Interest, competence, opportunity: the trifecta of professional growth

Over the last year I’ve tried and failed many times to write a cohesive summary of my professional forays during college: internships, on-campus jobs, classes, and otherwise. I always end up simply recounting the things I did each summer and semester, unable to tease a linear and compelling storyline from my source material. How can this be, when each of my experiences affected me so distinctly, propelling me to where I am now? 

What I want to be able to present is a collection of stories from start to end, where I make definitive progress from less to more enlightened. If each story is a thread, then my college experience should be a massive wad of tangled threads, difficult but not impossible to sort out into separate narratives. In reality it has been more like a congealed mass of overcooked noodles that someone has stepped on. Like the noodles, few stories are complete and unbroken; many are fused together, and rarely can any of them be cleanly separated from the rest. You would have to listen to me recount a full 4 years of personal and professional epiphanies to really get why I did everything that I did.

The underlying structure of this non-structure, I believe, is the inherent difficulty in understanding the interactions among three things: interest, competence, and opportunity.

Together, these are the elements necessary potential energy for career growth. You need all three. Interest and competence breeds frustration if there’s no opportunity; competence and opportunity bring no joy without interest; interest and opportunity will dry up eventually in the absence of competence. 

They all need each other, they all feed into each other, and it’s often near-impossible to say what caused what to increase first, only that increases in all three lead to great things. This is not to say that I think that making progress is not in your control. In fact, I think that it’s your responsibility to engineer conditions for yourself to let these spontaneous interactions happen. 

Competence stands out as the most obvious one within an individual’s control. I’ve discovered that most worthwhile skills are straightforward to acquire, though not easy. There’s more often than not a method of best practices, path for leveling up, and evaluation metrics you can follow. Examples: learning math, learning to code, making tight deadlines. While being competent doesn’t guarantee you will be good at your job because of a host of other factors (often social ones), it is the foundation for doing well.

Interest and opportunity are weirder because you can put yourself into circumstances that make them more likely to happen, but rarely can you predict what exactly will happen. But they are more predictable than you might think. For example, going to college is entirely within your control, and doing activities that will likely bring you to interesting things, opportunities, and interesting opportunities. Applying to all the internships and jobs that sound remotely interesting, and working one of them, is almost guaranteed to give you new and valuable information about yourself and possible career paths. (One of the easiest ways to find your way is to do something and hate it, because then you can decide never to do it again.)

The secret is that interest, competence and opportunity all slosh into one another, so most of the time my decisions were based on future forecasts on what jobs or activities could bring in on all three fronts. If this has started to sound like bullshit, it kind of is. Just as employers are usually hiring college students based on their future potential rather than the concrete skills they graduate with, I tried to see work experiences for what they could bring later on rather than just what they were in the present. Otherwise, employers would only see entry employees as hopelessly incompetent versions of their experienced people, and you would only see your internships as dead-end and meaningless pet projects. Both sides need a shared vision of growth for the hiring and training process to make sense.

Employers do not care that your personal trajectory is shaped like a scribble. Outlining stories for them is simple: they want a track record of competence, indication of interest, and to see that they are the next shiny opportunity you have your eye on. That’s not hard to come up with once you’ve done the work of creating your scribble. 

So if I could go back and give advice to me as I was starting college, it would probably be to focus less on being laser focused on increasing any one of interest, competence, and opportunity, but to shift my mindset to encouraging the growth of all three in union. The totality of them: that’s what ends up mattering. If I had done this sooner, I could have been more decisive in ruling out endeavors that were stupid and a waste of time. Instead, I was quite unsure of myself, and worried a lot about whether going after the high-growth things I valued was the right thing to do.