Careers, Criteria and Companies

Like many people, I’ve often asked myself some variant of the question, “How do you know if you are pursuing the right career? How do you know that you’re in the right place?”

By no means have I answered those questions yet, but I have over the years worked on a crude a set of evaluative criteria. At a high level, the philosophy behind my criteria is to try to measure, in physics terms, one’s velocity and not one’s current position (“v and not x”).

So it’s not about the prestige or the money or the title of your current position, but whether that position is developing you, putting you into contact with people and is sustainable. Underlying that philosophy of course is the assumption that accumulating skills and interest and contacts eventually translates into a position.

Without further ado, the criteria are as follows –

  1. People. Do I like the people I work with? Are they outstanding? Do they possess integrity? Are they talented and are they passionate?
  2. Learning & development. Am I learning about the world? Am I developing new skills that I didn’t have? And will I have the opportunity going forward to grow into new areas?
  3. Impact. Impact is an interesting concept. I don’t mean impact in the “positive impact” sense but rather, is there wide scale in what I do? To some extent, one’s sense of impact is self-defined. For example, from my point of view, the impact of being a doctor or consultant is limited, as you can only see one patient at a time. I’d rather, if I were in that field, try to invent a new medical device to impact many patients at once. But to another person, the 1 on 1 impact of saving someone’s life could be incredibly meaningful.
  4. Purpose. This is the “making the world a better place category.” In other words, what is the end output of what you do and is it noble? Being a social worker, doctor, firefighter, teacher, etc are all very high scoring professions in this dimension.

So now that we’ve come up with some tentative criteria for evaluating a career, the natural followup is “where does my job stack up?” In general, my current role rates highly on people, learning (although this is beginning to slow) and impact. But could be higher on purpose.

It’s possible to justify and/or magnify any job in purpose terms. An oil rig worker might say “I drill for oil to keep millions of folks’ lights on.” And similarly a worker in finance such as myself might say “look, someone has to manage money and I’d rather I do it than the bad folks that finance tends to attract.” It’s hard to be a good person in a bad industry and as long as bad industries must exist, is it not an act of cowardice to cede the field (as it were) to the bad people? It’s a good argument. But it is true that noble professions breed noble people and from personal experience, finance wears on the soul. So all things equal, the greater purpose is something you’d like to score high on.

As a final aside, I read an interesting New Yorker article on Patagonia’s founder. Patagonia’s HQ is right in my backyard, near where I grew up. Growing up respecting and close to companies like Patagonia and In N Out I think really has influenced my view of what a good business looks like, particularly when faced with opportunities to chase growth.


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