Five pieces of career advice, shaped by economics, psychology, and a little bit of existential math
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Career advice as a genre is almost fatally flawed. With 160 million American workers across thousands of occupations in hundreds of industries, saying anything that is of use to all of them is practically impossible. The most common counsel is almost always too personal to be broadly applicable. My toes curl with embarrassment when successful people say anything along the lines of “Just do these three things I did.” Autobiography is not advice. Given how poorly most people understand themselves, it’s barely even autobiography.
But in the age of “quiet quitting” and “nobody wants to work” memes, I’ve noticed that a lot of modern career advice is something more like anti-career advice. I’m ruffled by those who, having climbed the ladder with care and determination, turn around and claim that success is a sham and hard work is a sucker’s game. Telling young people who just graduated from college that a satisfying career is hopeless until we dismantle capitalism is about as helpful as telling somebody asking for directions to the bathroom that no true relief will visit humankind until death.
In this wobbly economic moment, I thought that sharing the best actual-career advice I’ve come across might be marginally useful. This counsel is surely weighted toward white-collar knowledge work, although I hope it’s at least somewhat valuable to any reader.
1. Your career is not your life.
According to the website 80,000 Hours, the typical career is just that: 80,000 hours long. That’s an almost unfathomable amount of time. But life is long too. The typical person is alive for slightly more than 4,000 weeks, and awake and conscious for the equivalent of 3,000 weeks. When you do the basic math on 80,000 hours, you discover that the average career is roughly the equivalent of 480 sleepless weeks of labor. A little bit more math, and you realize that the typical person has five waking hours of not working for every one hour of their career.
Work is too big a thing to not take seriously. But it is too small a thing to take too seriously. Your work is one-sixth of your waking existence. Your career is not your life. Behave accordingly.
2. Explore, then exploit.
In 2014, I reported on a new paper about young workers who regularly quit their jobs and ended up better for it. “People who switch jobs more frequently early in their careers tend to have higher wages and incomes in their prime-working years,” one of the co-authors, the economics professor Henry Siu, told me. “Job-hopping is actually correlated with higher incomes, because people have found better matches.”
Quit any job that offers a moment’s frustration, and everything will work out in the long run! was convenient to hear as a 20-something with a good deal of wanderlust. But I never took the advice. Eight years later, I’m still a staff writer at The Atlantic. This presents a bit of a pickle: I believe deeply in the value of switching roles to find the right fit, but I’ve never quit my job.
Last year, the benefits of role-switching crystallized when I read a paper by the Northwestern University economist Dashun Wang. In a deep analysis of the careers of scientists and artists, he found that their “hot streaks” tended to be periods of focused and narrow work following a spell of broader experimentation. This is sometimes called the “explore-exploit” sequence. The idea is that many successful people are like good oil scouts: They spend a lot of time searching for their space, and then they drill deep when they find the right niche.
When you put these pieces of research together, they cohere into a pretty useful piece of career advice. Even if, like me, you don’t quit your employer, you should constantly look to quit your job—the precise set of roles for which you are salaried—and push yourself into discomfort zones. Role-switching is important not because quitting is so wonderful, but rather because sampling from different skills and fields is helpful, provided that you’re prepared to pounce on an area that clicks for you. Explore, then exploit.
Careers are not the mere linear progression of titles ascending toward the “C” acronyms: CMO, CTO, CEO. Better to think of your working life not in one dimension, but in two: the horizontal exploration of ideas, skills, and tasks, and vertical commitments to a single line of work that really fits.
3. Don’t do the job you want to tell other people you do. Do the job you want to do.
Many years ago, I was thinking about taking a job at another company with a fancy-sounding title that belied the drudgery of the underlying work. (By the way, beware this inverse relationship, as sometimes the most attractive titles are reserved for the most soul-destroying labor.)
I told my colleague James Fallows, then a writer at The Atlantic, how excited I was to tell people at parties about this new job title that I would soon carry around, like a boutonniere on my lapel. “Don’t do the job you want to tell people you do,” he said. “Do the job you want to do.” Well, damn, I replied. And that was that. I turned down the position about five minutes later.
The more time that’s passed since that moment, the wiser Jim’s words seem. Work is not a series of words on a LinkedIn profile. It’s a series of moments in the world. And if you don’t enjoy those moments, no sequence of honorifics will dispel your misery.
Some people take jobs with long commutes not fully considering what it will do to their health. Or they take jobs that require lots of travel not fully intuiting what it will mean for their family life. Or they’ll take horribly difficult jobs for money they don’t need, or take high-status jobs for a dopamine rush with a half-life of about three days. If you want to be smarter about your beingness in time, either you can read a lot of impenetrable philosophy or you can listen to Jim. Don’t take the job you want to talk about at parties for a couple of minutes a month. Take the job you want to do for hundreds of hours a year.
4. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what you value—and how much professional success matters to you.
Some people think about career ambition as a profound virtue. Others think of it as something closer to a capitalist sin. I think ambition is a taste.
What does that mean? I love Central Coast California wines. They’re important to me. But when I meet people who don’t care about wine, I don’t care that they don’t care. Because drinking wine isn’t a human virtue. It’s a taste.
Similarly, for reasons I’ll probably never truly understand, I’m ambitious about my career. But some people aren’t, and that’s fine. The important thing is for people to be honest with themselves about whether they have a taste for ambition. And if they do, they should know that there is no substitute for working really hard and caring, contra the popular internet-y idea that hard work amounts to a kind of false consciousness, or that the word hustle is for dweebs.
Again, the point is not that professional ambition is so morally pristine. It’s a personal taste! And you should be honest with yourself if it’s a taste you want to cultivate. Being stuck in the middle is agony: to be ambitious overall but uninterested in going above and beyond at work, or to be unambitious by nature and yet feel pressured to become a full-on workist. People are happiest when their life is aligned with their identity.
5. Flow comes from voluntary, difficult, and worthwhile work.
The only productivity book that has ever made a lasting impression on me is Flow, by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He argues at one point that artists and other professionals feel happiest when their “body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
The best kind of work is voluntary: It’s something you choose to do rather than accomplish under the imminent threat of poverty or getting fired. It’s also difficult: Rewarding work is not easy, but an achievable challenge that requires stretching your capabilities and allowing for learning and growth (another reason to explore, instead of just exploit). Finally, it’s worthwhile, which I interpret to mean that it’s intrinsically rewarding. If you outsource your sense of worth to the feedback of crowds and the approval of peers and professional counterparties, your working identity will feel like a sailboat in a hurricane. You have to moor yourself to something that doesn’t change direction every few moments, whether it’s the confidence that you’re helping people or the joy of pure discovery.
Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” theory became an instant classic in part because the word uncannily captures that gusher of crystal-clear focus that pulls our attention through an achievable challenge. But flow doesn’t come from doing easy things over and over again. It comes from tasks that reside at the edge of our potential. So don’t be afraid to do hard things.
Want to discuss more? Join The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson for Office Hours September 13 at 1 p.m. ET for a conversation exploring the next frontiers of cancer research. We dread the diagnosis of cancer, not only because of its threat to life, but also because the road to recovery comes with toxic therapies. But a cluster of medical breakthroughs offer real hope for better cancer outcomes in the future. Thompson interviews Eric Topol on the scientific frontier and the intersection of technology and health care. Register here and reply to this email with your questions. If you can’t attend, you can watch a recording any time on The Atlantic’s YouTube channel.