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Face Your Fear of Becoming Obsolete

Source : Harvard Business Review - Ron Carucci



Walt is a senior executive who reports to a CEO I’ve coached for years at a large automotive parts manufacturer. We were in the company’s café for one of the CEO’s town halls, where he was giving out that year’s achievement awards. As he handed the award for achievement in innovation to a team of young scientists who’d won an important patent for the company, I noticed Walt had a faraway look about him. I asked him what he was thinking about. He said, “I remember the patent I won that award for like it was yesterday.” It had actually been 15 years earlier. I asked him how it felt to watch the award go to young scientists who had grown up in such a different era in the automotive industry than he had. I was astonished at his answer. In a sullen tone, he simply said, “discarded.”


I later asked the CEO if he’d noticed Walt struggling recently. He said, “Over the last couple of years, he talks non-stop about his good old days. He’s got plenty of good years ahead of him, but he sucks the life out of every room he’s in with nostalgia and giving everyone a virtual tour of his greatest hits. Out of respect, people listen, but it’s grating on the team.”


Walt isn’t alone in his angst. Professionals across the career spectrum have moments where they fear they’re already obsolete, or becoming so. A 2021 study from PwC revealed that nearly 40% of workers fear their jobs will be obsolete within five years. For younger workers, workers of color, and lower-salaried workers, the fear is more acute: According to another poll, a quarter of them fear AI is going to make their jobs obsolete. FOBO — fear of becoming obsolete — has been on the rise for U.S. workers.


Different than the occasional bout of self-doubt, fearing obsolescence means we fundamentally question our professional significance. And when that part of our identity feels threatened, it can have a harmful impact on our mental health, sense of joy, and ability to participate in meaningful professional relationships. Worse, when we over-indulge the fear, it creates cognitive distortions of ourselves, others, and our environment that can bring us to the worst versions of ourselves. Walt had no idea how desperate for affirmation he appeared to his colleagues, nor how annoyed they had become with his behavior.


Whether you’re early in your career and facing a lifetime of technological and economic disruption, or later in your career and questioning your future relevance to the world, feelings of obsolescence don’t have to mire you in fear or futility. The question isn’t how to avoid these feelings, but rather how to spot evidence you’re having them and address them in healthy, honest ways.


Watching for Symptoms


First, look for signs that you’re struggling with the fear of obsolescence:


Attention-seeking behavior


Stay alert to the ways fearing irrelevance may tempt you to overcompensate by drawing attention to yourself. You may be inserting yourself into or consuming too much airtime in conversations to bolster a sense of self-importance. Younger-career professionals may name-drop or embellish their expertise about the newest technologies to signal superiority and intimidate peers. Later-career professionals, like Walt, may make excessive references to past achievements to boost credibility to those they fear see them as antiquated. Fearing obsolescence can entice us to become very self-involved.


Daydreaming of future successes or potential “encores”


When we feel anxious, the allure of dissociative behavior is strong. We want to exchange the reality around us for something more exciting and hopeful. Newer-career professionals might fantasize about future successes and accolades, while more seasoned professionals might imagine “encores” to resurrect past successes.


To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional daydream of achieving something important or wanting to repeat a past success. But when that daydream becomes an unhealthy preoccupation, making you feel insecure about your professional value, that’s a sign that an underlying fear of obsolescence may be at play.


Being hypervigilant


When we doubt our significance, it can be easy to project those feelings onto others and assume they see us as irrelevant. If you find yourself being over-sensitive to legitimate criticism, speculating about others questioning your value, or on constant alert for signals that confirm your fears of being sidelined, there’s a good chance you may be fearing obsolescence. This may also show up as feeling instinctively threatened by change, such as the introduction of new technologies you don’t know or the arrival of new talent with skills you don’t have.


Drawing unhealthy comparisons


When we feel uncertain of our value, it’s common to make comparisons to others we fear are seen as more relevant. Comparison can be a healthy way to learn from others if we use it to accurately gauge our strengths and opportunities. But when those comparisons are triggered by our fears of inferiority, they become destructive.


This can lead us in two directions. We can weaponize others’ success and talent against ourselves, condemning us to the inevitable obsolescence we fear. Or we can become dismissive and condescending toward others’ abilities and achievements to inflate our sense of relevance.


