How do you futureproof your career, so that you stay in step with all the opportunities and take full advantage of them? Gopi Kallayil, Chief Evangelist, Digital Transformation and Strategy at Google, shares his learning in his keynote address at the 20th All India Management Students Convention.
I want to start off by asking you a question. How many organs are there in your body? If you’re not sure, Google will tell you that there are 78. I want to introduce the 79th organ, which is the little device that you hold in the palm of your hand—your mobile phone.
It has a skin. You touch it; it responds. It has ears. You speak to it; it understands your voice. It can talk to you. It has eyes because it can see things around you. It recognises faces and objects. It is incredibly intelligent: it seems to be able to tap into the collective knowledge available to humanity and give you the best answer. It can give you directions. It can order food for you. It can call a car to take you to the airport. You can pay various merchants with it. It is a source of endless music and entertainment. It can find a room for you to stay when you travel. All of these have become entire subclasses of industries with their own career tracks. None of this was available 15 years ago. The iPhone itself was only introduced in 2007. So it is a very recent phenomenon.
I am using this one piece of technology as an example to showcase how much opportunity now exists in terms of career paths. So congratulations! You are stepping into an incredible array of opportunities. But they also beg the question: how do you navigate your way through all this? How do you futureproof your career, so that you stay in step with all the opportunities and take full advantage of them? As answer to the question, I have five recommendations or suggestions.
Is this going to fulfil me?
The first principle is: Pick a career track that gives you the most meaning and context. No matter what you pick, you need to have a sense of purpose. This is a lesson I learned early on from David S. Pottruck, who was former CEO of Charles Schwab. When I joined Wharton as a young MBA student, CEOs of big companies were invited to come and speak to the students.
In my first month at Wharton, David S. Pottruck was one of the invited guests and I got a chance to meet him and have dinner with him later. When we asked him how he had made his career choices and futureproofed his career, he said, “The first job I picked when I graduated from Wharton was not based on the highest salary. But I picked a job that gave me the most meaning, context, a sense of purpose and fulfilment.”
David said that he did it for his second job and third job too. In each job, he outperformed because he was in love with his job. That led him to become the CEO of Charles Schwab eventually. I took that advice to heart and have followed it ever since. I always ask the question when I pick a job or career or project: Is this going to fulfil me?
A Mission in 10 Words
When Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google—where I work—started the company in 1998, they came up with a mission statement in just 10 words and they articulated very clearly the meaning, purpose and mission of the company. Every employee could easily understand it. Those ten words were: Organize the world’s information, make it universally accessible and useful. I have seen over the years how Googlers often take that purpose and meaning and contextualize it for themselves in their own personal way.
My roots go back to a tiny rice-farming village in Palakkad, Kerala, called Chittlancherry. It is a small village of mostly rice farmers. My grandparents were poor rice farmers. My parents grew very modestly—without electricity, running water or access to a college education. When they finished high school level education in the village, their education pretty much stopped. But they had aspirations for their four kids and hoped that they would go on to do other things and would have better education.
Access to Information
Thanks to those aspirations, their four children—my three siblings and I—went on to get advanced degrees, including two from US ivy league business schools, even though my parents had never set foot in America. So what caused that kind of social mobility in one generation? It is simply access to information.
I remember when I was at the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Trichy, and wanted to apply to graduate schools in the US. I took the Rockfort Express from Trichy to Chennai, so I could go to the US Library and look at a physical copy of the US World News Guide to Graduate Schools. I was willing to make that eight hour train journey in order to get access to that particular report. Today eight hours seems too long because we have got used to accessing information in much more faster ways. But back then, even though it was a slow process, that access is what propelled me and my siblings forward to where we are today.
In an era where information is like oxygen, we are levelling the playing field for information and that is what gives me a sense of meaning and purpose in my own job. I have taken the mission of the company and contextualized it for my own personal context.
When I go back to the village school where my mother studied in Chittlancherry and look around, one thing becomes very clear to me. While the physical infrastructure may not have changed dramatically, what has changed is that kids in that school and in schools around the world have access to the kind of technologies that we are now building. They have access to the same amount of information as somebody who goes to an IIT or to Harvard Business School.
