09/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Silver Lining of Job Loss

Whether or not we are truly coming out of a recession remains to be seen, but job losses continue to mount. As an employee, getting laid off (or even fired) can feel like a major setback. But every career has its share of bumps in the road. In fact, many are ultimately successful not in spite of their setbacks, but because of them.

Back when I was conducting research for my first book, The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers, I noticed something surprising -- the people who were able to break out of the crowd and accomplish amazing things with their work lives were not mostly those who had been on a single career track straight out of high school but, rather, those who had explored numerous paths, a variety of roles, different industries, even living in different cities and sometimes nations.


Very high levels of competency can have a stifling affect on a career. Why? Because highly competent people tend to get routed early in life into specific fields-law, medicine, finance-where they are quickly promoted and richly rewarded.

All that's fine in the short term, but being routed into adult life, as opposed to finding their own route, means they never get a chance to discover their Primary Color, their own specific intersection of strengths and passions. That comes from knocking around and getting knocked around. It comes from failure as well as success. For the highly competent, the natural design processes of evolution-the ones that allow us to test out multiple variations on our future-have less chance to work. That's one large reason, I think, why so many materially successful doctors, lawyers, hedge-fund managers, and the like are often so fundamentally unfilled by their work lives.

So I found it ironic, when asked recently in an interview for Fast Company, "What is the best move you have made in shaping your career success?", that I instinctively answered that I had allowed myself to drift. Truth be told, I never intentionally drifted from one thing to another. In fact, changing direction was something I mostly tried to avoid. But thank goodness I failed. Perhaps I more accurately should have said that the best thing I have done in my career was to be incompetent.

Much of this twisting and turning in our careers is unplanned, and a significant amount results directly from failure. If you don't excel or have passion in a particular area, the odds are someone will notice, and will give you a nudge (or a swift kick) toward another direction. In my case, by the time I was 35 my resume could be summed up by: quit, laid off, quit, laid off. And that's when things really took off.

Like species and cultural development, personal evolution works best under conditions that most favor variation and change. That's how you test out alternate definitions of yourself, how you find your Primary Color. It is your incompetence, not your successes, which often lead you to the path that is uniquely right for you.

Have you been lucky enough to fail at something?

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