The Permanent-Beta Career
I’m trying to figure out how to start off a blog post when I’ve been missing in action for months (good grief, was my last post really November 27th???). Yep, that would be about the time that I was going all-out to finish up my manuscript (LIS Career Sourcebook: Managing and Maximizing Every Step of Your Career, Libraries Unlimited, to be released in late fall this year). Then it was the holidays, and then I basically just decided to read and think and reflect. (Is there a better way to spend winter?)
During my hibernation, I read all sorts of insightful books and trashy mysteries, in roughly equal number. But the title that had the greatest impact on me was The Start-Up of You, written by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha. The tagline is “Adapt to the future, invest in yourself, and transform your career” – which, of course, sounds a lot easier than it really is. The concept that most resonated with me, however, was the idea of permanent beta, which the authors identify as the mindset critical to a resilient, sustainable, successful career.
Building on the familiar business approach of “beta” signaling a product not yet complete but ready for testing, Hoffman and Casnocha define permanent beta as 1) to always be starting, and 2) to forever be a work in progress. I believe there may be few better descriptions of where careers are heading in the LIS profession today.
A permanent beta career is one driven by responsiveness, anticipation (or creation) of opportunity, risk-taking, and adaptability. One of its primary drivers is continuous growth: in your skills, your knowledge base, your network of connections, and the ideas you expose yourself to. Another is self-reliance – to paraphrase Albert Camus, “our careers are the sum of our choices.”
Note the authors:
Your competitive advantage is formed by the interplay of three different, ever-changing forces: your assets, your aspirations/values, and the market realities, i.e., the supply and demand for what you offer the marketplace relative to the competition. (p. 30)
Although this market-competition conceptual framework might have seemed over the top in the LIS professional world of ten years ago, today it’s much closer to the reality faced by recent job-hunting grads. As someone who teaches and speaks with MLIS students around the country, I’m struggling to find ways to both clarify this reality for them and help them build the resiliency strategies they’ll need to survive and thrive. Because without a doubt, I believe the “thrive” part is eminently doable if we prepare ourselves and our students for careers in permanent beta.
One of the reasons this concept so resonates with me is that I’m one of several special librarians currently charged with helping to revise SLA’s Core Competencies statement. It’s an interesting challenge because it involves making assumptions about the future roles and opportunities for special librarians. If you’ve been reading David Shumaker’s excellent blog, The Embedded Librarian, you quickly realize that the future isn’t going to look much like the past, but also that the future is likely to hold many, many more diverse and rewarding opportunities than were available to LIS professionals previously. The kicker is that we’re all pretty much going to be responsible for finding or creating those opportunities on our own.
According to Hoffman and Casnocha, “adaptability creates stability” when it comes to careers. From personal experience with a highly varied LIS career of multiple decades, I’d have to say that adaptability has been one of my most important professional core competencies. Now my goal is to figure out how to help my students hard-wire adaptability into their professional DNA.