Monday, May 10, 2010
It’s hard to pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading more gloom-and-doom descriptions of what’s happening in America. Fear is in the air. The unemployment rate has increased to its highest rate in decades.
While fear will not get us through this difficult period, embracing the changes that have taken place in our economy will. As a result of the tremendous gains in technology and communications (most of them, ironically, generated by U.S. companies) any job that can be easily performed by someone with a college degree and a measure of training is being outsourced to developing countries – and, as The Boss presciently sang on his Born in the USA album, it ain’t comin’ back.
Proof of this large-scale shift in labor is right in front of us. It even happens in our country. In 2009, Chevrolets were produced in Michigan with union labor averaging $71 per hour, while Toyotas were built further south in Arkansas with an average $47 per hour wage. It should be no surprise that GM faced bankruptcy while Toyota, despite some recent product recall hiccups, continues to flourish as a market share leader.
In the case of GM and Toyota, the difference in labor costs are at least comparable. What happens when the job of a telephone rep who helps fix your printer can be performed in India or Panama – with the help of Internet voice-over phones that make international calling virtually free – for less than 20 percent of what it costs to pay someone in the U.S.? Your job goes there.
You can blame capitalism if you like, and say it’s not working anymore. Yet that’s far from the truth: in fact, for many people around the world it’s working better than ever before. The economic picture for the United States and other industrialized nations has been one of stagnation. In 2008, for example, the United States experienced 1.1% GDP growth. According to the CIA World Factbook, other developed countries generated similarly flat growth rates: Belgium and Germany (1%); the EU (0.8%); the UK (0.7%); Canada (0.4%); France (0.3%). Many industrialized countries actually experienced negative growth in 2008 – in other words, their economies shrunk – such as Sweden (-0.4%), Japan (-0.7%), Italy (-1%), and Denmark (-1.2%).
The picture changes, however, when we move further south. The other four most populous countries in the world (not counting the U.S., which is third) had very different experiences in 2008: the world’s most inhabited country, China, experienced 9.6% growth, and the other most populous nations – India (7.4%), Indonesia (6.1%), and Brazil (5.1%) – also experienced much higher growth. In fact, 171 nations experienced higher growth than the United States in 2008, almost all of them in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Furthermore, only two Western European nations experienced economic growth of over 2 percent – Greece (2.9%) and Norway (2.6%).
Here’s a sobering fact: In 2008, over 90% of the people in these five countries – the non-Americans – experienced an average of 8.14% economic growth. (The United States contains fewer than 10% of the people in the world’s five most populous countries.) In other words, on average, for every 10 human beings in the world’s five most populous nations – which contain just under half the world’s population – nine experienced economic growth 7 times higher than did the Lone American.
The new global picture recalls the joke where the Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by attacking Indians.
The Lone Ranger says to his sidekick, “What should we do, Tonto?”
Tonto replies, “What do you mean we, white man?”
These hard numbers force us to recast our doomsday reports about having a bad decade, and to reconsider how far we will get by continuing to rant and whine about the economy. Why? Most people around the world are not hearing us.
Yet to think people in developing countries are living high off the hog and poverty is being eradicated would be a grave error. First of all, economic growth does not reflect base level of income (e.g. if average family income were to grow by $400 in two nations, one with an average GDP in the prior year of $4,000 and another with GDP of $40,000, their growth rates would be 10% and 1%, respectively). Nonetheless, high growth rates in a developing country, if consistently achieved, can yield astonishing increases to GDP (similar to the effects of saving money with a high, compounded interest rate), as we have seen in China.
Second, we don’t have to look any further than Haiti – which ranks eighth in the world in income inequality – to see the devastating effects of a lack of resources and infrastructure on people living in indigent poverty. As hard as the toll of our changing economic climate has been on us, we must remember that in just about every developing country, a small elite controls almost all political and economic activity while the rest live in squalor with inadequate health care, housing, and education. It is this elite that primarily benefits from high economic growth.
The phone rep at the call center in Bangalore who helps fix your iPhone – and, whether you are American, French or Aussie, has undergone rigorous training in your colloquial expressions and cultural sense of humor – most likely can’t afford to buy one herself. Yet the fruits of globalization have undeniably been spreading, at least by nation if not by village.
“OK, I get the big picture,” you may be thinking right about now. “But I still need to know how to find a job. I need to support my family.” Whether you have been laid off or are no longer motivated in a dead-end job and fear the consequences of making a transition, here’s the question you have to answer: What do you offer to the world that uniquely emanates from your heart? Why? Just about anything else you do with your productive time can be easily reproduced by someone who charges much less.
While some people have highly specialized knowledge in an area that cannot be easily replicated (it’s unlikely that you will replace the child psychologist who understands your kids better than you do with another who video-conferences in from Argentina and charges one-third of what you are paying – yet let’s not rule that out altogether), your passion is most likely the only thing you produce that can never be outsourced. The key to career security, then, is to connect your passion with what others value.
George Lucas once said, “A lot of people like to do certain things, but they’re not that good at it. Keep going through the things that you like to do, until you find something that you actually seem to be extremely good at.” The director who brought us Star Wars reminds us of the importance of matching our passion with our potential. Add what others need and are willing to pay for to the picture and you have a viable career option.
