This post contains factors to underweight and factors to overweight when making career decisions. I've included the factors to underweight as avoiding bad decisions is often more impactful than making good ones.
Why It Pays To Know
Entering the job market, and observing friends doing the same, I’ve noticed that people get caught up in a mindset similar to teenage dating — you get so excited that someone likes you, that you lose sight of whether or not you even like them back. When taking a step in the wrong direction can be detrimental for years to come, knowing what you want in a job provides sure footing.
It’s all too easy to view a job as a job, a day’s work as a day’s pay. I hate this approach to work. Your work is an opportunity to do something meaningful. It’s an opportunity to make art, create a gift, and to do something that matters. It’s an opportunity to invoke change. And it starts with the right job.
Knowing what you want enables you to move backwards from that point. It makes it possible to identify the skills and traits that will help you land your dream role. My dream is to work at Shopify. Knowing what I value in a job, I've identified Shopify as the place that aligns most with those values, and I'm able to focus on developing skills that are relevant and beneficial to the application I'll be sending them in a few years time. I've identified specific technical skills that I need to develop. I've observed that they place a premium on being able to think and communicate with clarity. Instead of playing hit and miss with getting your dream job, work backwards to develop the magic needed to receive an offer letter. This is beneficial to you as an individual, but it's equally beneficial to future employers. Magic happens when values align.
I’ve written this post because I believe that your career plays a disproportionately large role in the way you experience life. The points below highlight what I seek, and value, in a job. They’re not the only things to value in a job. They’re more relevant to people in the early stages of their career, and particularly those interested in a career in technology.
I suspect that they’ll differ from person to person, but the real benefit comes from taking the time to think about them. It can be difficult to start with a blank piece of paper, so use this as a framework if you’d like. I strongly encourage you to make a list of your own because it’ll change how you approach your work and perceive opportunities.
Factors to underweight in career decisions
1. Perks are multiplicative, not additive
Free lunch, beautiful office space, and Friday's off to work on your side projects are perks. They're great perks, and they'll make the job more enjoyable, but they're only perks. The perks are not the job.
Perks are multiplicative. To get a feel for what I mean by this, assign a value to each perk you get. The unlimited Nespresso and in-house chef are worth 5 points, the office with an ocean view comes in at a cool 3 points, and your company replicating Google's famous 20% Project is worth 5 points. Now take the work you'll be doing on a daily basis, and ask yourself how much you want to do it. Be brutally honest, because that's the work you're going to spend the majority of your time doing.
If the day-to-day work is enjoyable, the perks amplify that and make your dream position even better. But if you hate the day-to-day work, don’t fool yourself into thinking that the perks can make up for it. If you hate the day-to-day, it’ll slowly seep into your life, mood and relationships. It’s difficult to be happy when you spend the majority of your time consumed by something you despise. It's impossible to win if you're multiplying by zero.
2. Work-life balance isn't as important as it's made out to be
Having a work-life balance doesn't concern me. Perhaps it's because I'm early in my career and don't have too many other responsibilities, or perhaps it's because I've found something that I like to do, but I don't feel the need to draw a distinct line between work and life. Provided I have enough time to maintain my relationship and look after my body, I'm happy to spend the rest of my time working.
I imagine that in future - when I wish to have children - my views will change. I suspect that I'll work more than necessary in the early stages of my career, which will turn into career capital that I can trade in for more flexibility and autonomy when the time calls for it.
In light of the above, compensation is something to underweight. Haseeb Qureshi has an interesting initiative. He donates 33% of what he earns. I like that, and in that scenario, I can see how compensation plays an important role in your ability to make an impact. Interestingly, I suspect that his personal contributions are dwarfed by the contributions of people that have joined his cause. It supports the idea that your actions, not your wallet, carry the most potential to make a difference.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be concerned with compensation. Ensure that you can pay your bills, have a decent quality of life, and build in some form of financial security for the future. Over and above that, income is far less important than the other factors on this list. This becomes even more applicable if you share my views on work-life balance, since the increased work hours results in decreased lifestyle hours, and decreased expenses.
(Note: This is, of course, irrelevant if your goal is to make as much money as possible.)
