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.

Learning Vs. Earning At Work: A Value Comparison

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]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.