My friend Guy Clumpner turned me towards a great article in the NYTimes, “It’s a 401(k) World” by Thomas Friedman. Basically Friedman is arguing that the world’s safety nets are gone.  Our careers are like a 401 (k) plan—your contribution might be guaranteed, but your return isn’t.  There’s potential for greatness, but there is also risk.  His argument makes sense; there are more opportunities than ever before for an individual to develop themselves with the availability of social media tools and globalization, but the downside is that we must bring our best to the dance in order to compete.  Just growing up near a Ford plant in Detroit isn’t enough to get a job, much less keep a job or earn a comfortable retirement.

It’s a great image, and it got me thinking about another aspect of 401(k) plans—the “set it and forget it” feature.  Basically when we set up our 401(k)s, most of us pick a plan and keep it forever.  We are too lazy or too uninformed or too busy to get educated about the market or adjust it when the world goes haywire.  (Myself included; my investments haven’t changed in a decade.)

What about our lives are like the “set it and forget it” feature of 401(k) plans?  We get on a career path, we work hard, and one day we wake up and realize the job changed around us, and maybe we no longer have the skills or the interest to keep up.  Or we get married, have kids, and immediately start taking them for granted.  We don’t change as they do, and we certainly don’t work very hard at adapting to be better spouses or parents.  (Or children or siblings or grandchildren or aunts & uncles, for that matter.)  We set it and forget it, and only realize, perhaps too late, that we should have been adjusting our behavior all along.

It reminds me of the story about the couple that had been married for 40 years.  One day the wife turns to her husband and says, “Why don’t you ever tell me you love me?”  And her husband responds, “I told you I loved you when we got married.  If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”

Adaptability is one of the most important skills we can master in the complex, ever changing, rapidly zig-zagging world we live in.  That means we can’t afford to “set it and forget it.”  In our careers and in our relationships, working hard and showing up aren’t enough; we’ve got to adjust as we go.


Post Script:

Guy Clumpner is a leadership hammer in San Antonio, Texas—he works for Holt Cat, the largest Caterpillar dealer in the US.  He’s also a teacher, coach and mentor who supports the San Antonio Spurs and numerous companies across the country.




Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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