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Success is no longer a train you board with a ticket

To succeed in the world to come, you won’t be boarding trains with tickets; you’ll be jumping off planes with parachutes.

These are fast-changing, enormously disruptive times. Success is no longer about playing safe, being predictable, or following schedules. That’s how it was when I was growing up. Children were told to pick safe subjects; get good grades; seek reputable universities; land jobs in esteemed firms; cultivate networks of connected people. The rest would follow.

In other words, success in life was a train that ran to a fixed schedule and on a fixed track. Those who boarded at the right time, and had the right ticket, could be pretty sure of arriving at the destination.

No more. There are too many disruptions afoot for anyone to believe in the train metaphor any more. Digital-mobile-social technology platforms have already laid waste to a whole range of industries and professions. There are no predictable trains running any more in media, music, communication, or publishing because the old rules have been overturned by the fact that more than a billion people now carry connected consumption devices in their pockets.

But that was just the beginning. Watch the heat being turned up in the months and years to come in education and healthcare; in banking and insurance; in retailing and payments; in transportation and manufacturing. The technologies that are about to come of age – cheap broadband, mobile wallets, driverless vehicles, home manufacturing, advanced robotics – will cause even more sweeping changes.

Watch professionals feel the heat, as easily used software and mobile hardware takes away a big chunk of what used to be their bread and butter. Doctors, lawyers, accountants will no longer be able to sell simple processing or basic procedures – they will have to elevate to higher-level advisory roles, or become irrelevant.

More waves waiting to land on a beach near you: in the next two decades, three billion people are expected to be added to the global middle class. That’s great for consumption – many sales to be made – but a huge strain on limited resources like food, water and oil. Technological change will have to be even more rapid for the planet to cope with all those extra wallets, mouths and fingers. New forms of energy, synthetic foods and tighter environmental regulation are not just likely – they’re a done deal.

So where will all of that leave you, if your safe and predictable career is in an industry or a skill that may just get left behind? What should you be telling your children about what is ‘safe’ in the future world of work?

The truth is, no one knows. There are no career trains any more, just aircraft of all sizes and shapes taking off in all directions. An influential parent or a solid subject choice does not give you a ticket to board these strange craft. Some of them may reach destinations worth getting to; others may go down in flames. Which is why you need parachutes.

What you, and certainly your children, need in this unpredictable world are the following: the ability to add true value, not just simple procedural inputs; the capacity to try things out that haven’t been done before; and the appetite for risk and acceptance of trial-and-error as a career strategy.

It’s scary stuff. If it’s any consolation, I myself am in the same boat. Advising, writing, speaking or teaching for a living will get its own share of disruption and transformation. As I sit here and contemplate the future, I know that the heart of success is always to provide genuine, distinctive value to others. That doesn’t change. What will undoubtedly change, however, is the form and format of delivery.

So think about my metaphor as you begin 2014. The ways you’re used to may soon be defunct. It’s about aircraft and parachutes, not trains and tickets.

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