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Don’t Know What To Do With Your Life? Seek Bargains.

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)

29 thoughts on “Don’t Know What To Do With Your Life? Seek Bargains.”

  1. It’s so nice to be away from America and its success-is-the-goal mental disease that you and so many Americans have contracted and promulgate.

  2. John, if you read this post with a bit more care you’ll realize that Cal is defining “success” pretty broadly – hence the advice to “identify the traits that define your vision of “remarkable”. That could mean spending a lot of time with your family, having the flexibility to pursue your other hobbies, or something of that nature.

  3. My child is having to make some tough decisions about colleges right now-not only which school, but which field, of two that are worlds apart and which would give her substantially different lifestyles. We send her links to many of your articles and this will certainly be one.

  4. remarkable and refreshing career advice. I wish I had learned this lesson at a younger age. Well done. The ultimate pursuit of life as the founding fathers said–is happiness and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the “value rule.”

  5. Great strategy. I recently completed a job search myself and was in the same position of evaluating two intriguing options. My “rare and valuable skills” are people-based and both positions offered opportunities to take on large scale projects affecting much of my community and region.

    One was more prestigious but offered little autonomy and the other less glamorous, but wide open for me to define my objectives. In the end, I chose the latter because my inner entrepreneur values freedom.

    When in doubt, hedge your bets and go for the bargain!

  6. And what if the snag is: I know exactly what these traits are, but I have a hard time finding the career opportunities to suit them? It may seem dumb, I know, but I really have a hard time doing a proper job research in my homeland’s part of the web and the lovely ladies working as the career advisors at the university are not much of a help.

    Can you, Cal (or anyone in the comments section) lead me to some valuable websites nicely summing up what the professional world has to offer? I would really appreciate that.

  7. If I were making the same choice as you made, I would have gone the MIT route as well. You’re absolutely right – the option with the most variety (and freedom) will be the most rewarding.

    Plus, I spent a summer interning in a gray cubicle. I’d much rather take the huge pay cut and get the have the freedom that comes with it.

    • The “bureau of labor statistics” is critical. Faillure to know your value can cost you half your salary. Given that total lifetime earnings are nearly entirely predictable by income at age 25, the early losses can cost you millions in total lifetime earnings.

  8. I am facing a very similar situation right now. A research position in Artificial Intelligence vs a high paying industry job.

    I am hesitant to go through with the research though, because I feel as if I would be missing out on all of the money and experience I would get from the industry job. Also, I would still be able to pursue my degree while working, I would just not be able to actively pursue the research.

    Also, I feel as if the research is definitely very valuable, but most of its value would arise if I chose an academic career, which I am by no means sure that I want to pursue at this point.

    Any words of wisdom would be appreciated.

    • Michael, they are not mutually exclusive. Many jobs say “what did you make in your last career”. If being “off the razors edge” for one year means you missed the bus, then what you are missing is a hype-cycle, not a value-cycle. If you spent 2 years in the high-paying, high-productivity world, and then moved to AI, you would be able to outperform radically because of hard-ground work experience. ( You could also pay off some of your student loans in that time.) Then move to the value-creating (as opposed to hype-creating) part of AI.

  9. My version of KISS is “Keep it Simple and Succinct”; wandering away from what is important to you wastes your time and energy and unhelpfully complicates your life.

  10. My recent career options were project administration/coordinator or programming. Career opportunities and earning potential is much higher for project administration, but to be PAID to learn a programming language … how could I refuse?

    My career capital apparently was the ability to make such a radical change at all. Go figure.

  11. Your advice (the Value Rule) appears reasonable, but what evidence do you have that the Value Rule is actually successful? Recall that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’. Also, have people been unsuccessful despite following the Value Rule?


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