Factors to overweight in career decisions
1. Important work > Difficult work
When I think about a job, the overarching purpose of having one is to make an impact. I find it easy to think more money means more impact: making more money means you're in a position to give more money. I'm currently making more, yet giving less. It leads me to believe that if I'm going to make an impact it will be through the work I do, not the money I give (or have available to give).
That's why I seek to do important work. Building, creating and developing things that make life better for others, particularly for those unable to make life better for themselves.
For a long time, I was under the impression that difficult implies important. It must have been difficult for Cardi B to sell over 31 million singles, but I struggle to find one iota of importance in her work. Starting a charity is arguably less difficult, but far more important.
There's plenty of grey area involved in this importance vs. difficulty point, but I find it helpful to be aware of when looking at jobs.
2. Prioritise people
Working under the guidance of a good mentor takes care of most of the things on this list. When you're surrounded by great people who provide you with guidance and feedback, you get better really quickly.
This is particularly important if your chosen profession is one in which you require deep expertise to be successful. Expertise is directly related to the people you spend time around. Cedric Chin, of the Commonplace Blog, has dealt extensively with what it requires to become an expert.
Expertise comes from a pattern-matching model in which the expert pattern-matches the current situation against a bank of stored prototypes. It is part of implicit memory, meaning that it happens extremely quickly, like recognising a face. The level of expertise shown in a given situation is dependent upon the following four steps:
- Relevant cues: These tell the brain what to focus on. For example, when turning at an intersection you'll focus on the indicator and the oncoming traffic, but won't worry about the speedometer.
- Plausible goals: Given the current situation, what goals are plausible? These are ranked, with the ranking done in terms of prior experience.
- Expectancies: These are a list of things which should happen in the given situation. If something is amiss, the expert experiences what we would call a 'bad feeling' and returns to pattern matching mode.
- Action script: Based on the patterns that have emerged, these are the actions to take.
Surrounding yourself with the right people enables you to increase your bank of stored experiences. It trains you to select the most effective action script to follow when a pattern emerges. Prioritising people in your career decisions means prioritising time spent around experts. This fast tracks your path to expertise and puts you in a commanding position for the rest of your career.
3. Seeing eye-to-eye with coworkers
I have a friend who I work on almost all projects with. We're good friends - we chat most days, grab coffee whenever we can, and generally get along very well. We also work extraordinarily well with one another. The reason for that isn't because we're good friends. It's because we see eye-to-eye on the work we want to do. When working on something together, there’s complete freedom to criticise and disagree. We're brutally honest, and because of it, at the end of a meeting, we’re on the same page and ready to move ahead. We trust each other, and with that comes autonomy and freedom to get the work done.
When it comes to a job, seeing eye-to-eye with your co-workers isn't about feeling comfortable to go to lunch with them. It's about being on the same page when it comes to prioritising work, putting in the effort, and making decisions. It's about being in a job where you can be honest, transparent and straightforward. Great work is a byproduct of being aligned with the vision and values of the company. You’ll do your best work when you’re surrounded by people who are invested in you doing your best work, regardless of the path required to get there.
4. Company growth
Working for a growing company takes care of almost everything mentioned above. In a growing company, growing pains present themselves in the form of problems to solve and customers to please. Learning to solve these problems makes your work more important and more impactful. It also ensures that you experience personal growth (both skill, and people, related) which is critical for your career in the long-term.
How to assess these factors
Below are a few questions that are worth asking in the interview. They help to assess where a potential employer stands in relation to the ideas mentioned above. Asking these questions in the interview might be seen as challenging the interviewer, but I suspect that that is a good thing. Someone that asks the difficult questions in the interview is someone that will ask the difficult questions once they’re inside the company, too. For any company that wants to hire top talent, that's a positive.
- What will separate someone who is good at this job from someone who is really stellar?
- What would 1:1's be like with my direct manager? What types of topics would we discuss?
- Can you tell me about your founding team’s background and why you’re tackling this particular problem?
- What relative weight do you put on the way people conduct their work, versus the work product they generate?
- How long did decision-making take with the most recent large decision?
There’s no such thing as a perfect position. Every position, in every company, will have elements of good and bad. It should be that way - it heightens the peaks and provides motivation to slug through the dips. Knowing what you value in a job serves as a solid framework to assess opportunities and make rational decisions. It prevents you from becoming besotted with the first company to show interest in you. That’s best left to high-school love stories.