Enjoy Your Career: Be Careful What You Get Good At

If you’ve just started your career, right now is the easiest it will ever be to completely change direction professionally. Obligations like marriage, kids, mortgage payments and the other trappings of adulthood are likely still a little ways off. Just as important, you don’t yet have many sunk costs behind you to cloud your judgment about what to do next. You can and should explore radically new opportunities to find a career path that is challenging and meaningful to you. Eventually however, you have to specialize in a field to advance your career, and that requires tough tradeoffs. If you’re like me and get stressed out by parting with your savings to make big purchases, making big career bets creates a similar, if more profound anxiety. You must effectively “spend” your freedom to develop enough expertise in one area to fulfill your ambitions.

The great paradox of learning is that diverse expertise gives you freedom to try more new things, but gaining expertise in one area always means ignoring others, reducing your freedom. Developing expertise in anything worthwhile takes time, and your time is limited. And while it’s not every day that you embark on a new career path, you will regularly make choices about where to develop skills. Whenever you engage in additional training, take a class, jump into a new project, or even choose a book to read, you build knowledge in some areas rather than others. All of that training and experience constitutes the skill set you can market to employers. If you don’t pay attention to where you accumulate skills, you can make important career decisions completely by accident. We do the things for a living that we know how to do well. You are what you learn.

I often see the role of learning as both creator and destroyer of career freedom in conversations. Too many times, I’ve been talking to someone about their work and asked something like, “So, how did you get into personal bankruptcy law?”, or whatever field. It makes me sad to hear back something like, “Well…it was right after the financial crisis, and so the firm had more clients in that area, and I started handling those cases and just kind of kept going in that direction.” It’s true that jumping on an opportunity to become an expert on something valuable is a great way to accelerate your career. Moreover, we all have moments in our career in which we let serendipity make a decision for us. But if you take that opportunism too far you can lose sight of what you really want to achieve in your career, not to mention your life. Simply put, you leave an awful lot to chance when you choose your career solely based on opportunism. Sure, it might work out great and you discover a niche that is both professionally and spiritually rewarding. But more often than not, the people I’ve known who backed into their careers this way were sort of “meh” about what they did for a living. Many of them seem to wish they could have a do-over but can’t afford to start over.

If you don’t pay attention to what you get good at, it’s easy to get stuck in a field simply because that’s what you know, whether or not you find it fulfilling. When you’re young, you don’t have as many constraints that prevent you from changing tack and pursuing something new. That freedom never completely goes away, but the constraints that pile up as life progresses can make it much more difficult (and expensive) to change direction later. Time catches up to all of us. You’ll be much happier if you choose your career path consciously rather than allow time to make decisions for you.

No One Looks Out for You Better than You

One of the biggest traps that I see people fall into early in their careers is ceding their professional development to the company they join. By several measures, companies invest in more in training their people today than ever before. Go to the careers section on just about any corporate website nowadays, and you’ll find materials describing the company’s training programs and development initiatives. It’s great that companies feel the need to compete for talent along this dimension. However, companies now do such a good job of selling new hires on their training benefits that it can lull people who are just starting out into complacency about their professional development. No matter how great the programs your company has are, nothing could be worse for you than considering it the company’s responsibility to give you the skills to succeed. Your interests may not be in conflict with the company’s per se, but they aren’t 100% aligned either. The company maximizes its return on investment in you when you excel in your job without requiring too much oversight (and crucially, if you don’t leave). However nice your company is to work for, don’t lose sight of the fact that the company invests in your skill development for its own benefit, not yours.

The most important way in which your interests are likely diverge from the company’s is that you may have a very different idea as to what the “right” amount of training is and what that training entails. The company has very no incentive to help you develop skills that are irrelevant to your current or expected duties, especially if those skills would make you likely to go work someplace else. If you leave the company, their return on investment in you goes to zero. This means that if you want to broaden your base of knowledge beyond the confines of your current role, you can’t rely on your company to provide you with those skills. For those who are certain one way or the other about whether the current career path is worth investing in, it’s relatively easy to decide where to develop expertise. Unfortunately, I believe the majority of us fall somewhere in the middle of the career uncertainty spectrum early in our careers:

The uncertainty makes it tempting to let your company take the wheel, and that’s why it’s important to keep your goals in mind and figure out what skills you want to develop independently. Your company will by and large train you in ways that reinforce knowledge for your role and leave the rest to you. So regardless of where you fall on the uncertainty spectrum, I strongly recommend you still make time to learn about new things outside the sphere of your job today. Every bit of informal learning you pick up just by reading new books keeps your flexibility alive and well a little bit longer. Learning equals flexibility, and flexibility is your friend. So if you take away only one thing from this, let it the following rule:

No matter how much your company commits to training and growing its people, you are responsible for your own professional development.

If you rely on your company or managers to steer your professional development for you, don’t be surprised if you don’t like the results. No one will ever care as much about your career as you.