Friday, October 10, 2008

The 5-Year Change Rule

I used to be an evangelist for a rule. The rule was very simple: Every five years you should change your line of work completely and radically.

Do something different, re-invent your job. In my own case, I was following it. My Bachelor’s degree was in Chemical Engineering (4 years) and I switched my major for grad school. For the next 5 years I was smitten by the possibilities that Operations Research offered. And after that, I was doing programming and working on applied algorithms for an airline for around another 5 years.

It was in my early years at the airline that I would pitch the 5-year rule to whoever would listen. I felt that varied experience counted for more than deep expertise. I'd be telling them, "Variety is more important than success. Variety is success."

I was also influenced by books like Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, whose core message is to look at everything with fresh eyes.

Five years (give or take) seemed the right amount to be doing something before moving on. The first year was for learning, the next two were productive years to practice, and in the last two, we contribute in various ways and be a guide to newcomers. After that we hand over that job or role to others and move on.

This ‘rule’ allows us have 6 to 7 different facets in a 30-year career.

You don’t, of course, have to change companies. You can take up a very different role, something completely different in your own company. (This might even be better since the people at your company already know you and might be more tolerant while you are in the learning phase.)

On the flip side, one could change any number of jobs, work in a number of different industries, and still be doing essentially the same job. If that’s the case, it is time to invoke the 5-year change rule and try to make a bigger change.

I believed in this completely and was quite persuasive. I had quite a few converts back then. A lot of my colleagues and friends and classmates agreed with the 5-year-per-line theory and thought of applying it to their own careers.

However, once I got comfortable in my role, it turned out that I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching. The money was decent and the status quo was so very comfortable. I even got promotions which meant I had to do the decent thing and stick around a little longer. After some time I stopped mentioning the rule altogether. It felt phony to bring it up and eventually I even forgot about it.

I remembered this old rule a few days, probably because I've made a big change recently. (I am no longer working.) But I think the rule has a slightly different application in the context of retirement. I am now beginning to believe that anyone who adopts the 5-year change rule won’t feel such a strong urge to “retire.” It seems like a strategy to stave off routine and boredom before it even sets in.

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