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Permanent beta: Why your career is a work in progress

By Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha , Special to CNN
May 9, 2012 -- Updated 0937 GMT (1737 HKT)
Steve Jobs called Apple the
Steve Jobs called Apple the "biggest start-up on the planet." You should apply the same mindset to your career, say Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Keeping your career in "permanent beta" means continuous growth, say Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha
  • Each day is an opportunity to learn more, do more, grow more, they say
  • Just like entrepreneurs always improve their products, you need to always be improving yourself

Editor's note: Co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman and writer Ben Casnocha are the authors of "The Start-up of You." Here is a specially adapted excerpt from the book, about why applying a Silicon Valley mindset could help your career.

(CNN) -- Start-ups often keep the "beta test phase" label on their products for a time after the official launch to stress that the product is not finished so much as ready for the next batch of improvements.

Gmail, for example, launched in 2004 but only left official beta in 2009, after millions of people were already using it. Jeff Bezos, founder/CEO of Amazon, concludes every annual letter to shareholders by reminding readers, as he did in his first annual letter in 1997, that "it's still Day 1" of the internet and of Amazon.com.

For entrepreneurs, "finished" is an F-word, because they know that great companies are always evolving. "Finished" ought to be an F-word for all of us. Because when it comes to our career, we are all works in progress. Each day presents an opportunity to learn more, do more, be more, grow more, often in unexpected or unpredictable ways.

Keeping your career in permanent beta forces you to acknowledge that you have bugs, that there's new development to do on yourself ...
Reid Hoffman & Ben Casnocha

Keeping your career in permanent beta forces you to acknowledge that you have bugs, that there's new development to do on yourself, that you will need to adapt and evolve. It is a lifelong commitment to continuous personal and professional growth.

Entrepreneurs penetrate the fog of the unknown by testing their products, and their hypotheses, through trial and error. Any entrepreneur (and any expert on cognition/learning) will tell you that practical knowledge is best developed by doing, not just thinking or planning.

In the early days of LinkedIn, the plan was to have members invite their trusted connections by email -- an invitation mechanism that would fuel membership growth. But it turned out that the best way to enable viral spread was actually to enable members to upload their address books and see who else was on the service already.

For careers, too, you don't know what the best plan is until you try. Lunging at the first well-paid and/or high-status job you come upon may offer immediate gratification, but it won't get you any closer to building a meaningful career.

Reid Hoffman
Reid Hoffman

See also: Why ambition could make you rich, but not happy

The business professor Clayton Christensen once told graduating students at Harvard Business School, "If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you'll find (a) predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification."

Ben Casnocha
Ben Casnocha

At the same time, though, don't do the opposite and think ahead too far in the future. Again, you will change, the world will change, the competition will change.

Entrepreneurs deal with these uncertainties, changes, and constraints head-on. They take stock of their assets, aspirations and the market realities to develop a competitive advantage.

They craft flexible, iterative plans. They build a network of relationships throughout their industry that outlives their current venture. They aggressively seek and create breakout opportunities that involve focused risk, and actively manage that risk. They tap their network for the business intelligence to navigate tough challenges. And, they do these things from the moment they hatch that nascent idea to every day after that -- even as their companies go from being run out of a garage to occupying floors of office space.

Companies act small to retain an innovative edge no matter how large they grow. That is why Steve Jobs famously called Apple the "biggest start-up on the planet."

To succeed professionally in today's world, you need to adopt this same permanent beta mindset.

In the same way entrepreneurs are always improving and investing in their products, you need to always be improving and investing in yourself.
Reid Hoffman & Ben Casnocha

You need to stay young and agile. You need to draw up plans, but be nimble enough to stray from those plans when appropriate. You must be persistent in fulfilling your vision, but also be ready to shift course based on the changing demands of the job market or economic landscape. You must be ever evolving.

See also: Is workplace boredom 'the new stress?'

And in the same way that entrepreneurs are always improving and investing in their products, you need to always be improving and investing in yourself. Make a plan to develop skills and experiences that are broadly useful to potential other jobs. Writing skills, general management experience, technical and computer skills, people smarts, and international experience or language skills are examples of skills with what we call high option value -- that is, they are transferable to a wide range of possible options.

Once you've figured out which transferable skills to invest in, make a concrete action plan you can stick to, whether by signing up for a course or conference, or simply by pledging to spend one hour each week teaching yourself something.

Begin on an experimental side project that you work on during some nights and weekends. Orient it around a skill or experience that is different but related to what you do now. Ideally, collaborate on this project with someone else in your network.

Do whatever it takes to keep yourself relevant. Because winning careers, like winning start-ups, are in permanent beta: always a work in progress.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.

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