In an era where information is like oxygen, we are levelling the playing field for information and that is what gives me a sense of meaning and purpose in my own job. I have taken the mission of the company and contextualized it for my own personal context. So that would be my first lesson to you: Find meaning and context in the job and find a sense of purpose.
Find Your Ikigai
The second principle is to find your Ikigai through your job. Ikigai, a Japanese word means, finding your true purpose in life. How do you do that? You can find your Ikigai when your life, your work, your career sits at the intersection of four circles. What are those four circles?
The first circle is, do what you love. No matter what you pick as a job, career or profession, make sure you truly love it from the bottom of your heart. It is something that you really look forward to. It makes a huge difference.
There was no YouTube, Chrome, Android or self-driving car then. When a new thing comes up, find out what it is. Thankfully, when a new technology emerges, there is a huge amount of information available.
The second circle is, do what you are good at because we are all innately talented in a variety of things. It could be leading organisations, music, creative works, speaking, teaching or doing social work. Whatever it is, every one of us is good at something. Find that something.
The third circle is, do something for which there is a demand. Ultimately, whatever you pick as a job or a career, you want to make sure that there is a demand for that particular line of work.
The fourth circle is, do what the world will pay you for. There must be a fair economic compensation for what you do. In my present role, I love to be in front of customers, talk to them and demystify complex concepts for them. There is a demand for it and I am paid for it.
The third principle is: Embrace curiosity. It is impossible to tell what the careers will be, five years from now. When I graduated from NIT, there was nothing that I could have learnt to be in the centre of the industry that I am now: internet, cloud-based computing or machine learning. But along the way, I picked them up. Curiosity is what drove me to new and interesting frontiers of technology. Even when I joined Google, I could not have anticipated the kind of things that I am doing today.
There was no YouTube, Chrome, Android or self-driving car then. When a new thing comes up, find out what it is. Thankfully, when a new technology emerges, there is a huge amount of information available. For instance, now there is so much information about crypto currency. Platforms like YouTube explode with talks, tutorials and workshops conducted by experts. You get free access to that information. All you need is a sense of curiosity to embrace these new things.
A Giant Experiment
The fourth principle is: Embrace experimentation. I picked up a philosophy from going to ‘Burning Man’ for fifteen years and that is, ‘all of life is a giant experiment.’ Experiments by definition lead to unexpected results. But we will never find out, till we try out. Treat your life as one series of experiments and be curious. Try different things. For example, early in my career, I was working in McKinsey as a strategic consultant. I decided to experiment and leave the consulting career to start a company along with McKinsey alumni. I did two startups. We noticed some success. Both got acquired. We could argue that we didn’t fail. I could experiment in preparing a business plan, fund-raising from investors, taking a new concept to the market and proving that there is a use case for the concept. I learnt about what it takes to start a company and to have a first customer. I would not have learnt any of these, if I had not experimented. I can guarantee that it gave me unexpected results.
The fifth principle is a concept that we follow in Google—that is, fail well. In Google, we have nine products that are used by a billion people but many may not be aware that behind those massively successful products, there were hundreds of products that failed. Many of them did not even get launched. That is the dirty little secret of successful companies like Google. It is considered okay in an innovation-driven company like Google. So we often say: fail well, fail fast, fail big and fail often.
Be prepared to have a similar mentality when it comes to your career. Try a lot of different things, knowing that you will fail most of the time. Embrace the failure. The most important question is: what did you learn from the failure? What can you salvage from the failure? Can you morph the failure into something else? The concept of morphing from failure is an important one. I worked for many years in Google Plus—Google’s social media. Currently, the product is withdrawn but out of that experimentation emerged two products that you know and use all the time—Google Photos and Google Meet. They were derivatives of building a social media platform called Google Plus. In that sense, we can call it a partial success as it morphed into something else.
So always think of experimenting with your career. Be prepared to succeed sometimes and fail most times but out of each failure, learn something and morph into something else.
In conclusion, I would like to summarise the five lessons to futureproof your career:
- Find meaning and context in your job
- Find your Ikigai through your job.
- Embrace curiosity, as things are going to emerge rapidly.
- Treat your life as one giant experiment.
- Fail well, fail fast, fail big and fail often. Embrace failure but learn the lessons