How to personalize your career path with first principles thinking

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|||||Career Tunnel|Career Landscape

Wait But Why is one of my all-time favorite blogs. Every 5-10 weeks, Tim Urban writes an engaging, long-form article unpacking an extraordinarily complex topic such as life, artificial intelligence, history, happiness, etc. There’s really no limit to what he writes about.

Why does this matter?

My goal with 2 by 22 is to get you the

information you need to launch a successful career. Occasionally, I come across content from other writers that I believe is indispensable to your career development.

And this month, Tim Urban posted an incredibly thorough 15,000 word article titled “How to pick a career (that actually fits you).” Knowing his writing process, he likely spent weeks or months rigorously thinking through this complex problem and unpacking it into a well-structured article.

Below, I outlined my favorite insights from his post and took his ideas a step further by combining them with my own thoughts. The italicized text are quotes from his article.

A few topics I discuss:

  1. Why it’s worth deeply thinking about your career
  2. The fallacy of pre-defined career paths (medical school, law school, finance)
  3. Approaching your career from first principles

You will notice there are many similarities between his writing and my views on professional development and careers.

Afterwards, I highly recommend setting aside 45 minutes to read his full post and reflect on your career decisions and aspirations.

You will spend a significant chunk of your life building your career

“For most of us, a career (including ancillary career time, like time spent commuting and thinking about your work) will eat up somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 hours. 

At the moment, a long human life runs at about 750,000 hours. When you subtract childhood (~175,000 hours) and the portion of your adult life you’ll spend sleeping, eating, exercising, and otherwise taking care of the human pet you live in, along with errands and general life upkeep (~325,000 hours), you’re left with 250,000 “meaningful adult hours.”

 So a typical career will take up somewhere between 20% and 60% of your meaningful adult time”

Time spent on careers

If we take an average of his range, you and I will likely spend 40% (or 100,000 hours) of our remaining adult time on our careers, which I’ll refer to as “career time”.

Your career path is not a predefined tunnel

Career Tunnels

“Careers used to be kind of like a 40-year tunnel. You picked your tunnel, and once you were in, that was that. You worked in that profession for 40 years or so before the tunnel spit you out on the other side into your retirement.

Today’s career landscape isn’t a lineup of tunnels, it’s a massive, impossibly complex, rapidly changing science laboratory. Today’s people aren’t synonymous with what they do—they’re impossibly complex, rapidly changing scientists. And today’s career isn’t a tunnel, or a box, or an identity label—it’s a long series of science experiments.”

This is one of my favorite illustrations in Tim’s article, because we tend to have a love-hate relationship with career tunnels.

First, there’s a tendency to see your career as a tunnel that requires lifelong commitment. This fosters an overwhelming feeling of anxiety when searching for internships or jobs, because doing so feels like committing to a tunnel.

On multiple occasions, I’ve heard students worry that they are pigeon-holing themselves in an industry or function solely because they did an internship in that field.

For example, a Sophomore that interned in fashion marketing may be concerned that future employers will only see them as a fashion marketing person, therefore limiting their career options.

This is tunnel syndrome. It takes far longer than one internship, even a handful of years, to risk pigeon-holing yourself into an industry or function.

So rather than burdening yourself with the pressure of choosing the right tunnel, focus on testing various different career paths through a series of career hypotheses. It’s much more effective and far less anxiety inducing.

The second, and somewhat ironic, tendency is to purposefully choose a career path that seems like a tunnel.

This means choosing careers where the next handful of years are well defined. These tend to be professions like doctors, lawyers, researchers, finance professionals, etc.

From this perspective, tunnels provide structure to an otherwise ambiguous career path. There’s a sense of security knowing that you have direction in your life as long as you are in the tunnel.

Career Tunnel

However, problems arise when you enter tunnels without a realistic understanding of the experience on the other side. As an example, pre-law students may feel committed to a career in law without having spoken to lawyers or politicians about the experience in the “Promise Land”.

This results in spending a fortune on law school and 5+ years in the tunnel (between law school and your first corporate law job) before realizing they are far from their dream job. Turns out you’re back in the chaotic, ambiguous career landscape.

Career Landscape

By no means am I implying that law school, medicine, or any other profession is a poor career choice. Rather, my point is that relying on these professions because of their tunnel-like qualities (usually require years of graduate school) is not going to shield you from the chaotic career landscape.

