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:
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.
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.