Most of what our aunts and uncles, friends and family members tell us about having a successful career is incorrect.
- “You should make an effort to progress in your career quickly.”
- “You should find a good profession for life.”
- “You should get a job that pays the most.”
The problem with this advice, even though it’s usually coming from a good place, is that it’s usually shortsighted.
In a world where technology is advancing rapidly, it’s important for people to invest in the long-term success of their careers. Acquiring knowledge that is relevant today isn’t as good of an investment strategy as building up skills that are relevant today and will be even more relevant in the future.
Optimizing for fast career progression, or a job that is going to be “stable and secure” for decades, is becoming less and less of a worthwhile decision. Maybe it made sense for previous generations, but today, many are choosing learning opportunities over promotions—and I believe that’s correct.
If you want to have a successful career, especially in tech, here are some things worth thinking about that will pay off in the long run.
1. Optimize for the long term
People are living longer—and as a result, white-collar workers are working longer.
Over the last 200 years, life expectancy has more than doubled. It’s much more common for someone to continue working into their late 60s, 70s, and even 80s today than it was 20, 50, or 100 years ago. As a result, people who are working in careers predominantly based on “knowledge work” (which includes almost every job in technology) are not going to have 20 or 30-year careers. They are going to have 50 or 60-year careers.
This raises two questions:
- Are you optimizing for a 20-year career and making decisions that benefit you in the short term?
- Or are you optimizing for a 60-year career and making decisions that benefit you in the long term?
How you view your career trajectory and time horizon is going to drastically change the way you perceive which opportunities are “good” opportunities and which are a waste of time. If your goal is to (as your aunts and uncles might suggest) progress quickly in your career, you are going to choose opportunities that allow you to get promoted and rise up the ranks—regardless of whether or not it involves work you enjoy doing. If that’s your measure for success, great. And if not, the problem will reveal itself later.
2. Be the best at what you do
You aren’t looking for a job.
You’re looking for a journey.
As technology changes the world, that means you are going to have to change with it. So instead of trying to find a profession for life, what you want to nurture are interests you can grow with over time. Learn about them. Study them. Take it upon yourself to learn new skills along the way. The result of these decisions will be an enthrallment with your craft, and an inherent desire to “be the best.”
Something important to note here is the importance of following your intrinsic interests and curiosities.
People aren’t good at things they don’t like. Nobody masters a craft they aren’t curious about. This means the inverse is also true: The fastest way to become the best at something is to pick a craft that interests you, that you want to read and learn about regardless of whether or not it’s your responsibility or a required part of your daily responsibilities at work.
Remember: the world is created by people who take it upon themselves to learn, and who become proficient enough at something to teach (or manage) the next person.
Much of your career trajectory is in your own control.
3. Be open to experimentation
In the technology scene, especially, there is more than enough work to go around.
Companies are always looking for new team members. Early-stage projects are always looking for a helping hand. If you are curious about something or want to get exposed to new things, there is plenty of room to explore. And these spontaneous opportunities are usually what lead to career breakthroughs.
So much of what we’re taught about how to have a successful career is to specialize early. But I have always found that experimentation to be the thing that unlocks the most optionality. If you make decisions to climb the ladder as quickly as possible early in your tech career, you will likely reach a ceiling. And for the remaining fifty years, you won’t surpass that ceiling—and if you do, it won’t be by much. Whereas the people who experiment, follow their interests, double down on their curiosities, and make decisions optimizing for fulfillment are the ones who continue to rise and accelerate the entire way.
Why? Because they have more options.