more happiness and better work from internalizing these ideas:

You see, after 10 years spent setting myself up for a good job, getting it, being well-paid to work that job and the next and the next for years, deciding it was time to really grow, quitting, traveling the world for a year, finding a lot more opportunity, talking to others that had seized that opportunity, reconfiguring a lot about myself and then reconstructing my own professional path, I’ve realized that…

Anyone can tell you to be cautious, play carefully and, above all, burn no bridges. It’s solid advice. But there’s a new reality that is even more fundamental.  It has nothing to do with burning bridges.  It’s the new reality of sinking ships.

For just as when in the 16th century, Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés* commanded his soldiers to sink the ships they had taken to arrive in Veracruz (to avoid retreat), we have arrived at the shores of a New Reality in the 21st century and the ships people boarded to professional and financial success in the past, are starting to sink under the weight of monumental corporate screw-ups, shifts in the global economy, damage inflicted by disruptive new technologies and the innovative thoughts of new generations in regards to work culture. There is no way back to the good old days. The only way is forward.

A good step forward would be to identify the sinking ships.  Here are seven biggies (click on the links for more info on each of these sinking ships, there’s a wealth of info that shifted my thinking over the years and that helped me make some big changes):

Sinking Ship #1 – The traditional career track  – If you are interviewing for a job today, there’s a pretty good chance that you are not interviewing for the same reason the boss did 20 years ago. The boss wanted the job for a safe, secure track to retirement. The world has changed.  For starters, “the track” is disappearing.  Security now comes from breadth of experience, not hunkering down with one company and hoping for the best.  Also, as much as bosses will demand loyalty, the recent recession has clearly shown us that they will lay you off before taking a cut to their own salary.  We all know this, let’s not pretend otherwise by limiting ourselves to one source of income.

Sinking Ship #2 – Job security – I’ve never been fired but I was laid off once.  Fortunately it wasn’t a big deal because it was a summer job and I was in college.  But the memory of it burns bright even now.  I walked in to my office building one Monday morning and before I could even get to the elevator, the CFO of the company stopped me in the hall and said, “Bjorn, we need to talk.”  He proceeded to tell me that because business was down, I had been laid off along with 30% of the sales force.  “I’m sorry we didn’t get the letter out to you in time.”  They let me work a half-day more because I insisted I had billable work and then BAM – I was out.  To the millions that were laid off over the last several years, this story of fickle job security is painfully familiar.  And the consequences of this sinking ship are devastating.

Sinking Ship #3 – Landlocked living – I have personally been inspired by the response of some very brave people to Sinking Ship #1 and #2.  Instead of worried pacing in front of the water cooler and angry conversations in the lunch room, they’ve hunted down opportunities that are less obvious and less convenient: overseas options.  Rather than telling you their stories, here are some links.  Let them tell you for themselves.  These are all people that crafted their own financial and professional futures out of international opportunities.  These include young people and older people, singles, marrieds, families with kids, etc.  Think hard before you decide whether or not this is for you.

Here’s a beautiful young family with three little kids that took the entrepreneurial route and moved to Costa Rica.

Here’s a smart couple (interviewed on CultureMutt in my last post) that saved $80,000 in three years as teachers in Korea.

Here’s an enterprising young Irish guy who decided that he was going to use his language skills start an online blog/business to travel the world and learn even more languages.

This Aussie couple used their videography, photography and writing skills to make them some of the most successful digital nomads I’ve seen AND rake in all this good press.

Check out the major trend of Americans professionals of all kinds (definitely not just teachers) flocking to the best hiring environment in the world right now: the Asia Pacific Region.

Sinking Ship #4 – Fresh Faced Entitlement – I had a great boss for my first job out of college.  She told me that most 20 somethings entering the workplace (including me), had no idea how they came across and should therefore shut up in meetings and only offer their thoughts when asked to.  It was brutal and, frankly, embarrassing because it was the opposite of what I had been doing.  But I learned a lot.  I realized that, along with a lot of my fellow recent grads, I thought that past accomplishments in college or internships, entitled me to a good job where I was automatically respected and heard.  Oh, how the young are deceived!

Of course, this kind of young entitlement thinking is nothing new.  What is new, is the harshness of the hiring environment. Due to the economic downturn, it has been extremely difficult to land a good job even with years of experience.  New grads with a mere diploma are even worse off – they are on a sinking ship – not exactly a place for entitlement…

Sinking Ship #5 – Old Exec Entitlement – But entitlement is not just the curse of the young.  It also applies to complacent managers and execs.  I remember chatting with an exec who was mentoring me at one job.  I know he meant to be encouraging and positive.  But his words achieved the exact opposite effect:  “You know, Bjorn, guys like you and I are lucky.  As long as we don’t rock the boat and we do a decent job, we are set in this company for life!”  The complacency and the deep seated entitlement of the beckoning Old Boys Club made me sick to my stomach.