There will come a day where you will have to face that reality, and that reality is a lot more stressful after years of graduate school and debt.

In today’s complex career landscape, tunnels are little more than artificial constructs to protect us from the unknown.

Given the amount of time you will spend on your career (100,000 hours), don’t put it in the hands of artificial tunnels. Instead, the earlier you become comfortable with navigating the unknown, the more empowered you will feel.

Your career is a worthy investment of your mental energy

There are 2 main approaches to figuring out how to best spend your career time:

  1. See what other like-minded people are doing and copy their career with minor tweaks
  2. Find inspiration by analyzing what other like-minded people are doing, but use deep introspection and critical reasoning to find the best career for yourself

Tim refers to these two ways of thinking with the analogy of the cook and chef.

To paraphrase his writing:

“A cook follows already written recipes. This happens when you look at the way things are already done and you copy it, with a little personal tweak here and there. A chef plays around with raw ingredients to try to make them into something good. By doing this puzzling, a chef eventually writes a new recipe.

Being a chef is not easy. It’s much easier to copy recipes that work, and for many aspects of your life it probably makes sense to act as a cook.”

When it comes to making the small decisions in life, it makes sense to act as a cook and follow what others have done.

But the world’s greatest restaurants are created by chefs, not cooks.

For something as important, fulfilling, and time consuming as your career, it is well worth going the extra mile to build a career like a chef.

Understanding your career game boards require an understanding of career recipes

“A career path is like a game board. The conventional wisdom bookshelf contains instruction booklets (cook’s recipes) for only a small fraction of today’s available game boards—and those that it does have usually tell you how that game was played in the past, even though the current game board has evolved significantly into something with new kinds of opportunities and different rules and loopholes.

For any careers that sound remotely interesting, ponder what the deal might be with that career’s current game board—the parties involved, the way success seems to be happening for others recently, the most up-to-date rules of the game, the latest new loopholes that are being exploited, etc.

If you can figure out how to get a reasonably accurate picture of the real career landscape out there, you have a massive edge over everyone else, most of whom will be using conventional wisdom as their instruction booklet.”

I have three main takeaways from this passage:

  1. An accurate understanding of the career landscape unlocks many opportunities you likely never knew existed
  2. Each career path has a constantly evolving game board for success
  3. For a given career game board, there are many smaller career recipes representing each step of the way

Your success in pursuing a career path is largely influenced by your understanding of the respective game board and therefore the recipes you choose to follow or create.

Relating this back to careers, lets suppose your goal is to impact people on a massive scale. You may hypothesize that a career in public policy is an interesting career path that meshes with your strengths.

If you only listen to your parents who happened to have a successful public policy career, they will tell you to go to law school. According to them, law school is one of the recipes for success in the public policy game board, which is part of the broader landscape of careers that impact people on a massive scale.

However, it is very likely that the game board changed. Building a highly successful career in public policy today may require vastly different professional experiences than it did in the 1990’s.This is where the distinction between a cook and a chef is important. Earlier I mentioned that cooks blindly follow recipes, while chefs create their own.

However, to create cutting-edge recipes a chef must understand (not copy) the most recent recipe-thinking. She must have a deep intuition of how different ingredients work together and why the best culinary recipes of today are successful.

Just as the world’s best restaurants evolved from principles that made certain recipes in the 1990’s successful, the recipes for success in public policy have likely evolved past your parent’s outdated advice of attending law school.

While it may seem obvious to resist your parents from backseat driving your career, I’ve found many people unintentionally invite their parents, mentors, and friends to backseat drive.

This is the hallmark of a cook.

How to create career recipes like a chef

I think people underestimate how quickly the world, career landscape, and game boards change. Even following the career recipe of someone 5 years older than you may be outdated, and therefore limit your potential to be incredibly successful in public policy.

This is not to say that you should ignore the advice of your mentors, friends, and parents. You don’t get credit for ignoring career recipes and blindly carving your own career path.

A chef has to understand why old recipes work to build a mental model of how flavors mix. Only then can she make a harmonious 3-course meal.

Similarly, listen to advice from a wide variety of people with various levels of experience. Dig into why law school used to be the path to success in the 90’s. Compare that advice to today’s conventional advice of success in public policy.

