Updated: Dec 7, 2020

Here's the career story of the lucky 49% of the population: You start off with all the talents and advantages; and are expected by yourself, and all that know you, to become a superstar. You think you're trying hard; but, a couple of decades later, you wake up to career mediocrity, making a nice living, but ruing a superstar's career unfulfilled, somewhere on the spectrum between acceptance and embitterment.

The unlucky 50% just have no talents or have no career to speak of for myriad possible reasons.

But the 1%... now they really crushed it. They had the same talents as the other 49; but somehow, they turned lead into gold. What's the difference? Well who knows - but here's a difference.

Well, two actually.

First - manage your career. "Well, d'uh" I hear you say. Not so. The vast majority of smart graduates, in A grade institutions, drift through their careers. The prevailing attitude is "I'll work hard, get on, and good things will come". THIS IS A RECIPE FOR WASTING CAREER YEARS. Now, my general career rule is that career years are like dog years. A career year is worth 4 normal years. That is to say, don't let even one slip by not fully exploited to its full potential. It is a criminal waste and a costly error. You can get back a lot of things; but not career years. Wake up aged 35 having trodden water, and it's very hard to dig your way out of that hole.

What you should be doing is having a plan, from day 0. Start with where you want to be in 10 years, and work backwards, to 5, 3,1. Then, as you go, measure progress against that plan. Adjust and iterate as necessary. But at least you've got a roadmap to work to. That's half the battle.

Second - know what you're trying to achieve. Here it gets a little more nuanced. The point is, it is easy to think you know what you want and make bad choices. I own that dataset. To avoid this, first, write down what career success means to you. If you get things perfectly right, what will life look like? What will you be doing?

As an example/sample template, here are my criteria. Your's may be the complete opposite of these, or just very different - that's a personal choice obviously.

My job criteria:

  1. Somewhere I can advance my net worth materially.

  2. Somewhere with prestige (read external value) in the institution or role.

  3. Somewhere where I can advance my personal growth materially.

  4. Somewhere I can be fulfilled / happy in my day to day.

  5. Somewhere where I can move from to a decent job if things don't work out.

With these, whatever job you're considering, assess it against these 5 metrics (or your own metrics). Assess how much they achieve these objectives, and if there is any risk around this assessment. Ie, if you think a job ticks all 5 boxes; but boxes3-5 can easily turn out a disaster; that's important to consider, versus say an option that is a very high probability to deliver 1,2,4 and 5.

At different stages of your career, you will weigh these differently. At age 22 I would put more weight on the personal growth side; aged 32 you're thinking about net worth more than before.

Point 3 is important - it isn't about ego; it's about the external value a good brand and a good position gives you. The concept of external value is important - it is what helps you find a job and get paid well. Ie, how much are you worth in the job market. Some people say things like "I'm not an egoistic person. I don't need a fancy title, or to work for McKinsey". That is as may be, but the title and the brand are what get you good jobs that you do want later, so it is a factor. Don't ignore title in your negotiations.

Using criteria like these achieves two things. First, whatever you chose to do, will have passed this test - ie, will have these characteristics; or, where it doesn't, this will be a conscious choice. So the move you make will "look good" overall when measured by this yardstick, ex-ante. That isn't a bad thing to be able to say.

Second, this will help you avoid the classic pitfall of not seeing a forest for trees. When looking at an opportunity, if not using this framework, it is very easy to get bogged down in the idiosyncrasies of that move. Maybe there's a lot of money involved. Maybe it's a particular person you want to work with; or get away from. Maybe it's somewhere you want to move to. The point is, you could analyse it to death; but end up missing some big headline things about the move. Then, when it goes wrong, you're left saying "how did I not see I'll get bored to death here". Or "how did I not realise I'll never get a decent job after this if it doesn't work out". Or whatever you may care about. "How did I not realise this job kills the turtles". You get my point. This process is a safety net for the big things you know you care about. You'd be AMAZED how many avoidable errors are committed this way.

These criteria can be used as you move from job to job (hopefully not that often); and to assess your ten or twenty-year target.

They can also be used as a diagnostic when things go wrong. If you find yourself not making the right progress; or having made a career error; go back, and check how your choice was against these metrics. Did you not use them; or badly assess something; or took a wrong bet. As often as not, you'll find your answer (and your learning) there.

I will give you the other half of my framework - pitfalls to avoid when choosing a job - in a separate post, look for it.

But following this framework will materially increase the probability of good choices versus bad; and deliberately managing your career will avoid the error of career inertia. Those combined will materially increase the chances of you ending up in the 1% not 49%. Good luck.

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