Replacing Your Fear


If you suspect that you’re haunted by deeper fears of obsolescence, here are some ways to begin breaking free of them and reclaiming your agency, regardless of where you are in your career:


Take an honest inventory of your unique talents


When we feel insecure about the relevance of our abilities, it becomes all too easy to see them through distorted lenses, either over-inflating their merits or undervaluing them. Gather tangible evidence of your contributions through feedback from colleagues and find out what they believe makes yours uniquely valuable. Ask experts you respect about which capabilities you should focus on strengthening to keep them valuable and relevant in the future.


Focus on abilities technology can never replace


For earlier-career employees particularly anxious about technologies like AI and robotics, don’t try and outrun their productivity or analytical powers. Instead, lean into human capabilities like empathy, curiosity, and resilience. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic so eloquently states, “We may not know what tomorrow’s jobs will look like, but we can safely assume that when people are more curious, emotionally intelligent, resilient, driven, and intelligent, they will generally be better equipped to learn what is needed to perform those jobs and provide whatever human value technology cannot replace.”


Honor the glory days and box up the trophies


For those later in their careers clinging to past pinnacles of grandeur, honor what you’ve achieved — and let go. Your obsessive focus on the past may be propelling you into the very obsolescence you fear. Box up the proverbial “trophies” you keep peering at longingly and look ahead. The intersection of nostalgia and relevance is a crossroads forcing you to choose one or the other. You can’t have both. Nostalgia might get you invited to share your reflections at a professional dinner, but it’s not going to get you assigned to the latest high-profile projects. Whether you have five years or 15 years in front of you, don’t focus on how to relive bygone successes. The more others perceive you clinging to them, the more evidence you’re serving up that your best days are indeed behind you.


Take on new opportunities to stretch


Demonstrating the ability to learn new things is one of the strongest signals you can send to the world about your relevance. More so, it sustains confidence in your ability to adapt to changing conditions, regardless of the stage of your career. Rather than seeing impending change as a threat to your relevance, ask yourself, “What could this uncertainty be inviting me to learn?” While humans aren’t natural fans of uncertainty, it does create opportunities.


If you’re earlier in your career, volunteer to serve on projects you believe represent your company’s future, even if only as an observer. Monitor your internal narratives about what you’re experiencing and pay close attention to the symptoms discussed earlier — especially unhealthy comparison, dismissiveness, or self-contempt. Stay focused on being curious, fascinated, and eager to learn.


If you’re later in your career, find ways to use your experience to develop others. Where can you be the “senior statesperson” whose wisdom can benefit others coming behind you? Take care not to merely garner an audience with whom to share tales of past triumphs. Instead, develop new mentoring and teaching muscles that graciously transfer knowledge to others — and in return allow you to learn something new as well. Many companies are worried about losing institutional knowledge as seasoned professionals exit the workplace. How can you help codify your company’s most important wisdom to benefit future employees?


Curb entitlement and focus on contribution


One potential nasty side effect of fearing our obsolescence is entitlement. Early-career professionals can become petulantly insistent about being given plum assignments and opportunities to shine. They may resent later-career professionals who they view as “blocking” their upward opportunities. By contrast, tenured professionals feel they’ve “earned” their right to be seen as important simply because of their track record. They may resent newly arriving talent as not having earned their right to take on greater challenges that are rightfully theirs.


This conflict between legacy and potential is counterproductive. Both versions of entitlement leave foul tastes in others’ mouths, and the irony is that without each other, neither younger professionals’ potential nor older professionals’ legacies are realized.


Replace any hint of such sentiments with a genuine commitment to serving and contributing across generations. Regardless of where you are in your career, maintain a posture of humility, and graciously look for opportunities to help others shine. Some of the most important factors that keep professionals relevant at every stage of their career are having others experience them as a joy to work with, a great colleague to learn from, and someone who genuinely cares about the success of others.


At every stage of life, we all long to feel significant, knowing that our uniqueness matters in the world. When that longing feels existentially threatened by forces outside our control — like the passage of time or the arrival of change — it can spiral us into an identity crisis that bitterly distorts our sense of who we are and extinguishes our belief in what we hope to become.


Yet plenty of professionals at every career stage find ways to keep learning, adapting, and contributing. Given that truth, then, obsolescence is not an outcome, but a mindset. When our fear of it overtakes our belief that we always have more to offer, we don’t “become” obsolete — we consign ourselves to it. Obsolescence isn’t the result of losing our perceived usefulness. It’s a consequence of forfeiting our humanity and agency. Accept that your greatest relevance to the world isn’t merely having the most cutting-edge skills. Plenty of people who nobody wants to work with have those. Instead, embrace your relevance as the sum total of all the ways you can enable those around you to sustain and savor their significance. Rivet your focus there, and you’ll never have to fear obsolescence.




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