If you’re a fan of the show The Twilight Zone, you might know the name, Romney Wordsworth. He was the protagonist in the episode “The Obsolete Man.”
Wordsworth, a librarian, stands trial accused of being obsolete in a world where the state has banned all books. Wordsworth argues his case passionately, but the chancellor of the proceeding declares him obsolete and calls for his execution.
In the real world, the penalty for obsolescence can result in a metaphorical death — the death of a career, financial health, and even self-esteem.
That’s where I found myself one morning in 2005, hiking the Rocky mountains. Two years prior, I had been an up-and-coming programmer at a financial services company. I quit that job to start my own business, which eventually failed.
With no viable options, I limped back to my former career. But the world of software development had surpassed me. In truth, it had eclipsed me two years before that. It’s why I went out on my own. I could see my impending obsolescence and tried to outrun it via the entrepreneur escape hatch.
As my financial condition treaded on life support and my self-worth gauge teetered on empty, I blasted out resumes, called old bosses, and begged former coworkers.
Nothing. Not a single job interview.
I was Romney Wordsworth: convicted of obsolescence, not by the state, but by hundreds of employers who judged me guilty of being useless. To survive, I had to reinvent myself.
I had done it once before, transitioning from a front desk supervisor at a hotel to a computer programmer at an insurance company. Now, six years later, I had to do it again — transitioning to a new career as a project manager. It was a bumpy ride. It always is, but I accomplished my goal by following a proven strategy.
Most folks look at reinvention as an opportunity to escape their lives as cubicle grunts and travel the world as food critics or pursue some other dream. That’s great if you’re in a position to do that, but there’s another use of reinvention that few people talk about — a survival skill to counter the threat of obsolescence.
Reinvention as a survival skill
To protect against obsolescence, stay vigilant against the threat of declining skills and waning prospects for your industry. More importantly, be honest with yourself; you can’t overcome obsolescence if you refuse to recognize it.
Find the root cause of the threat.
Poor old Wordsworth may have been the most outstanding librarian in history, but the banning of books rendered his prowess meaningless.
In my case, my programming skills were outdated. I could have tried to bring them current, but the gap was too significant, the competition too fierce, and my financial condition too bleak to make it feasible.
When it’s only a matter of outdated skills, you can invest time and money to keep up. In many cases, however, your role may face structural problems, making survival untenable no matter how awesome your expertise.
A factory worker, no matter how skilled, will never compete with a robot that can work 24/7. Likewise, a bookkeeper, no matter how proficient, will never duplicate the error-free, cost-effective work of accounting software.
If you can close the gap by merely brushing up on your know-how, you have a choice to make — elevate your skills or move on. For structural issues, you must reinvent yourself to survive.
Uncover your hidden skills and experience.
Make a list of your professional assets, but go beyond the obvious.
Let’s suppose you sell advertising space. Sales and advertising are your obvious strong points, but also consider other skills you’ve picked up in support of those roles:
- Contract negotiation
- Conflict resolution
- Public relations
- Vendor management
Think deeply about what you do and what roles you fill. Now’s the time to cash in on all the extra grunt work your lazy boss dumps on you — the tasks not part of your job description. That experience can catapult you to your next role.
Find the link connecting your old world to the desired world.
The first time I reinvented myself, I jumped from a career in hospitality management to software development. It might not sound like there’s much of a link between the two worlds, but I found one.
In the mid-1990s, businesses of all types struggled with an extreme shortage of computer programmers. To cope with the lack of labor, firms hired unqualified people and trained them on the job. At the time, they wanted folks with an aptitude for coding and experience with customer service or client relationships.
That was my link.
I leveraged my customer service experience as a front desk supervisor and linked it to my desired role.
Don’t brush off a potential opportunity just because it appears you lack the qualifications. In some cases, you might satisfy the “nice to haves.” If there’s a pressing need but a lack of qualified applicants, it might be enough to get you in the door.
Build up your creds.
When I reinvented myself from a coder to a project manager, I prepared to enter the field by finding a few freelance jobs on Craigslist. I worked for next to nothing. At one gig, I pulled in $50 for about 20 hours of work.
Could I have squeezed a few more dollars out of it? Maybe, but I valued the experience and the potential reference more than the cash. When the job wrapped up, the employer agreed to serve as a reference if I needed one in my job hunt.
Nothing beats experience. Get as much of it as you can. Take detailed notes about the problems you face and how you overcome them. Being able to talk about these challenges and solutions helps you overcome skeptics who might question freelance-only experience.
The carpet-bombing approach — dropping your résumé on every company remotely connected to your desired role — rarely works when you’re highly qualified. It never works in a reinvention scenario.
Instead, go narrow. Think extreme specialization.
When I landed my role as a project manager, I marketed myself as a project manager specializing in software development for the mortgage industry. That move limited my options to about ten companies in the entire country.
Here’s why that narrow approach worked.
Employers demanded three skills: mortgage industry knowledge, project management, and software development.
In any one of those skills, I was middling at best. But when packaged together, I landed in the top 1% of all job seekers.
Slice and dice your experience and skills as a way to distinguish yourself from competitors. It’s better to position yourself as a specialist, most qualified in a narrow zone rather than an uncompetitive generalist across the entire playing field.
Whether it’s automation, technological progress, or cheap labor, our skills will someday face the same fate of Romney Wordsworth, the librarian in The Twilight Zone episode of “The Obsolete Man.”
By taking a practical and proactive approach to reinventing yourself, you’ll stave off obsolescence indefinitely.