This article was originally published on February 25th, 2009. There are more and more ronin about as the workplace continues to change.
Based on the title, it would be easy to mistake this book for a treatise on wandering samurai warriors. What Beverly Potter has done instead, is use the idea of the ronin, or wandering knights of medieval Japan, as a metaphor to describe the role of today’s independent professional in the changing economy. Similar to Dan Pink’s ideas in Free Agent Nation, and my idea of the New Entrepreneur, Beverly writes that the fundamental structure of the economy is shifting, and she submits that the “ronin” of the economic world are best suited to take advantage of it.
One of the most prominent characteristics of the economic ronin is that their path is nonlinear. Instead of following a clearly defined corporate path, they ride the waves of their career, becoming skilled in many disciplines and making a number of lateral jumps in their career. Beverly tends to over-romanticize the ronin, and by extension the path of the independent professional, but she does touch on many of the points that makes them economically powerful.
As the economic structure changes, more people will adapt to a nonlinear career model which will allow them more freedom and control in how they pursue their work lives.
Implications, Ideas, and Questions
- One of the most interesting ideas she posits is that the average intellectual worker in our economy is over-specialized. This happens especially to employees of large corporations because the corporate model is based on a division of labor. This has led to a lot of the economic displacement lately, as people who are laid-off from one company often find themselves with skills that are not easy to translate into new positions. Even when working with New Entrepreneurs I often find that they don’t have the variety of skills necessary to build a successful business because they had been pigeonholed in one area. One of the most helpful things they (and you) can do is start learning skills and developing competence in multiple areas.
- The biggest shift we’ve seen in the last 20 years is the dissolution of “corporate feudalism”, which Beverly describes as standardization, specialization, and loyalty. Because corporations aren’t extending the same benefits and security to their employees, the employees are seeing little value to remain loyal cogs in the machine.
- Even though I think Beverly overemphasizes the positives of being a ronin without looking at some of the challenges, I think her metaphor is incredibly apt. As she says, ronin were forced to become masters of change because of their economic and political circumstances; even their name means “wave people” (pg 57). Many people who become New Entrepreneurs do so out of necessity, and it’s their ability to adapt that determines whether they’ll ride waves or be swallowed by them.
- Beverly notes that a number of Zen precepts lend themselves to ronin success (Zen was the spiritual/philosophical outlook that was prevalent in medieval Japan). This echoes my personal philosophies on New Entrepreneur success, and by extension how I’ve built my business. Some of these concepts which have helped me include (pg 90):
- Acceptance of impermanence,
- Being yielding
- Accepting paradox.
- One powerful process she discusses is the idea of nonlinear growth. It finds expression both in the nonlinear growth of a ronin’s career (bouncing from job to project to contract), and in the nonlinear networks that ronin create to help them accomplish their objectives. In this way, it closely resembles what Daniel Pink writes about in Free Agent Nation when he describes how networks come together to work on specific projects and then dissolve.
Should you read this book?
If you run your own business or are an independent service provider, this book will give you some interesting strategies to help you grow yourself and your business. The metaphor of the ronin is useful when thinking about how to be successful in the turbulent economic times that we find ourselves in. I think that Beverly touches on an important trait of successful ronin that can help the New Entrepreneur today:
“Act, don’t Re-act”