Reinvention. What a quintessential American idea! It's the frontier spirit. It's Ben Franklin, it's Ralph Waldo Emerson, and by God, it's Tony Robbins and Stephen Covey, too. They all understand the American impetus and genius for wholesale self-reinvention. We survive by staring change in the eye—and adapting. Look at us now. Our white-collar jobs are being offshored, and the possibility of lifetime employment is evaporating before our eyes. What's next is ultimately about reinvention. A passive approach to professional growth will leave you by the wayside.
In the new frontier, the only way to protect yourself is to realize that you have to be the boss of your own show. Brand You. Me Inc. It matters. When I wrote about this in Fast Company in the summer of 1997, it was cool. But now it's necessary. Ain't no choice, bro. Even if this idea scares you to death, ordinary has become a design for disaster. It's not easy to embrace. If you grew up thinking that you were going to work for Citibank for 40 years, you're simply not going to survive with the same set of attitudes that you've had in the past. If you're going to reinvent yourself for this new reality—and I say "if," but it's really not an option—here's how to develop the attitude that will let you reimagine yourself as the CEO of Me Inc. and save yourself before it's too late.
Think About Great Gigs
You undoubtedly read Dilbert. I read Dilbert. We laugh at Dilbert, and Dilbert talks of a world where, fundamentally, the opportunity to create your own shtick doesn't come easy. Workers aren't exactly inundated with projects that would create a signature. But now there is a requirement that you take assignments and bend them in a way that allows you to have something to talk about. Every employee who will survive has to turn projects into stuff that gets the person on the other side of the recruiter's desk excited. The frustration of it is that it's not typically the way things have worked in finance, HR, or logistics departments. They don't produce new products or art portfolios that are tangible signs of what you've accomplished. But it's precisely that mentality you have to pursue if you're a 28-year-old relatively junior member on a PricewaterhouseCoopers tax consulting team. Where's the value you added to that project? Where's your signature?
Be a Spin Doctor
Reimagining Brand You is not a one-time thing. You need to revolutionize your portfolio of skills at least every half-dozen years. This is a minimum survival necessity.
Yes, you have your story of what you've done in your job, but you have to put the best twist on it. On each gig, you must be marketing your worth, marketing Me Inc. You can go too far (think Dennis Kozlowski or Martha Stewart), but you constantly have to spin-doctor. If you don't, you have what I call the "engineer's mentality"—and I am an engineer by training. People with an engineer's mentality believe that truth and virtue will automatically be their own reward. That's a crock, no matter what you do for a living. There are companies that don't like people who stick their necks out, but at the same time, they like people who succeed wildly. So if you choose to stay where you are, you have to learn the rules. The Brand You world doesn't let you hang out for 20 years with the same 17 people in the credit department.
Competence in many skills is important, but it's not enough. The act is finding the stuff you love and getting so damn good at it that you become an indispensable human being. The new exemplar is Tim Monich, this guy neither you nor I have heard of, who is the go-to guy in Hollywood for teaching prima donnas foreign accents. I love this! This is classic Brand You. This guy is best-in-planet. He taught a bunch of Brits how to sound like rednecks for the movie Cold Mountain. He's the metaphor for all this. Monich is someone who found something he's good at, something he enjoys, and became the Tiger Woods equivalent in his world. I believe that within some small limits, it's not what the market says is worth something, it's what turns you on. If you don't develop mastery in something of specific economic value by the age of 35, you're a journeyman. Why be so dull?
Laugh Off the Fabulous Screwup
If you buy the mastery thing, you'll pursue different angles in assignments that you accept or concoct—and you're going to grow. And if you're growing, you're screwing up. You have to be able to laugh off the screwup and immediately move on to the next try. A sense of humor in this way is the sweet spot of a Brand You attitude. You may not always be laughing as you pursue mastery. But growth comes from learning an off-speed slider during spring training and having the guts to throw it to Alex Rodriguez in June. And then, after A-Rod unloads the sucker into the third deck of Yankee Stadium, having the guts to throw it to Nomar Garciaparra two days later. After the third home run, you either drop the pitch or you finally get the thing mastered and start making fools out of those hitters. The top athletes are consummate pros who work obsessively at their craft. Approach yours the same way.
Mastery is great, but even that is not enough. You have to be able to change course without a bead of sweat, or remorse. All bets are off. Nobody knows what the hell he or she is doing. You can't just "deal with" constantly slipping and sliding circumstances; you actually need to thrive on that ambiguity. There is a fabulous book called Franklin and Winston, by Jon Meacham (Random House, 2003), and one of the many one-liners worth remembering is when Eleanor Roosevelt says, "Franklin just can't wait to get into the Oval Office every morning because he loves the game so much." If you watch The West Wing, or read the front page of The Washington Post, you know these Washington people get a kick out of the game. And you need to love your game.
Loyalty Ain't Dead
It's more important than ever, in fact. It's loyalty to peers in your industry and not to a hierarchy. You have to develop a Rolodex obsession, building and deliber-ately managing an ever-growing network of professional contacts. My wife, Susan Sargent, runs a home-furnishings business. She's planning to go from two retail stores to a half-dozen or so over the next number of years. To do this, she needs money. Susan is not a typical old-girl networker, but she has been working the networks in Boston, with angel investors and so on, which is a little unnatural for her, but that's the way you get engaged with these things. Some networks are dead ends, but if she pursues enough of them, she'll probably work her way into the right ones.
Appreciate New Technology
The hard truth is that lots of people simply aren't going to "get" new technologies. But you don't have to be an expert, just someone who recognizes how technology can suddenly turn a business upside-down. The stuff that's going to change the world? For the first five years, it's totally useless. The hype is insane. But then you wake up one morning and discover that a leading candidate for a major-party presidential nomination is some oddball from Vermont who figured out how to use the Web to start a movement. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the number-one test of a first-rate mind is its ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time while continuing to function. With technology, the answer is to be completely skeptical and totally naive in equal measure. The term that we need to invent is "dewy-eyed curmudgeon."
Never Be Satisfied
Reimagining Brand You is not a onetime thing. Picking up new skills on an as-needed basis used to be a reasonable strategy. Not anymore. You need to revolutionize your portfolio of skills every half-dozen years, if not more often. This is a minimum survival necessity. Uprooting may be painful, but to me, these are truly exciting times. Remember my mantra: distinct ... or extinct.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.