But even this is changing.  Thinner margins, higher demands for efficiency and the harsh winds of change mean that, in many industries, you won’t be an exec for long if you don’t understand the new world of tighter legislation, online metrics, data driven advertising and the online product platforms that are rendering dinosaur execs that rely on hunch and “years of experience in this field”, retired or job hunting.

Sinking Ship #6 – Gatekeepers – If you want to succeed as a writer, a programmer, an artist or pretty much any entrepreneurially-focused venture that required gate keepers (editors/purchasers/CEOs/producers) to pick you out of the clamoring crowd in the past, you are in luck.  Self-publishing, while not new, is far more prevalent and possible today.  It is changing industries and making it possible to circumvent big, boring companies.  Online platforms mean you can sell your own software, your own music, your own product while entirely dodging the bureaucratic hoops or the horrible odds of being signed by a gatekeeper.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that your job as an aspiring creator is any easier but it does make it more democratic as success is more dependent on your ability to hustle than on favor from on high.  Let those gatekeepers sink, we won’t miss them!

Sinking Ship #7 – Fearful Obedience – “What do you expect from a supervisor?”  It’s a classic interview question.  And, given our new environment of sinking ships and its accompanying threats and opportunities, you can give a political answer while knowing in your heart that the real answer is “I expect a fair shake and some coaching. But not a lot more.  I am genuinely grateful for anything you can teach me but I don’t see you as a path to riches or promotion.  Your career ladder probably won’t be standing when I’m your age.  This is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing.  It’s just… reality.  So while I want to grow professionally, I’ll take ownership of my future whether its here or somewhere else.  I don’t necessarily need to climb a breaking ladder…. especially not on a sinking ship.”

As I said at the start, these thoughts are going to be labeled irresponsible by some.  I know that.  It’s OK.  If I were boss, on the verge of retiring and just wanted to be put out to pasture with minimal fuss, I wouldn’t like all this disruptive chatter either.  But most of us aren’t that lucky.  We’ve got to face facts.  Real irresponsibility in this new reality is to ignore the sinking ships.

*Cortes was a horrible imperialistic mass murderer.  I am not holding him up as a hero.



22 thoughts on “Sinking Ships”

  1. Great thoughts! I agree with you, and have seen this firsthand. The world is changing and there is a lot to think about. What was a “safe” comfortable career is quickly fading. Degrees are an expensive piece of paper with little or no return. In my opinion the world is reverting to a skill based society as in “what can you do”

    1. Craig, yeah, I think I agree with the shift back to the skill-based model… I don’t regret getting my BA but I’ve held off on investing more in further ed until I am more convinced that it will be tangibly helpful…

  2. Hi Bjorn,

    I grew up with Jammie in Glendale. I originally started reading her blog which made me interested in getting to know who you are through yours. I just wanted to say that I look forward to all of your blog posts. They are inspirational and I feel like they are helping me accept and enjoy living abroad (sort of…it’s Canada) and also have a more creative, out of the box spirit. I feel like I’m being prepped for the next level.

    As for this post, I totally agree. It’s frustrating though when you are still locked into these old patterns of thinking even when you want to break free…plus you and your spouse have to be on the same page. I know that my husband and I are more and more getting there and one day we will write a blog about how we broke out of the old dry customs and into a fresh new way of living and some of the credit will go to you and Jammie.

    1. Rita, thanks so much for commenting! Great to meet one of Jammie’s friends from back in the day! Good luck with your journey. It sounds like you are taking the right steps. I am looking forward to your first post:)

  3. Totally agree and I would add say that retirement itself may be a sinking ship. There are many scientific studies pointing to the fact that if you simply stop doing things that give you meaning your health really suffers and you die sooner. So why not work really hard trying to make a living doing what you derive meaning from and do that until you can no longer do it?

    I also like the idea of taking a “year of jubilee” in lieu of retirement. That is, taking a year to change gears every 5-7 years. Just take a year and re-assess, realign, move to another country, change jobs, whatever it takes to get some perspective and reconnect with what is important.

  4. “Also, as much as bosses will demand loyalty, the recent recession has clearly shown us that they will lay you off before taking a cut to their own salary. We all know this, let’s not pretend otherwise by limiting ourselves to one source of income.” Oh.Snap. Tell it like it is Bjorn!

