We’ve spoken a lot about the importance of building career capital. But now, it seems like some of our most engaged readers are putting more weight than we think they should career capital, and not enough on short-run impact.
A situation many people face is something like the following:
The interesting project: Do something where there’s a small chance you really excel, achieve something exceptional and have a big impact.
The safe project: Do something that offers a clear path to good options in the future.
The first option is usually something like doing a for-good startup, capitalising on a side project, or taking an unusual job with a mentor. The second is usually something like doing consulting, working at a prestigious large firm or doing graduate study.
The debate usually boils down to the following: the first path has a higher impact, but the second offers better career capital. Then people reason that since career capital is more important than impact early in their career, they should go with the second option.
That’s often going to be the right answer, but here’s a couple of reasons it might be a mistake.
You might be biased
There’s several biases that push in favour of the safe project.
Ambiguity aversion. Usually it’s relatively clear what the safe project involves and what concrete next steps it’ll lead to (e.g. do consulting, then you can either continue with that, or do an MBA, or go into industry etc.). Take the interesting option, however, and no-one knows what you’ll be doing in five year’s time. This makes it much more uncomfortable to take the first path, whether or not your future options will actually be worse.
Risk aversion. The interesting project is riskier, and generally people don’t like risk. However, if you care about making a difference, then you should probably try to take more risk than your instincts will encourage you to. And that argues in favour of the first path.
Social norms. The interesting project will be more unusual than the second, which will again make it more uncomfortable, whether or not it’s actually worse.
There’s probably biases pointing you in favour of the first option too, such as overconfidence, but my guess is that overall, most people are more likely to be biased in favour of the safe project.
Impact varies more than career capital
Although career capital is more important than role impact early career, it’s rare, in my experience, for one serious option to seem like it has has more than twice the career capital of another, especially because there are many forms of career capital.
However, often the first option seems much higher impact than the second, perhaps ten times higher or more.
In a situation which looks like the following:
Option 1: Career capital 2, Impact 1
Option 2: Career capital 1, Impact 10
The second option probably wins, even if career capital is somewhat more important in general.
Is the second option really much better for career capital anyway?
It seems to me like a big part of gaining really valuable career capital is doing things that are exceptional – unusual, impressive, and valuable. When people tell someone about you or recommend you for a job, the three-line description they give is what opens doors. Exceptional achievements are what get you noticed, give you credibility, and let you build connections. The process of getting exceptional achievements probably teaches you more too.
How do you get exceptional achievements? Find something neglected, important and that’s a good fit for you.
On the other hand, doing something just because it gives you good career capital is doing something for extrinsic reasons rather than intrinsic ones, which can be demotivating.
On this basis at least, the first option might also turn out to be better than the second in terms of career capital. For instance, I feel like I gained better career capital from working on 80,000 Hours than I would have gained in finance or a PhD. (More on this point).
When choosing between an interesting project and a safe project, the choice between impact and career capital isn’t as stark as it first seems. Sometimes, focusing on impact and personal fit is the best way to get career capital. And it’s easy to think the second option is better than it first seems. Don’t let career capital become an excuse for taking the safe project rather than the interesting one.