Career capital is for spending

The way I see it, I accumulate career capital–work experiences, credentials, skills, reputation–so that I can spend it on taking jobs I like and so build a career that I am proud of and enjoy. Because work is such a huge part of everyone’s lives, I think this is crucial to having a happy existence.

These are things I hope that career can bring me:

  • Ability to fluidly adjust my place on the tradeoff curve between effort and reward; being able to put in less effort when I’m okay with less reward, and more when I want greater recognition
  • Transferable skills within a specialty that make me competent not only at the specific tasks I do, but at working within a larger discipline
  • Knack for building a reputation of doing good work 
  • Freedom to choose jobs based on what I like about them, and not because of urgent or dire financial circumstances that make it unwise to leave a terrible job or spring for a job I like 
  • The means to stand up to an unethical employer, and be unafraid of blacklisting by them or other players in an industry
  • Flexibility in switching jobs, roles, or even entire careers because of a professional network, impressive accomplishments recognized outside my specialty, and and general scrappiness and knowhow about job-hunting
  • Earning a place in a system with structured evaluations of job performance that I am able to rank high in with focused effort
  • Instinct and intuition about my own competence and how to do well in a job that I’m qualified for

These are traits of jobs that I want to obtain and keep using my career capital:

  • Challenges within my abilities, and preferred boundaries on time, attention, energy and pain tolerance so I can have a fulfilling life outside of work
  • Opportunity to meaningfully impact other people’s lives, and control the means of doing that better and better over time
  • Interesting avenues of learning and growth
  • Coworkers who are enjoyable to work with because they’re competent and aren’t moral atrocities
  • A physical reality that suits me, like an office and not too long of a commute in a vibrant city-adjacent place

However, sometimes climbing expected job ladders brings negative qualities into your life as well as positive ones. Just as having more money attracts surprising problems, making progress in a traditional career arc can give you headaches as a direct result of success. I’m not psyched about this. It makes calculating my next move that much harder, and means that setting goals that will actually improve your life is often not intuitive.

These are some of the downsides I have seen about jobs that I feel like I’m supposed to want:

  • Higher expectations for what you put in, not just for your quality and quantity of output
    • Absolute number of hours worked
    • Risk and pressure of leading or starting new initiatives
    • Greater number of minor duties that make up your role that fracture your time and attention, and are not necessarily things you are good at
  • A day to day experience of drowning under a flood of email, chat, and other communications
  • A sense of alienation from people who are not your peers in status, especially with those who you manage or have power over
  • Golden handcuffs: feeling like you can’t leave a job or stop chasing jobs for financial incentives that aren’t urgent or dire
  • Pressure to care about and accomplish goals common among your peers, lest you be left without friends, allies, mentors, or admirers
  • Deep and never-ending fear of losing status and your place in the world, and therefore of change in general
  • Learned helplessness or cynicism in response to the non-meritocratic parts of the system or hierarchy they are climbing – resignation to how things are
  • Entrenchment in a line of work that may or may not die due to economic forces (and none of the confidence that’s needed to jump ship)
  • Less mobility between organizations and roles, because you are so specialized or so high up on the role ladder that there are few places that suit you

As a software engineer, I’ve seen many of these traits appear in management and senior technical leadership roles: jobs that I am primed to aspire to. Is that what I really want? I don’t know, and I am thinking about it.