To summarize, there are two key steps to success:
1) Figure out what you love to do (and can do well).
2) Find someone to pay you to do it.
What you love to do is much more than crunching numbers or committing everyday procedures to memory. All the facts that you memorize can also be memorized by someone willing to work for 10 percent of your salary in a nation far, far away. They can probably even be memorized by a computer. Yet while knowledge can be outsourced, wisdom can’t. Don’t forget that your computer was designed by programmers living within the constraints of humankind’s current level of knowledge.
Thanks to information technology networks that span the globe, this level of knowledge has more reach than ever before, although not necessarily more depth. Consider it a given that jobs comprised of tasks involving your mind and hands will move to countries where other minds and hands and microprocessors can perform them more cheaply.
Your true calling, however, does not stem from your mind or hands. It originates in your heart. For this reason, it cannot be generated elsewhere. It’s your unique stamp, your signature product, and no one else can produce it any more than they can write a letter to your beloved as you can.
The American psychologist William James once said that the deepest human craving is to feel appreciated. A matchmaker who truly cares about her clients and enjoys meeting them for lunch to listen to their tales of woe will never be replaced by a website. The same is true for your mortgage broker, insurance salesperson and your tax accountant – if they provide their service from the heart, with a genuine desire for your well-being. You willingly cough up your dough for the trust, integrity, safety and empathy for your unique situation that they provide.
Yet we can’t be overly idealistic. Money talks, especially when we’re strapped financially. When you are fretting about the next mortgage payment, sitting your child down in front of the Argentine psychologist on Skype begins to look more appealing. As I often tell passionate CEOs, especially of nonprofits, passion alone is not enough: it gets us out of the starting gate, but not across the finish line. We also have to be strategic – to look at fields that have high barriers to entry, e.g. that take more to thrive in than a college degree, an internet connection and a mastery of the English language.
In the heady days of the internet boom, many referred to the new ‘information society’. We have now moved on; we all have access to more information than our parents could have dreamed of while growing up – yet many of us are either unemployed or painfully watching the minute hand on the clock inch its way to the time we punch out or leave class. Millions of people in far-flung countries have access to this information now: it’s no longer a differentiator.
We now live in a knowledge society: to survive, you must corner a specific niche of knowledge that has a high barrier to entry (i.e. that no one else has or can easily obtain) and utilize this knowledge to serve a strong customer need. Yet regurgitating knowledge alone doesn’t work; it must emanate from your heart and tap the reserve of passion that may be laying dormant within you.
When you join a company, you are betting your future on the staying power of its core concept, core values and unique strategy for adding value to its customers. If it’s not unique enough, it won’t survive. Competition now comes from every corner of our globalized economy and takes no prisoners. If you can’t find such a company, consider starting one. As my sister, who runs a youth entrepreneurship organization, often says: If you can’t take a job, make a job.
Identify the critical needs of a customer group that aren’t going to go away anytime soon. In other words, name their pain. Then reconsider the critical take-away from this article: How can you serve their needs in a way that you are personally, deeply passionate about and that applies specific, nuanced knowledge that you and you alone possess? And don’t forget, geography does count in certain professions. No matter how quickly the latest technology can connect you with someone in India, your landscaper, hairdresser, or dentist are not about to be rendered obsolete anytime soon.
A woman recently published a pornographic magazine in Braille for blind people that includes 3D body images they can pass their hands over. Why? She felt compelled that, surrounded by sexual imagery in our society, blind people deserve this sexual outlet also if they so desire. Sure, this new style of book can be published much more cheaply in China, but she may be aware of that and already publishing them in China. Either way, she has the first-mover advantage and the opportunity to build a brand that generates loyalty among her customers.
What’s your idea? First, name the pain of a key customer group. Then identify your passion to assuage this pain. Ask yourself honestly, “Is my passion matched by my considerable talent to make this happen?” and “Is this a purpose I believe in? Is this what I want my contribution to the world to be?” If so, then get started. If not, go back to the drawing board and come up with a Plan B until you find the right match. Be ready for the inevitable obstacles that will stand in your way, and to continuously enhance how you go about your initiative until you get it right.
So hope is not lost. Yet as many a political leader has understood, hope is an opiate. As important as hope is, it’s equally important to read the writing on the wall and embrace the change you need to make in how you approach your career. Make the life-changing decision to take time out to meditate on what is most important to you, what you are truly passionate about, and the knowledge niche that you and you alone can occupy to add value to the lives of others. Once you find this niche, globalization will cease to be a word you mutter under your breath, and will become a blessing that has pushed you to let go of what others will gladly do and to discover how to integrate what you truly love into your life.
Anthony Silard is the president of The Global Leadership Institute and the author of the Simon & Schuster book The Connection: Link Your Passion, Purpose, and Actions to Make a Difference in the World. To receive Smile, It's Monday each week in your inbox and a free copy of Anthony's new audio CD, "The Surprising Source of Your Passion", enter your email here (1-step only).