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Up the pecking order

Published on Friday, 22 Mar 2013
Illustration: Bay Leung
Charles Darwin

The Finch Effect suggests that being adaptable is the key to a high-flying career

Today’s working world is faster, less predictable and less forgiving than ever before. Most people, however, are inherently averse to change. We fight it because we are afraid of the unknown, yet survival and progress require us to adapt.

Nacie Carson, author of The Finch Effect, says that unlike change, adaptation implies a conscious response to shifts in the environment – change that we are able to control. The title of her book comes from Charles Darwin’s observation that the beaks of each generation of Galapagos Island finches evolved to accommodate shifting food resources, allowing the birds to survive by adapting to the new environment.

After a rather good foreword from Craiglist founder Craig Newmark, Carson spells out the biggest problem in the global workplace in chapter one: “The collision of chronically high unemployment with an expanding global workforce … has turned the job market into an ongoing survival-of-the-fittest scenario where professionals have a clear choice: evolve their careers or risk career extinction.”

After conducting over 100 interviews with workers who had actually improved their careers during the recent recession, she realised that the common theme was adaptation. She says that being agile, flexible and open helps prevent career stagnation and increases the ability to identify new opportunities – in any economic situation. Traditional career strategies spell professional extinction, but the fluid new “gig economy” – the result of rising numbers of freelance and contract positions – offers tremendous potential for anyone willing to adapt.

She explains that to find success in today’s world of work requires a five-step approach: adopting a “gig” mindset, identifying your value, cultivating your skills, nurturing your social network, and harnessing your entrepreneurial energy (see “The bird’s eye view” below).

Adaptability starts with its most basic element: career ownership. This means internalising the attitude that puts you in control of everything that happens in your professional life. If you feel that you are in charge, you see external changes as not shattering your world, but as opportunities to re-consider and change strategy. Increasing your adaptability therefore helps to build a stronger definition of professional self and move forward, regardless of the circumstances.

Career ownership, however, also implies greater responsibility for outcomes, both good and bad. Such responsibility can be daunting, so it is important to recognise that there are things outside of your control. But if you know where you are going and are ready to adapt your plan to circumstances, change becomes less scary.

Owning your career also creates empowerment, which makes us happier. This happiness comes from feelings of capability, opportunity and the ability to handle future events. If you feel in control, worry and anxiety will decrease, because these disruptive emotions arise from helplessness.

Such happiness will hopefully also promote enthusiasm, since adaptability means not only overcoming hurdles and dealing with problems, but also proactively using opportunities. Carson is convinced that increased adaptability means facing the future with excitement. She wants people to recognise it is open and unknown, but not intimidating.

The Finch Effect has a lot going for it. It is filled with specific, actionable tips and suggestions that can help make an immediate difference. Carson’s wonderful, engaging voice is never patronizing or defeatist, and her realistic analysis of the changing job market challenges and inspires the reader. The advice and anecdotes presented are also applicable to people of all ages and career paths, whether they’re 20-something techies with a start-up idea or 60-year-old office plodders with a point to prove. The enduring message: if you embrace constructive change, you will reap the rewards.


The bird’s eye view

1.    Adopt a gig mindset Take ownership of your career and move forward by piecing together multiple jobs and projects, rather than working in a full-time position with one employer (sometimes referred to as “portfolio careers”.)

2.    Identify your professional value Focus on discovering, communicating and leveraging your key personal and professional traits that help you stand out from other workers. One of the key tools for accomplishing this strategy is developing your “adaptive professional brand”.

3.    Cultivate your skills Manage your professional development by enhancing the key skills which help differentiate you from others. Work on improving your top five skills, then choose just one of those skills to refine and showcase as your “centrepiece” skill. How do you upgrade your skills? Consider formal and informal training, apprenticeships and self-taught opportunities.

4.    Nurture your social network Learn to communicate and grow your professional brand through social media. If you have existing social-media accounts, first clean them up and refocus them on the brand you want to portray. Social media provides great opportunities, but the correct ratio of time spent to rewards gained must be found.

5.    Be entrepreneurial Develop a creative approach to find and win new jobs, establish new income streams, and build the value of your brand. Understand that while others may present you with opportunities, often the best way to advance your career is to create them yourself.

Worming its way to the top 

On a list of the natural world’s most influential species – which includes adaptability as one of its criteria – homo sapiens, the so-called masters of the universe, don’t even rank in the top five.

According to Christopher Lloyd, a history scholar at Cambridge University and author of What on Earth Evolved?, the most influential species – in terms of longevity, the impact it has had on the planet, evolutionary success and geographical spread – is the humble earthworm.

The survivors of five mass extinctions, earthworms, descendants of sea worms that existed 500 million years ago, “have been ploughing up the earth, ventilating the soil and nourishing terrestrial ecosystems with their excrement ever since [they first came ashore],” Lloyd writes.

These descendants of sea worms that existed 500 million years ago have had a profound impact on human history. “Were it not for their continuous regeneration of soils around damp river valleys such as the Nile, Indus and Euphrates, early agricultural societies in Egypt, India and Mesopotamia could never have succeeded in building humanity’s first large-scale urban communities,” Lloyd writes.

Throughout human history, earthworms have unintentionally, but undeniably, triggered the rise of civilizations, he adds. “Wherever earthworms plough, people thrive. When worms perish, societies collapse.”


1.    Earthworm Made it possible for humans to cultivate the planet, settle and thrive.

2.    Algae All large sea life and land plants are descended from ancestral forms of algae.

3.    Cyanobacteria They break down carbon dioxide and excrete oxygen. 

4.    Rhizobia They turn atmospheric nitrogen into soluble nitrates.

5.    Lactobacillus Lives inside human colon and assists digestion.

6.    Homo sapiens We lose points chiefly as a result of our recent evolutionary emergence.

7.    Stony Corals Coral reefs have spurred co-operation among species and diversity.

8.    Yeast The single-celled fungus behind everything from leavened bread to fine wine.

9.    Influenza One of our biggest ever killers and still the largest threat to life.

10.  Penicillium Helped to transform modern medicine, boosting human populations.

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