What people miss about career capital: exceptional achievements

Pooja Chandrashekar is a good demonstration that sometimes the best way to show people you can achieve amazing things is just to achieve amazing things. (Photo by J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

When we talk about “career capital” it seems people first imagine “brand name” jobs e.g. working at Google, McKinsey, or getting a credential like a law degree or graduate study at a prestigious university. And it’s true these paths all boost your career capital. But I think there’s another important component of career capital that’s often neglected.

A big part of having really strong career capital is having eye-catching, valuable achievements. Eye-catching achievements make you stand out, another form of credential. Standing out helps you to meet successful people, building your connections. The process of getting exceptional achievements usually involves pushing yourself too, so it correlates with learning strong skills. Overall, striving for eye-catching achievements seems at least as important as gaining prestige or conventional credentials – so if you only focus on the latter you could be making a mistake.

One example to illustrate (but of course not prove!) the point: Pooja Chandraskekar, who this year was one of the few students in the world to be admitted to all the Ivy League Universities. Among much else, she developed a mobile app that predicts whether a person has Parkinson’s disease with 96% accuracy. She needed these achievements to make her stand out among all the other people who have “ticked the boxes” of good grades, SATs and ordinary extracurriculars.

How do you get exceptional achievements? The following seems like a good start:

  1. Find something you have the chance to be really good at
  2. Which will motivate you in the long-term
  3. That’s neglected, and therefore uncompetitive
  4. That’s important to the world.

The last point is especially important if your long-term aim is to make a difference.

Notice that these factors are already in our framework. The first is personal fit, the second is job satisfaction, and the third and fourth are part of role impact. So a big part of career capital is already contained in the framework.

So, if you’re after exceptional achievements, then it becomes less important to strive after career capital for its own sake. Rather, focus on having a big impact and career capital will follow. This is especially true if you find pursuing prestige, credentials and other “box ticking” unmotivating.

This seems to have been the strategy of many of the people with the most impressive career capital I know. For instance, Niel Bowerman played a major role in founding CEA, and has done many cool things like speak at the closing Plenary of Davos. He built much of this career capital because he really cared about climate advocacy while at university. This motivated him to learn, his motivation brought him in contact with great people, and that led to impressive achievements. The whole process turned into a positive feedback loop, leading to even more success.

In conclusion, when you’re considering a “brand name” position against something risky but motivating with the potential for a lot of impact, it’s tempting to think that the brand name position obviously wins on career capital. I think that’s not obvious. The second option has more potential for exceptional achievements, and that’s very important for career capital too.