There’s only one investment that’s absolutely guaranteed to give you a great payback, regardless of the state of the economy and the uncertainties of this fragile world. I’m talking about the investment you make in yourself.

Think of yourself as a business

Imagine you’re Jane Doe, Inc. Whether you’re self-employed or work for a giant corporation—or even if you’re not in employment at present—this business is your basis for financial survival. If Jane Doe. Inc. is a sound business—meaning it offers real value to its customers (your employer, your boss and your colleagues)—it will prosper and provide you with a lifetime’s return. And that’s the case whether your “business” is selling your time and effort in a physical sense, your expertise, your creativity, or your willingness to do what the company asks of you. Whatever it is you do in return for payment is your “product.” Your “business” sells that “product” for wages, salary, commission or tips.

The world is extremely competitive. There are thousands, millions of people offering “products” that compete directly with yours. They could be John Doe, Inc., based in the next door house to yours. Or Jacques Doe, S.A. in Paris; Jonathan Doe, PLC in London; Helga van Doe, Gmbh. in Dusseldorf; or Do Lin Ji in Beijing. Everyone is part of a global market. For your “business” to prosper, you have to offer some kind of value that gives you an edge. If you don’t, you’ll be treated as a commodity.

Commodity businesses are tough

A commodity is something like coffee, or wheat, or hours of low-level work. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. If a company wants hours of time manning a help desk, it wants to pay as little as possible for those hours. And if that means it employs people in India rather than Indiana, who cares? The “commodity” is the same. We generally believe coffee from Colombia is superior to coffee from, say, Nigeria; but, believe me, if some huge corporation just wants to put hot, brown liquid in a trillion cups at the greatest profit to them, they’ll buy whatever’s cheapest.

“Commodity” people are also seen as interchangeable. They’re hired as “hands:” just a living machine to do a particular job that real machines can’t do yet. No one cares very much about commodity people. If one of them doesn’t perform well, or has too much time off, or annoys the boss, they get fired. There are plenty more. In a day or so, no one will notice the difference. If the corporation needs to make some quick saving to boost quarterly profits, lay off as many of the commodity people as possible. After all, you don’t need to worry about losing valuable expertise. When the profits scare is over, you just hire some more. One is as good as another.

You don’t want your “business” product (you and the work that you do) to be seen as a commodity. If that happens, you’re at the bottom of the pile. Expendable. Replaceable at a moment’s notice. To be bought for the lowest possible price.

How do you escape the commodity trap?

  • By doing what any successful business does: creating some uniqueness in your product that marks it out and gives it added value. That means making significant investments in your personal “business”. Not once, but again and again, so you maintain your advantage. Because many of those competing businesses are investing as well.

    How would you feel if someone asked you to put your money into a scheme they weren’t investing in themselves? Would they have any credibility? Imagine being the Loan Officer of a bank. Someone comes to you with an idea for a business and wants you to invest the bank’s money in their future. It all looks fine until you casually enquire what the amount of their personal investment will be.

    “Oh, nothing,” you’re told. “I plan to use your money and keep my own.”

    Impressed? I think not.

  • Always invest in yourself first. Thousands of people every day expect their employers to invest time and cash in them (training, bonuses, good salaries, promotions, new equipment), yet they don’t invest a penny or an hour in themselves.

    Is it any wonder that their employers aren’t too keen to lay out more money? Or that they try to protect their investment by setting conditions or requiring people to pay the money back if they leave? Is it surprising most will only invest where it suits the company directly? Or that they’re unwilling to fund programs that they think might make it easier for people to get jobs elsewhere?

  • Whose “business” is it anyway? Yours, right? So you ought to have more interest in it than anyone else. And if you want your “business” to prosper, you need to get it the investment it needs, whether that means taking every opportunity your employer offers, going back to school, reading the latest books on your job you can find, or simply hunkering down and learning everything you can on a daily basis as you do what you’re paid for.
  • Every increase in the worth of your personal “business” (your experience, your knowledge, your skills, your motivation and capability) takes you further towards marking yourself out from everyone else. When times get tough, who will a business fire first? The “commodity” people: easy come, easy go. The people who aren’t seen as anything special: lots of those around when time gets better and we recruit again. The ones who can be replaced by machines.

    But companies aren’t keen to let their best people go. They’re tough to replace. They may join a competitor. The company needs them.

    And if things get really bad and almost everyone has to go, who’ll find it easiest to find new work, or start their own small business? Not the thousands of “commodity” people. There are so many of them that they swamp the few jobs available. And what can they offer to start their own business? Even gardeners and pet-sitters face competition from others who add just that extra spark of value.

Make that investment now!

As technology continues its march and it becomes easier and easier to locate jobs anywhere in the world, you need to stay a step ahead. There are fewer and fewer jobs for poorly-skilled people. The few that exist are badly-paid and chronically insecure. Of course, new jobs are also being created all the time, but they’re different jobs: more highly skilled, more technological, more professional.

If you want your personal “business” to prosper in years to come, you need to be able to take these new jobs, not cling to the shrinking number of old ones. You need to have that spark of extra value to stand out from the crowd. That takes investment of time, money and effort.

Just as banks are eager to invest in good businesses that they believe will prosper and bring them good returns, so employers are still keen to invest in staff who show they have what it takes to provide a big payback. But don’t expect anyone to invest in someone who hasn’t invested in themselves first. Even charities look for people to help themselves as well as seek help from others. Today’s employers are certainly not charities!

Will you sit around and hope someone will invest in you? Or go out and invest whatever you can—and as much as you can—first and then use that to convince others to invest still more?

Invest all you can in yourself. Keep on doing it. You’ll never make a sounder and more certain investment in your life. And you’ll never reap a bigger reward.

Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.

Love this article?