  5. There is no such thing as security of any kind, Bjorn so these limiting thoughts and beliefs have minimal value. We buy into them because they are the messages society tries to tell us so it can control us. It’s safer when we prescribe to these thoughts but they’re essentially myths. And mostly fear based.

    To challenge a sinking ship is scary too but we each have a choice. Go with the grain and what society tells us and be mislead, or think for ourselves, take risks and live! If none of these ancient-advice wasn’t true, the ships of the advice-givers would start to sink. In order to stay afloat, society tries to sink our ship!! hope that analogy made sense.

    1. I like it! PS… I had to re-write a lot of this post after I fact-checked myself and realized that Cortes did not burn the ships, he sank them.. that cost me a good hour right there:)

  6. Bjorn,

    Another good one! I too agree. Everyone has differing levels of bravery to shake things up and “sink the ship”.
    Some people are truly happier in a more steady lifestyle, but I believe that most live lives of “quiet desperation” to quote Thoreau. I also agree that things are definitely less “set” with regards to job security and the advancement ladder. Personally, working in government, I have been shocked to witness just how “political” the promotional scene can be there. In many fields, it is unfortunately not how talented you are at your job, but rather how well you understand the art of “schmoozing” with the right people up the food chain that determines whether you will rise towards the top or not. This is a reality of some workplaces.
    I give kudos to those who are able to successfully take along their spouse and children for the lifestyle of a single person and make it work for everyone!

    1. Josh, these are some good points. I used to quote that Thoreau line frequently, secretly knowing it applied to me… I got called on it once and was definitely embarrassed when I had to admit what was becoming obvious to my friends: I needed a change.

  7. I’m with you Bjorn. And I’m certainly on a sinking ship working for the church. I often wonder what might be next for “spiritual employment.” But this top heavy behemoth is about to collapse. Entruepenuer in such an environment – I’m still figuring that out. Or even how an overseas move might work without the traditional missionary path or just exchanging exactly what I’m doing right now for the same thing in another location.

    1. I hear you Tony and I definitely admire your idealism and adventurous spirit. The church friends that I have seen reinvent themselves have turned to blogging, writing, the speaker circuit and life experiments à la Ryan Bell. I get the feeling you don’t want to completely shift focus. I think ministry of some kind or another (as long as it is matched to your gifts), is the highest calling you could possibly have. I see CultureMutt as mine…

  8. Hey Bjorn–your finest work thus far. Congrats on stepping away from being too “Tim Ferrissy” and using what is becoming more and more your own voice.
    The truth is that all business models erode. Models that once provided for many people at many levels beautifully, or that still work in some settings, fall into the pits of changing government landscapes, changing market needs, changing legal harnesses and even changing location difficulties (what once was the trendy part of town is now the ghetto). You also have the challenges that come with your own life stage. Retiring Boomers are faced with challenges that Millenials don’t face–they’re caring for aging parents and trying to help their kids through college all at once–thus job security is their highest priority. Millenials will need to find a solid model to financially sustain their passions for personal growth, and while it can be done and will actually need to be done in order to survive, the details aren’t usually as simplistic as the vision–especially when what worked 6 months ago is now saturated by “me too” model-chasers.

    1. Wow, Monica, this comment hits the nail on the head. You’ve obviously been doing a lot of reading and thinking about this one. Congrats on your entrepreneurial successes so far… you are one of my gutsiest friends:)

  9. I agree with you Bjorn. I tell young people things like this all the time. Don’t go to college right away. Go travel, learn some languages. Get life experience. Expand yourself rather than your credentials. That is the future

    1. Well said, Jonathan. You, do, of course, get a ton of pushback when you actually go out and take that kind of advice… and you have to endure a few years of feeling like you are behind everyone else who followed traditional paths. But the rewards begin to emerge sooner rather than later and by then you have carved out a life that you will never attain through the traditional college-to-entry-level-job-to-career-climber-path…

  10. This is a very different post for you Bjorn – loved reading this. It’s a mindset thing for sure – you can see ‘security’ as a shackle or as a basic need.

    Going against the advice of others or doing something different not only takes insight, it takes courage. And sometimes it takes time!

    i’m going through that change now – it ain’t easy, Bjorn !
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  11. Many good ideas Bjorn. We have experienced the truth of what you are saying in quite a painful way as you certainly remember. Fortunately, we your parents, have both worked well beyond retirement age and are still busy doing what we are trained for and interested in.
    Your entrepreneurial spirit will get you far. Best wishes to you and Jammie.

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