Learning Vs. Earning At Work: A Value Comparison

When you take a job, they give you resources like money in exchange for your resources, like time. Here's how you can know if you're striking the right deal.

Let's play a career-path hypothetical: You can either take a low-paying gig where you'll learn tons, or a stultifying stop where you'll earn fistfuls of dough.

The question: Should you earn or learn?

VC Mark Suster has an answer:

For most people it's learn ... My advice is often, make sure that what you get out of working at this company is one or several of the following: a great network of talented executives and VCs, more responsibility than your last job, specific industry or technical skills that will help you in what you do next, a chance to partner ... Learn now to earn later.

You'll want to go to the original post to get the specifics, but he says that if you're trying to make crazy money—like I'm going to buy a house in Palo Alto money—you need to be either on the founding team or the CEO. Since in startup life it can be hard to be earning, it's wisest to invest in learning.

So, how do you learn?

Learning is subtle, except when it's not

Invest in your skillsets. Find what the in-demand skills are (or are going to be) in your industry—similar to what financial heavyweight/productivity master Bob Pozen advises. If you pay attention to changes in your field, you can correspondingly mold your skills. For instance, as software eats the world and spits out data, building skillsets in software engineering and data science will make you magnetic to employers—especially if they don't have those core competencies already on board. In this way, you can evolve your career.

Startups aren't automatically better

If we're going to be responsible for our career decisions, we need to note that there are strong arguments against the unthinking "startups are always awesome" camp: As Michael O. Church observed, you can just as easily waste your time in a crappy startup job as you would in a crappy corporate job.

Time over all else

And as Reddit CEO Yishan Wong notes, unlike money, time is your most limited resource—and your work, more than anything, is where you spend your time. So gig selection, then, is a matter of doing your due diligence of what a role implies and having realistic expectations of what you'll get out of it—like the relationships you'll form, the skillsets you'll build, the rocket ships you'll board, and yes, the money you'll earn.

Is it Time for You to Earn or to Learn?

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Christoph Habel]

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  • Ramone

    There's a HUGE component missing from this equation: where are you in your career path. Definitely "learn" is key if you're starting out (recent grad) or making a caree change. But the whole part of making income is to earn. You know, so you can pay for the house for your family, the car repairs, the dance and swim lessons. Not that learning should stop--but when it comes to career choices you need give up on constant redevelopment and start cashing in on that experience you've been accumulating.

    I say this as someone who spent 10+ years at jobs where I was told I was "learning". Now I'm at a job that actually uses AND respects my experience with commensurate pay.

  • Asim Rai

    I actually agree! I'm a recent grad and working to get experience while receiving way lower salary than other guys who don,t have degree. But working 24 hrs to get just a experience with low remuneration so that oneday i can make big sum is like back stabbing your 'time" as Time equals Money! and you're getting old and I believe wherever there is money there can be a experience too! so its best to work in a company where there is a good start-up salary plus experience too and not to waste time in this competitive and dynamic world.