Random thoughts on a framework for thinking about careers

I recently came across an interesting diagram that showed different things that you might want from a job or career. I can’t remember where I saw it, but I’ve recreated a version of it below to share some thoughts about why I thought it was a useful framework.

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The diagram, as far as I can remember it, looked like this:

Source: Something I saw on the internet but cannot remember where.

The original article I saw it in argued that you should be seeking to find the perfect job that is right in the middle of the diagram, which seems a bit silly and not particularly useful, though in keeping with the wish-fulfilment ethos of the modern zeitgeist(1). What seems far more useful is to consider it as a tool for making trade-offs, in which choosing to prioritise one area may involve making trade-offs in another.

I could say I wish I’d had this when I was first choosing a career, but that would be a lie as, more by luck than judgement, I ended up in a career which scored very well on all of these. But I do think it would be a helpful tool for many people, better than either the uni-axial ‘follow your dreams’ or the more common bi-axial model – which I do see people talking about – where there is a trade-off between what you enjoy and how much you can earn.

The axis, ‘what you’re good at’, is an incredibly useful reality check. If you go into a career you’re good at, you will typically receive more praise and affirmation, get promoted faster, earn more, have to work less hard to achieve the same results and overall do much better. If you choose to enter a career that you’re not good at – maybe because you love it, or you’re passionate about that cause – you may well still be able to do it, but you’ll pay a price. It’s worth walking into that with your eyes open.

What people will pay you for is also helpful to think about. You may well be a more talented artist than you are an accountant. However, you have to be a really very, very very talented artist to earn as much as even a moderately capable accountant. There are many things that people love, and that do good in the world, that no-one will pay you for – even if you’re very good at them.

The most arguable element of this is the decision to split ‘what you like’ into two: ‘what you enjoy’ and ‘what has meaning’. I think it’s valid though: there is a strong desire from many people for a job that has meaning, and this is separate from the more prosaic characteristics of immediate enjoyment of a task, having a good boss or working sociable hours. Unlike the other two axes, which are objective, these two are subjective(2): no-one but you can say what you enjoy, and different people will find that different things have meaning, whether that’s helping to feed refugees after a disaster, or designing the animation for the next Disney film.

Pareto Efficiency

There’s a concept in economics called Pareto Efficiency, which describes a system in which no-one can be made better off without someone being made worse off. By contrast, a Pareto Improvement describes a change that can be made which makes one (or more) people better off without making anyone worse off.

By analogy, if you’re in a job, but can move to a job which improves your position on one axis without negatively impacting any of the others, that would be a Pareto Improvement. A good example might be if a rival company makes you an offer to do an identical job but for more money and with a shorter commute. In most cases though, moving jobs – or comparing jobs at the start of your career – is going to involve a series of trade-offs.

Certainly, thoughout my career, I’ve made moves that are recognisable as trading off one axis against another. I’ve taken pay cuts to do jobs that I felt had more meaning and enjoyed more; done jobs I was less good at in exchange for greater material rewards.

Of course, not everyone has the same ability to command a high position across each of the axes. Marcus Rashford manages to combine what he’s good at, what he enjoys and what he can get paid for in a manner that is exceptional(3). But even if you’re unskilled, there are usually options. Moving to a less pleasant job – perhaps by taking on shift-work – to earn a higher wage is a good example of making a trade-off on this diagram. In addition, your capabilities are not fixed: gaining education, skills or experience can all enhance your ability to move up the axes and increase your options across them.

There’s therefore one important factor that’s not captured in the diagram – one perhaps less relevant when beginning a career than when part way though – and that is the potential for gaining experience. Like many people, I’ve taken roles that I knew I would enjoy less (and didn’t pay any more) because of the potential to gain experience from them, and thereby enhance my future prospects. Others give up short-term earnings to boost their long-term potential. It’s not quite captured in the diagram, and that’s a pity – though far from a fatal flaw.

Overall, I found this is a helpful model for thinking about jobs and careers. Not the most profound, perhaps, but still better than 95% of what you see, and that’s not bad at all.

