As editor of Fast Company, Robert Safian lives at the intersection of design, technology, and creativity—monitoring the pulse of new trends in our businesses and our careers. In a 2012 cover story, he coined the term "Generation Flux" to describe those who will survive and thrive in this complex new world of work. Among others, signature GenFlux capabilities include being adept at developing new skills and being naturally at ease with uncertainty—no small feat, to be sure. Here, Maximize Your Potential author Jocelyn K. Glei chats with Safian about what flux means for the future of creative careers and how we can excel at coping with it.
Do you think that careers in the traditional sense exist anymore?
I think careers have always been mythic. There’s this idea that you would get a job somewhere, work your way up the ladder for forty years, and retire with a gold watch. If that myth were ever true, it’s certainly not true anymore. The average amount of time that an American worker stays in his or her current job is 4.4 years. That means we’re changing jobs all the time, and yet we’re still seeking careers that are more steady than that.
What kinds of skills should people be cultivating?
I think the most important skill in the age of flux is the ability to get new skills. To constantly be open to new areas of learning and new areas of growth. That is what will make you most valuable to the employer, partner, startup of the future.
And it is also what gives you the most options moving forward. That doesn’t mean that you should be a dilettante. You have to develop a certain level of expertise in whatever area you choose. But you need to have very little tolerance for stagnation, and if something you’re working on doesn’t go the way you wanted, you need to have a high capacity for discarding it and moving on to something else.
How does that mind-set play out in practice?
It means that when you have an opportunity to learn and interact with something new, you should be running toward it instead of running away from it. If you have a strong passion and you want to go deep in that one place, go deep. But don’t be surprised if you end up going deep in the wrong place. And know that, at some point, you’ll pull back and start again somewhere else. That’s just the way it’s going to be in the time of flux.
If you don’t have one place where you really have a passion to go deep, then dig into all the areas in which you’re interested. For me, in the world of flux, I think there’s no single model that’s going to work. There’s no single model that’s going to work for a company, and there’s no single model that’s going to work for a career. The time we’re coming out of, we’re trained to be looking for one answer, one way. Here’s how I get from here to there. Here is the career track. Here is the ladder. But that one way doesn’t exist anymore.
Do you think it’s more about having a personal mission that becomes a compass for making decisions in your career?
I think that the guiding principle is your own passion and your own search for meaning. What mission are you on? What is the mission that you are trying to fulfill in your life that gives your business meaning, that gives your work meaning? And the answer to that may change over time. You may have various missions during the course of your life. But that’s what will dictate how you should be spending your energy.
In my experience, people who love what they do are much better at it. They’re more successful, are constantly adding new skills, and continue to drive themselves forward. The more passion you can find around what you’re doing, the more voracious you’ll be in adding and building the skills that will be useful for you in the long run.
There’s this saying, "The moment you move to protecting the status quo instead of disrupting the status quo, you put yourself at risk." That’s the challenge for businesses, and that’s the challenge for individuals: understanding the point at which you are protecting what you know and defending what you know, instead of looking at what else you can learn and how you can grow.