Don’t Know What To Do With Your Life? Seek Bargains.February 24th, 2012 · 19 comments
A Career Crossroads
In the early winter of 2004, I was a senior at Dartmouth College and in the fortunate position of having two good job offers.
The first was from Microsoft. It paid, by 2004 standards, about as much as you could possibly earn right out of college (around $85,000 in cash and stock per year).
The second offer was to join the computer science PhD program at MIT. It paid considerably less (around $28,000 in stipend) but promised near complete freedom (MIT is quite unstructured and entrepreneurial).
I had no clear preference for which job to take — they both seemed exciting. But in my effort to make a decision, I stumbled on a key tool in the career craftsman toolbox.
Follow a Lifestyle, Not a Passion
In my last post, I argued that the right way to build a remarkable life is to first identify the traits that define your vision of “remarkable,” then pursue only jobs that will reward you with these traits if and when you master rare and valuable skills.
But here’s the snag: what if you don’t know what these traits are?
This is a problem common to students and recent graduates — those who have not yet had enough life experience to figure out what’s possible and what resonates.
This was also my situation as I pondered my competing offers in the fall of 2004. At the time, I was ambitious and optimistic, and had a great sense of potential, but I was also clueless about how best to direct this energy.
This is what I did…
Bargain Shopping Careers
Both jobs, I determined, would reward me well if I built up career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills.
At Microsoft, if you stand out, you gain the ability to acquire some desirable career traits. If you make it to project leader on a hot product, for example, you can have impact, recognition, creativity, and low-level autonomy (i.e., freedom from a direct boss dictating your day to day).
In an academic track, however, I determined that mastering rare and valuable skills would offer an even wider variety of such traits to choose from. If I made a name in the world of research, not only is impact, recognition, and creativity available, but so is a much, much higher degree of autonomy (successful professors are able to craft any number of exotic work setups). It also would allow for the possibility of taking a leave to start a company as well as continuing with my writing (I had just submitted the manuscript for my first book).
I didn’t know which traits I ultimately wanted in my career, but I appreciated that MIT would offer me more options for the career capital I generated. So I turned down Bill Gates and went to work — ironically — in the Bill Gates Tower at MIT.
The Value Rule
The main idea captured by this story is simple:
The Value Rule
When in doubt about which specific desirable traits you want to pursue in your working life, choose the available job option that offers the greatest variety of these traits in exchange for career capital.
Keep in mind, the availability of these traits are irrelevant if you don’t first build up capital by mastering rare and valuable skills — no one gives away such value just because you feel “passionate” about it. But as you advance in this quest to become so good they can’t ignore you, and along the way add sophistication to your value system, it’s likely that you will — as I do now — appreciate the greater flexibility this rule adds to your career crafting process.
(Photo by madelinetosh)