Be nimble and creative to grow a career in ‘The Conceptual Age’


As thousands of U.S. companies ship jobs to other countries, the resounding response from young people is, “Who cares? I wouldn’t want one of those jobs anyway.” To the new U.S. workforce many of those jobs look boring, routine and uncreative – the equivalent of a manufacturing job to a baby boomer.

Kris Helenek is a software engineer at Student Universe, an online travel resource for students. He’s not particularly worried about losing his job to someone in, say, India, because he’s involved in discussions concerning product features – something difficult to outsource to someone lacking a deep understanding of the customer. But what about his future? Helenek says, “I’m confident that I’ll always be innovative enough and skillful enough that people will want to hire me.”

We are entering a new age in economic history, and it will elevate those who are nimble and creative. When we moved from industrial economy to the information economy, jobs became more interesting; coal miners were unemployed, tech support centers hired like mad, and secretaries became small-time database operators. Now we’re in the early stages of the “conceptual age” in which data will be less important than creativity, and jobs will be more fulfilling.

Daniel Pink presents this one-minute economic history in his book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. He says, “Key abilities will not be high tech but high touch,” and we will value the ability to make meaning and connections in a world where information is a commodity.

According to Pink, the people who will do best in this economy are those who don’t just take and give orders but also move smoothly between boundaries, like the technical guru who understands marketing or the accountant who speaks four languages. “But,” Pink warns, “you cannot get a move-smoothly-between-boundaries aptitude test, so a lot of this is about self-discovery.”

Here are some traits you need to develop to do well in the conceptual age:

  1. Empathy. Think emotional intelligence on steroids. The most empathetic people have the ability to see an issue from many different perspectives. And work that can be done without infused empathy begs to be outsourced.
  2. Aesthetic eye. Pink says, “Design sense has become a form of business literacy like learning to use Microsoft Excel. Smart business people should start reading design magazines.”
  3. Ability to negotiate and navigate. The conceptual age will be filled with possibilities that point to no single truth. Pink says, “People must learn to do something that is not routine, that doesn’t have a right answer.”

Bottom line: You’ll have to be creative to stay employed. But really, who doesn’t want to be creative? It’s inherently more rewarding to be creative than to be an information drone.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at the Claremont Graduate University and author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, says that, “Being creative is a way in which life becomes richer.

“But if you want to be creative you must learn to do something well. You need to learn a set of skills, and then, once you feel comfortable you can ask yourself how you can make it better.”

Those with no patience for methodically developing a special talent, pay heed: Innovation without a good knowledge in that area is not creativity but dilettantism. Not that dabbling in topics you know nothing about isn’t fun, but that lifestyle will not create the kind of value that allows you to flourish in this new economy. To find what you love to do, Csikszentmihalyi recommends exploration.

“A richer life is one in which you have access to different aspects of the world.” Sure, you need to find your talents to figure out where you will put your creative energy.

But Pink reminds, “Failure is a part of mastery.” So give yourself room for missteps.

This is good news for Helenek. He invested in Boston-area real estate as a way to hedge his technical career. He planned to live in half his duplex and rent out the other half. But after the deal closed a pipe burst, and now Helenek is working on a fixer-upper. Tough work, but the good news is you can’t outsource floor sanding to India.

7 replies
  1. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    The tough part is “operationalizing” the details. If you can afford to live on a $50K/year salary, then it is easy to hop around from one creative job to another and you will always be in demand as cheap, versatile labor. But as you get older and more experienced–and need a six figure income to afford to live in the type of area where these jobs are–it gets more challenging. Looking back in retrospect, the nimbleness and creativity is key to success, but it is often very difficult to see how to get from one position to another when you need to do so. And once you have a family, you just can’t blithely say you’ll just find another job. Can you really afford to be unemployed for 6-9 months or more until you find another job? You can try to look at it as if you are an entrepreneur, but the reality is that most people do not want to be entrepreneurs–they want a guaranteed paycheck so they are not constantly worrying about how to keep health insurance going and food on the table.

    I completely agree with the points in this post, but it is a lot easier to do so once you have a job. When you are looking, the advice to be nimble and creative is hard to act on and hard to translate into specific details that will get you a job.

  2. MyNameIsMatt
    MyNameIsMatt says:

    Dave, I wouldn’t limit being nimble and creative to skipping from cool job to cool job. You can certainly do this within a company, either in a new position in larger organizations or adjusting your role in a smaller one. Either way, these are key for climbing the ladder (and getting the six figure salary) and anyone that prefers the security of a stable environment is least likely to achieve that. Also, if you can be successful at jumping from cool job to cool job, then you definitely won’t be stuck at the $50k level as each job will have you learning new things and growing. This puts you in high demand and hence higher salary.

    My one addition to the “don’t fear outsourcing” is that outsourcing is basically a dried up well now. Foreign countries don’t have the level and quality of education that we have in the US. All the good people have been grabbed up (and many have moved to the US), and what’s left are people who are either uneducated or memorization bots who can’t be creative. They simply don’t have the infrastructure nor the culture that breeds the quality of information/intellectual workers/thinkers that we have in the US.

    On top of that, we only benefit as the job market improves (and provides more competition). As entry level labor costs come down, more companies will be willing to do more with that labor, and more opportunities will open up for economic gain. Where economic gain is stimulated, all levels benefit as higher paid positions are required for managing and working with the non-entry level parts of a job. The people at the top are the nimble and creative ones.

  3. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    Actually, I’m a big “fan” of outsourcing and I don’t believe the well has dried up at all. Foreign countries do have the level and quality of education necessary to compete with us and in many cases, their people are more motivated. Creativity abounds. See my posts at:

    My point with the 50 to 100K thing is that when you reach the 100K level, it can become harder to find opportunities as quickly if things fall through at your company. So the real challenge for us is to be in a state of perpetual readiness without stressing out about it.

  4. MyNameIsMatt
    MyNameIsMatt says:

    I wasn’t trying to say that you were against outsourcing, but added to the comments in the article on the topic. Also, I get what you mean with the ease of finding work at different salary levels, although, from my own (be it anecdotal) experience, it’s harder getting in/moving around at the bottom than higher up, but that probably changes from field to field as there are changing pressures on entry level demand and supply.

    When I wrote “a well dried up” I meant it more in that the easy gains from outsourcing that were once there aren’t there any more. Considering India, the wages for tech workers is almost equal to the global/US wage rate, and with higher turnover vs. US and lower productivity vs. US, the costs are now about at an equilibrium.

    There are definitely plenty of educated, smart, and creative people to be found in foreign countries (and I’m more specifically thinking developing countries), but there are few places in the US let alone the world that can compare to the mecca of the Bay area (Silicon Valley) and the runner up Boston area. (Arguably) 70% of the top schools in the world are in those two areas, and they’re surrounded by a similar corporate and local infrastructure to match. Places like India and China could develop similar hot spots, but they have to make that a goal, and even then, it would take decades to even enter the playing field.

    End note: that Bangladesh shipbreaker story rather interesting.

  5. Eric Hill
    Eric Hill says:

    If a company is currently paying you a six-figure income, what makes you think another company won’t? Too often, we underestimate our own market value and sell ourselves short.

    Several years ago, I formed a Board of Directors for my career. They treated me like a business entity and almost overnight my life changed (for the better). This gives me an objective measuring stick for what I’m worth and a great bargaining device. I can certainly see why people in the entertainment business have agents.

    If you truly are a “productive” employee, you’re in great demand.


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