Hey, income-generating humans of the world, listen up.

You know how the past 20-ish years have seen (among other things) a massive recession, a housing bubble, a tech bubble (or two), the collapse of the American middle class, and the rise of Millennials who don’t understand why the rest of us are still yoked to dead systems?

The future is here, and what used to work doesn’t work anymore.

I had two grandfathers. One of them was a welder in a metalworking shop. The other owned a corner grocery store. That metalworking shop and that grocery store no longer exist. The systems that got us here are gone.

In the 20th century you could get a job in a factory, join a union, work 40 hours a week, and retire with a decent pension. Along the way, you’d live a pretty comfortable life, and you’d be able to save enough money to send your kids to a decent school. There, they’d get training for jobs that were even better than the job you had. And with a little luck, your grandkids would be even better off.

But that world doesn’t exist anymore.

This is not a century where you can live your career on autopilot, because the systems that made it possible no longer exist.

The manufacturing system is dead. We outsourced it. The things we buy now still put money in the pockets of executives, but the workers who build them are all overseas.

Our system of higher education is also dying. The economy it prepares people for, with a few exceptions, is not an economy that will pay college graduates enough money to repay their student loans and still live comfortable lives anytime soon. It saddles its participants with debt and then shames them for not working hard and fast enough to pay it back.

As a result, people are opting out of the old ways of doing things.

To make a living now, and to find a way to generate the kind of revenue you need to live comfortably, you need to stop trying to play a game that ended last century and start living your career by a new set of rules.

Here are three steps to avoid getting trapped in a career you can’t control.

Don’t Serve a Function; Solve a Problem

Functions get replaced, and so do the people who perform them.

If all you do is keep a system running, trust me, the people who control that system are always looking for ways to make it more efficient — and that means your contribution is one of many variables they’re trying to find a way to not have to pay for anymore.

Instead of getting really good at performing the tasks of your role, get really good at solving the problems in your field. Because tasks may change, and roles may be eliminated, but there will never be a time when problem-solvers aren’t in demand.

(Just make sure you’re not confusing a solution with a mission.)

Your Boss Is Actually Your Client

Quick: who do you work for?


No matter whose name is on your check, you work for yourself.

If you have a full-time job, a salary, and benefits, it might seem like you’re “safe” in this economy. Be grateful for that employment, but don’t be complacent.

The truth is, you’re not really an employee of Company X; you’re the owner of your own business of one. Company X just happens to be your primary client.

Company X’s c-suite and human resources department view you as a line item in their annual budget, so you need to view your employment with them the same way — as one of many revenue streams you’re nurturing, rather than as your sole means of survival. Because if Company X really is your only source of income, you’ll be at the mercy of their downturns, mergers, redundancies, and automation, any of which could negate 100% of your revenue at a moment’s notice.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying “quit your day job.” (Not yet, anyway.)

You can stay at that job for as long as you want to, as long as you enjoy it, and as long as it’s providing you with the training and experience that helps you keep getting better at doing the kind of work that fulfills you.

Just don’t confuse the person signing your checks with the person who’s in charge of your career. Because that person is you.

Develop Multiple Revenue Streams to Give Yourself Options

Are you really good at what you do? Then there are probably multiple people who’d pay you to do that for them, or to teach them how to do it for themselves.

Is the problem you’re really good at solving similar to a problem that people in other fields or industries also experience? If so, you can probably replicate your success in your chosen field within their fields as well.

Do you have a hobby you love, or a creative outlet? Odds are, some people are probably very impressed with the results of your spare time — and they’d be willing to pay you for it.

As I said before, don’t just achieve competency at a task and stop there. Instead, build an ever-expanding repertoire of expertise within a field of problems and solutions. If you’re really good at managing budgets for one corporation, what could you do for another… or for a nonprofit… or for a small business… or by teaching individuals how to manage their own money better?

And if you’re just not sure what else you could be doing to make money besides what you’re already doing now, take a second and listen to that little voice in the back of your head; it usually knows you better than you want to admit, and it can guide you toward something you’ll be excited to invest your time and energy in.

(And if you think you can’t, or that controlling your own career is something that other people can do, but not you? That’s a lie everyone wrestles with; the people who get things done are the ones who stop believing it.)

The Bottom Line

When you have multiple revenue streams, you see yourself and your abilities differently. Instead of entrusting your own future to the unpredictable and uncontrollable market whims of your current employer, you’re a business of one who’s always looking for new markets and new income opportunities for your skills and knowledge.

The future is here. The old ways are gone. The “safe” game is broken.

It’s time to stop living your life on defense.

Image by Vincent Ferron

If You Like This Post

… then you may also enjoy this post about the 12 tough truths we all need to hear, or this post about how to fix a broken system.

How to Change a Broken System


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