If you need to make money for any reason whatsoever - food, housing, fun, whatever - you're in business. Being employed is simply a lower-risk lower-return business that utilizes just one individual - you.
It's all in the mindset
I've come to realise in the last couple of years that in our new, globalised (and depressed) economy, job security is even more a thing of the past than one would think. Layoffs are normal, and it isn't unusual for a friend or a friend of a friend to send you their resume because they came under the axe in the latest round of layoffs at Yahoo or AOL or wherever.
As an employee in the average company, you have some job security, but the days of life-long employment with lovely retirement plans are in the past.
In today's economic situation, you simply cannot afford to sit back and let the currents take you where they will, lest you wake up one day to find that your organisation has gone bust, taking your job with it. Managing your career isn't that different from managing a business, and many of the same learnings will apply. There are fewer variables to manage (hence the reduced risk), but manage them you must.
Long story short: Your job security is in your hands and needs constant management, just like any business.
Whether you realise it or not, as an employee you're in the business of:
- Staying relevant so you retain your current job
- Becoming more relevant so you get raises and promotions in the future
- Plotting a long-term trajectory for your career
- Doing your best to move into a line of work you will enjoy more than your current one
- Networking outside your organization so that when you outgrow your current employer, you have easy access to new and better jobs
You need to do all these things to make sure that you have money coming in at regular intervals to help you achieve your goals, whatever they may be. Failing to consistently execute on any of these things reduces the likelihood that you will make more money, or, for that matter, any money at all.
All of these things require thought, planning and effort. Going to work, coming back and wasting your time on IRC, vegging out in front of the TV or playing WoW won't magically keep the money coming in forever.
Understand your organisation's business so you're well placed to track it's relevance. No business model remains relevant forever (remember Kodak?).
Who are your customers? Why do they prefer buying from your company?
What are your company's revenue and profit margins? Are they both rising?
If the business isn't adapting, it's going to die. Like newspapers and broadcast television. In such situations, you usually have years to go figure out your Plan B provided you catch on early enough. Reskilling entirely takes a lot of time and effort; maybe you can make a jump to a similar role in an allied industry?
Keep track of how relevant the business is in both a local and global context. If the business is changing to be more relevant, make sure your skills are keeping up. Are you studying regularly? That's the only way to improve your skills. You don't necessarily have to go to school to get better, but if that's what it takes, that's what you should do. If you're waiting for corporate training to improve your skills, it's just a matter of time before you become irrelevant. If you're a programmer, you have the least excuse of all because all you need is a computer and an internet connection.
Visibility within the organisation is also extremely important, especially in larger ones. Are you and your work visible to the decision makers in your organisation? What are you doing to improve your impact on the organisation and create more value for the stakeholders?
Plot your trajectory
Nothing significant happens overnight. Complex problems may take years to resolve, if not decades or centuries. Only the very lucky achieve their goals with just a few years of work.
Despite this, it's hard to stay motivated for extended periods of time without a larger objective - however unlikely or far fetched it may be. Most work becomes routine after a while even if it was exciting to begin with, so you flit from one problem to another. You keep looking for a quick fix for your boredom, but when you look back after a few years, the sum of your achievements doesn't amount to much. Basically, people tend to be bad at deferred gratification.
I enjoy setting long term, fantasy goals like going to space, building viable electric cars and chasing immortality because they're good for at least a few years of motivation, especially when things get tough.
Achieving goals like these is difficult at best, so expecting to achieve them in a few months or years is unreasonable. I prefer to look at them as goals that motivate me and that I make constant (if incremental) progress toward. Actually achieving them would be great, but I prefer to focus on the actions that lead to them irrespective of whether the consequences accrue to me. This reflects the advice from the Gita 2.47; I don't necessarily subscribe to everything in there, but this particular verse I'm a huge fan of.
Don't confuse the metric for the goal. Money, for example, is a great metric, but a poor goal. Goals can be anything - maybe you want to do social work or build your own car or whatever - and metrics help you measure progress toward these goals. Whatever they are, write them down; first your goals, then metrics that you can use to track progress.
Since my long term goals clearly require substantial amounts of cash, money is a performance metric I track with great care. My personal rule is to break everything down to hourly income. Figure out what you're getting paid per hour on average every year. This factors in your vacations, sickness, whatever.
Now set yourself performance targets one year, five years, ten years and twenty years out. The last two will likely wind up in fantasy land because it's so hard to look that far into the future, but that's ok. If you don't dream, you won't do.
Now, use your ten and twenty year targets (dreams? fantasies?) as a fuzzy guide to shape your one and five year plans. If your objectives require money, you need to up that average hourly rate. Maybe you need to shoot for a promotion, work more hours every year, switch to another company or quit to start your own.
The sort of thing I want to make happen takes a lot of smart people and a lot of money. Smart people I was meeting aplenty, but there was no way a regular job would provide the experience and capital such endeavours require. I also had no real experience running a business - if someone were to dump a few billion dollars in my bank account, I would likely piss it away without achieving anything meaningful. So I decided to stop being a salaried employee and quit to start my own business.
Now, I'm learning a lot, getting incrementally closer to my dream and having fun doing it. Which brings me to the next point...
It's important that you enjoy your work as far as possible. You'll spend a good three decades or more of your life doing this, and hating it all the while is going to leave you bitter, unfulfilled and likely unsuccessful. I think it's really hard to be good at something if you're not passionate about it, wouldn't you agree?
Enjoying your work requires tuning both your own perspective as well as working at your career path. Neither can happen overnight.
If you wound up in a role that you don't enjoy, plan ahead to switch roles. Maybe you can gradually switch in several small hops. Maybe you need to save up so you can go back to college. But either way, plan for it both financially and psychologically. It's a better route than spending eight hours a day in a foul mood for years on end.
Evaluate your colleagues too - they are crucial to a good work environment. Honestly, there are plenty of companies out there that value intelligent, creative people with diverse interests. Don't resign yourself to a dull life surrounded by corporate drones - do your research, lay the groundwork and make the switch. Or, what the hell, go start your own company.
Network to create opportunities
Don't sit around waiting for opportunities to come to you. The best jobs usually come through references from people that know you, not from job sites or recruiters.
Go out and meet more people in your industry. Get onto mailing lists. Talk shop. Make sure your peers know you, and respect your skills. Eventually, when you need a job, the offers will come.
Most people intuitively recognise this basic similarity between managing a business and managing a career. But being actively aware of it and working to shape can make an enormous difference. It's a good quarter of your life and well worth the effort.
- From Programming to Business: Lesson 0
- No virtuous circle, or how India's Silicon Valley is... different
- C42 Engineering, Year One
- On building companies, open spaces and with a little pairing on the side
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