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(1) Rather like belief in literal soulmates.

(2) Subjective does not mean arbitrary or random. There is clearly a correlation between what different people find enjoyable or meaningful, but individual’s perspectives will vary.

(3) And, arguably, entertaining millions of people is more meaningful than many other jobs.

7 thoughts on “Random thoughts on a framework for thinking about careers

  1. So, strangely I also just came across this – another take on what you’re sharing: https://betterhumans.pub/how-to-find-your-calling-9a19a9331b3b
    This is interesting me right now as I’m about to teach a ‘Career Planning Skills’ class for the first time (which is ironic, since I’ve done anything other than ‘plan’ my ‘career’).
    This reminds me of an exercise I’ve seen done regarding the values and priorities we have underpinning what food we eat: what is the relative importance to us of personal nutrition, budget, environmental impact, supporting local economy, ease of preparation, tastiness etc etc. It is surprising just how variable people’s rankings are for this.
    Anyway, I feel that this Venn diagram (and the other one linked) are missing key values such as Location, family-friendliness (i.e. fitting children or other caring duties around it), and the healthiness of the job for you (which could be what you enjoy, but not exactly e.g. does it require sitting all day, is it outside?).
    Bottom line: I think the framework should probably be expanded!

    1. Yes, it’s a very good point – commuting time, flexibility and so on don’t fit neatly into the ‘enjoyment’ part of it (though in a sense they could), and do feel like their own category.

      On the food point, I wonder if stated preferences differ significantly from revealed preferences? I can imagine people giving a high rating to ‘support the local economy’ in an exercise but it not actually impacting their behaviour that much (whereas ‘preparation time’ would likely have stated and revealed preferences more similar).

  2. I can help you with where the diagram comes from: it is the Japanese concept of ‘ikegai’, which is referenced by lots of people from careers experts to self-help quacks with varying degrees of loyalty to the founding principles of the idea.
    I first came across ikegai only after independently coming up with a very similar framing for Push’s employability outreach work (push.co.uk). Push reduces the circles to three:
    • What you want to do (ie. what you enjoy, but also what has meaning for you);
    • What you can do (ie. what you’re good at);
    • What has value (which may be financial value such as your accountancy point or cultural value such as being able to create art that others might – sufficiently if not handsomely – remunerate you for).
    Inadvertently, I had come up with a similar concept to ikegai, but had the process reflected some of the thoughts you had reflected about the model.
    There’s something else important to say about either Push’s model or (my understanding of) ikegai which addresses your point about experience. The model is not intended as a guide to what job to do now, nor even what career endpoint you hope to reach. Rather it is always a moving target. The things you are good at will shift, what you want to do will change, and the value placed on different activities will change (coal-mining or web design, anyone?)
    I tend to look at the framework neither as model for wish-fulfilment (immediately landing in the centre of the Venn diagram) or for trade-offs, but for seeing a career trajectory as a journey where you are constantly trying to align what you doing with the moving target in the middle. Like trying to get a ping pong ball into the middle of a tea tray, constant small adjustments with occasional big moves will be needed.

    1. Thank you for confirming where it came from!

      It’s interesting seeing the various comments suggesting the use of an additional, or one less, circle. I suspect that having a sensible framework to think things through with matters more than exactly what it is.

      I like your analogy of trying to keep your focus fixed on an ever-moving target. For me, I thought of it more in terms of trade-offs, as there are a few times I’ve consciously made a big cut in one area to gain things I thought worth having in one or more of the others, but I imagine for many careers the constant small optimising might resonate more.

  3. Hi Iain, appreciate this blogpost, as ever. I was wondering if you could be tempted to do one reflecting on Brexit, three years on. I have been bemused by how little the current government appears to have tried to make of promoting it as having been a success, given what a decisive issue it was in the 2019 election. I’d be fascinated to read your reflections on what difference it has actually made to UK policy since it happened, and whether, in your view, it has been a success so far or not.

    1. Glad to see you’re still enjoying the posts! I do have a piece reflecting on Brexit planned, most probably in the next couple of months – I agree it’s well worth covering.

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