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Reinventing Ourselves

Tom Peters

Work is changing. Irreversibly. And now… the “worker” (me, you) must change along with the work. Every several generations, we undergo a massive upheaval in our work lives. We move off the farm, with its never-ending rituals (cows don’t take holidays; take it from a Vermonter), and into the factory. Then we move out of the factory, with its Simon Legree-like supervisor, and into white-collar nouveau prisons called big city high-rises.Today, the software robots are taking over the (surprisingly mindless) white-collar jobs of yesteryear. Once again we must find entirely new ways to add value. Yet this time around, the change isn’t just a matter of moving by the millions like sheep from Job Slot A in the factory to Job Slot B in the high-rise.

“White-collar cubicle slavery,” circa 1980, was not all that different from “blue-collar shop-floor slavery,” circa 1920. Less heavy lifting, sure, but the conformity quotient was about the same: “It’s 9 a.m., park your uniqueness at the door, please.” But the next shift, the one that is accelerating now, promises to be far more dramatic.

Everything even vaguely repetitive will soon be automated. Our only recourse: moving beyond any activity that is even remotely “rote,” and moving up—WAY UP!—the new creativity scale. Along the way, banishingthe conformity mandate for good. W e must be-come Independent Contractors at least in spirit, if not immediately in reality. We must exhibit true distinction. We must convert ourselves into genuine businesspeople, not mere white-collar ciphers. New me/you: innovative, risk-taking, self-sufficient entrepreneurs—not smooth-functioning organization men (or women). Sounds scary as hell, right? You bet.

But here’s what I believe and I won’t mince words. I believe that Dilbertstyle “cubicle slavery” stinks. I believe that the change now under way is cool. I believe that the chance to tear down those wretched cubicle walls, to take a pickax to that ergonomically correct but numbingly insipid “cubicle furniture,” and to make work for ourselves in the wide-open world beyond is nothing short of… liberation. What a challenge! What an opportunity! An opportunity for immense, meaningful value creation! An opportunity for individual reinvention!

With Reinvention Comes Anxiety

Again, the changes afoot in the world of employment are scary as hell. Especially if you’re a 47-year-old accountant, and you’ve worked in the same white-collar office tower ever since you collected your college diploma 25 summers ago. Something fundamental is going on— beyond the tidal wave of technology, beyond the great job shift. The nature of “who we are” is undergoing a tectonic shift. The transformation affects not just the kind of work we do, but our fundamental relationship to work. And 47-year-old accountants, watching as re-engineering and advanced software automation roar into their cubes, are quaking in their loafers: “What am I going to do when IBM decides to toss me out of my cubicle?”

They are panicked. And rightfully so.

When I discuss the white-collar revolution in my seminars, people respond in one of two very distinct ways. And the breakdown generally runs along what I call the Age 38.5 Divide. If you’re younger than 38.5 years of age, chances are that you can’t wait for dawn to break. If you’re older than 38.5 years of age, you’re apt to feel seasick and on the wrong side of a series of broken promises about career certainty.

I don’t have any easy answers for those who, chronologically or mentally, find themselves on the wrong side of that great divide. Managing our “emigration” to Free Agent Nation won’t be easy. It isn’t easy.

But we will get it right! And it will be liberating!

The key—and there is only one—is attitude. If the security of guaranteed cubicle slavery for life is your cup of tea, well, you’re going to be scared of all that’s coming down the pike. But if the notion of life as a series of “gigs,” in which you learn new tricks and live by your wits, excites you, well, you’ll wake up drooling at the chance to reimagine yourself, and add yet another memorable-braggable WOW Project to your portfolio.

Can you do it? Of course! The fact is, the impetus to “reinvent the individual” is nothing new. It is, in fact, quintessentially American. America is a nation that is absolutely defined by self-reinvention!

Reprinted from TALENT by Tom Peters by permission of DK Publishing from Copyright © 2005 Dorling Kindersley Limited. Taken from Success From Home, November 2005. Text copyright © 2005 Tom Peters. All rights reserved.

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