Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Career management in the modern economy

There's a difference between being good at your job, and being good at managing your career.  This is what Cal Newton called in a recent post the difference between career knowledge and career metaknowledge.

How do you gather career metaknowledge -- knowledge about how you can advance your career?  This is not something you can learn in a class. This knowledge will be unique to organizations and industries and circumstances.

A first strategy might be to ask questions of others who are further along your career path than you.  This seems intuitively correct.  But as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato noticed many years ago, practitioners often can't articulate what they know.  An artist may be able to produce magnificent paintings, but he can't tell you his  process.  He has know-how, not know-that.

A second strategy to overcome this would be to work with a mentor.  Working as an apprentice, you can see and internalize the strategies of an accomplished person.  But while working on a career may be know-how, it is different from the work of the art and the craftsman in several ways.  The craftsman takes on one project after the other, honing his craft as she goes.  Progress and mastery is increased as each project is completed and then surpassed.  In the career metaknowledge arena, this is not true.  You only have one career, or at most, a few careers.   It is unlikely you will have enough careers in your lifetime to gain know-how in "careering". 

Of course, you have to be good at the tasks for the role you are currently in, but that is just table stakes.  To move ahead will require other skills as well as luck.  At the very least you need to have some emotional intelligence - to be able to detect how others see and feel about you, and to be able to act on that information -- in order to manage a career.

A third strategy is to observe the behaviour of successful people in your field, as if you were a journalist or scientist, and try to determine what acts led to their success.  But this strategy has two problems.  One, it may be difficult to figure out which behaviors tend toward success and which are irrelevant.   For example, wearing a Rolex or an expensive suit may be irrelevant to success;  but successful people often wear such things.  Secondly, randomness/luck/good timing may play a larger or smaller role in the success of some of your subjects; it will be difficult to say how much.

The very project of gathering career "meta-knowledge" presupposes that there is a more or less fixed career path that others have trod before, and that is stable enough to provide a guide for a future. Neither of these assumptions are valid in today's changing world.  Many of the important positions in today's economy did not exist ten years ago.  We have good reason to believe the same will be true to a greater extent ten years from now. 

(As a side note, I am often amused to see ads for jobs that require ten years' experience in a discipline that didn't exist ten years ago.)

An additional complication is that very few people spend their entire careers in one organization any more.  And, of course, career goals will change with the changing world.  New opportunities will open up, old ones will close.

So managing a career in today's flow has the character of a journey without a fixed direction.  One sets off in an interesting and promising direction, and depending on what one finds, you may alter that direction more or less frequently.   The most you can do is try to limit the risk involved by engaging with a set of fellow travelers following roughly the same road.  Of course, from time to time you may model the behaviour of another to get a little further down this road or that, but every traveler's journey is going to be unique.

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