Figure out why and how the public policy game board changed. Build your mental model of what success looks like in public policy by reasoning from other people's recipes -- the old and new.

Then, you can leverage this understanding to create your own career recipes that enable you to succeed in the public policy game board of today.

This is the secret to finding unconventional career paths that lead to unconventional results.

However, for this to work with the public policy game board of the future you will need to continually iterate on your game board. Not surprisingly, I believe networking and cold emailing are powerful tools to help with continuous iteration.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how to network as a college student. In it, I said:

“If you are not constantly networking, you are putting yourself at a serious disadvantage by limiting your exposure to new perspectives and influencers.

To further that point, if you are not constantly networking, you are limiting your understanding of the career landscape in front of you and all the game boards and recipes within it.

You have access to a vast and diverse network of professionals -- each with their own career game boards and recipes to learn from. There’s so much opportunity just a cold email away.

As you piece together the puzzle that is your career game board, remember that the world is evolving faster than ever before. You can never stop puzzling together the game board and learning about new recipes.

Chefs are iterative and constantly evolving their recipes, while cooks are stagnant and risk being outdated. The moment you stop iterating on your recipes is the moment you become a cook.

As you make your career decisions, ask yourself if you’re operating as a chef or a cook.

Putting it all together with a series of living, breathing feedback loops

The ultimate Venn diagram from Tim’s post. I know it looks complicated, but don’t worry about trying to figure it out.

Read ahead and it’ll make sense(trust me, it’s worth it).

Career Path Venn Diagram

This diagram is built around the intersection of your desires and reality.

“The Want Box is all the careers you find desirable.

The Reality Box is the set of all careers that are realistic to potentially achieve. This is based on a comparison between your level of potential and the general difficulty of achieving success.

The Goal Pool is the options on the table that seem both desirable to your high-priority rankings and possible to achieve.”

A significant portion of Tim’s article is dedicated to understanding The Want Box. In a nutshell, your career desires are largely dependent on your ability to understand your deepest needs. Learning about yourself is a continuous and lifelong process. Hence, as you reflect on your needs you should adjust your career desires accordingly.

The Reality Box is largely dependent on your ability to upskill your strengths and keep up with an ever-changing world. In doing so, you expand the pool of potential, successful careers. Like The Want Box’s process of self learning, keeping up with the world is also a lifelong process that gradually changes your career prospects.

Once you choose a viable career goal from your Goal Pool, the next step in the diagram is to formulate a game board strategy to achieve success. As mentioned earlier, these strategies should be informed by the latest career recipes. However, this is where a cook and a chef part ways.

A chef continually refines her game board strategy by carefully leveraging information from other people’s recipes and her own personal experiences. This continual feedback loop ensures she is constantly pushing the boundaries of success in a given career.

Finally, the last part of this diagram are the big red arrows signifying macro-level adjustments. Every once in a while, it’s important to take a step back and deeply examine why you are doing what you are doing.

Why are your goals what they are? Does this align with who you aspire to be? Asking these big questions are daunting, but they allow you to periodically refresh your career landscape.

As you learn about yourself, build new skills, meet new people, and experience the world, you may find that your calling changes. No amount of planning can predict this -- and that’s completely okay.

You are never committed to any career path. There’s no such thing as a tunnel.

A final thought on career paths

“If we’re thinking of ourselves as scientists and of society as a science lab, we should think of your current freshly revised Want-Reality Venn Diagram as nothing more than an early, rough hypothesis. [Internships and jobs] are your chance to test it out.

Looking back on my path so far, the mistakes that bother me most are the ones that happened because someone else took the wheel of my head and overruled the quiet, insecure voice of my authentic self—the mistakes that I knew at the time, deep down, were wrong. My goal for the future isn’t to avoid mistakes, it’s for the mistakes I do make to be my own.

That’s why I went through such an excruciatingly rigorous analysis in this post. I think this is one of those few topics in life that’s worth it. Other voices will never stop fiercely trying to live your life for you—you owe it to that little insecure character in the very center of your consciousness to get this right.

Yes, this was still a long post. However, Tim’s original article is incredibly thorough and filled with even more important details and frameworks. It is the single most articulate piece of writing on how to build a successful career while staying true to yourself.

A topic that I deeply believe is essential for all of us.

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