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A New Career Paradigm: Matt Damon vs. Johnny Depp and Steve Jobs

Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne is the classic reflection of the
American career–linear and mechanistic. Bourne, like many business
professionals, focuses on the choices and the actions available to
achieve his objective. Driven by incentives and desires, he focuses on a
single objective and takes the necessary actions to achieve that
objective. Ten minutes into the movie you’ve got a pretty clear lay of
the land and where it’s liable to be going. Laying out the sequences of
the movie on a storyboard would be simple. It is a very traditional,
linear plot.

In stark contrast, last week I went to see Johnny Depp in The Rum Diary. Both my movie storyboards and career models got waylaid. Badly.

Johnny Depp
The
movie, a semi-autobiographical depiction of the early years of the life
of Hunter Thompson—the famous journalist and novelist—got underway with
Thompson’s alter ego Paul Kemp (played by Johnny Depp), coming to
consciousness, having ravaged the minibar in a dark, trashy Puerto Rican
hotel room, overlooking a glorious beach. It’s the 1950s, and his
bleary disorientation is accentuated by the small plane that flies by
with the banner, “Puerto Rico Welcomes Union Carbide.” Yep. Pave
paradise with parking lots! Ugly Americans infest the bowling alley.
Right wing capitalists plan vulgar resorts on the unspoiled army testing
range at Vieques.

Aside from the enjoyable script, filled with absolutely hilarious,
cynical, insolent patter, after the first twenty minutes, I was stymied.
Where the hell is this going? The only objective in sight was that the
young Kemp (Depp), newly arrived from New York, got a job at the San
Juan Star, a newspaper edited by a lunatic. The movie quickly introduced
a garrulous, frustrated news photographer and a brain-damaged crime
writer that initiated him into a round of barhopping, alcohol-soused
benders, and cockfighting that result in a trip to the slammer. At the
end of the first thirty minutes, two things were obvious: I couldn’t
storyboard the plot like a Bourne movie if I tried, and I was the only
person laughing in an audience of about 50 people. But just one thing
was clear about the plot: it was jumbled and chaotic, not linear.

Even the ending failed to tie the threads together. The newspaper
collapsed, and Kemp (Depp) got out with his life still intact, though
flawed and, I assume, made even more cynical by his experiences.

Initially, I thought, rather superficially, that it was a crappy way
to begin a career. Still, the movie wouldn’t let go of me. The audience
didn’t give evidence of liking it–but I couldn’t let go of it.

Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that rather
than a crappy way to begin a career, it was a highly auspicious
beginning for a brilliant career. The Rum Diary, in contrast to
the Bourne trilogy, depicts human experience in all its warts: chaotic,
fragmentary, deviating from cherished values and given to imponderable
ambiguity. Thompson was a successful writer, at the least, because of
his rich exposure to a variety of encounters and involvement with the
discomforting unfamiliar.

Johnny Depp’s Rum Diary was a classic break with the past. In profound contrast to the calculated, linear life of choice, the sense of Rum Diary is its focus upon the vagaries of human experience. Like real human experience, the Diary is messy and filled with misadventures.

The 21st century is going to require competencies that are
not easily derived from our incrementalist business schools and linear
developed careers. Think about it. The key expertise for success in a
globally volatile marketplace includes adaptability, exploration and
entrepreneurialism.

Take adaptability as an example. Adaptation comes out of encounters
with novelty that may seem chaotic. In trying to adapt, we often have to
deviate from cherished values, behave in ways that we’ve barely
glimpsed and seize on clues that are merely fragmentary. What better
teacher than novel experiences?

It’s obvious today, that careers and work are experiencing a break
with the past as significant as that in the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries when parts of the world began the long process of
industrialization. The twentieth century mindset ruled our careers. It
was, as the Bourne movies revealed, a highly calculating, narrow,
specialist’s view of career. And though I’d be the last person to reject
that career model, I’m also very certain that, of itself, it’s
inadequate for the demands of the 21st century.

It was Steve Jobs, of all people, that brilliant, painfully difficult
and dysfunctional executive, who pointed to the same problem when
discussing professionals in the technology industry.

A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse
experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up
with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.
The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better
design we will have.

It’s this journey of experience that The Rum Dairy so
eloquently points to. And it’s this very important career shift that
businesspeople, desirous of a career future, had best pay attention to.
When someone can’t adapt to changes, lacks creative insight, has
difficulty resolving complex problems or making decisions, one important
conclusion becomes obvious: he (or she) doesn’t have enough dots to
connect.

Picture: Flickr..Celine Q.

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