A story on career. Part 3: Looking outward.
In part one I wrote about how we can’t really strategically plan our whole career, but we still need to think about it. In part two I wrote about how to think about it by looking inward first. Now that we’ve looked inward, it’s time to look outward.
When thinking from the external perspective, it’s easy to get overwhelmed about all the possibilities out in the world. However, I think a way to simplify and wrap our minds around it all is to think about what we genuinely believe makes the world a better place. This could be people being healthier, more connected with each other, having a stronger religious faith, etc. It’s important to pick this area based on where passion wells up in us, not just what is logically the “right” answer. For example, many people would say health is fundamental, and without health, we have nothing else. We can believe that statement to be logically true, but if poverty alleviation is the “improvement” that gets us excited, we should focus on that. For me, I believe economic growth is the fundamental driver of physical improvement in people’s lives and physical improvement is often the enabler of improvement in other areas (e.g. health). And it’s simply something that gets me excited.
Using the Golden Circle framework from Simon Sinek, I’m going to work through this perspective in terms of why I believe it to be so critical first, then how I can act, and then what specifically I will do about it. (If you haven’t watched Sinek’s talk, stop everything you’re doing and spend the next 20 minutes watching the link above. It will provide way more value to you than reading this.) The Why is more straightforward in a vacuum, but the How and especially the What become easier after going through the internal perspective, which is why I did it first.
Improvement in one’s life comes from a combination of individual and societal factors and occurs along one of four dimensions: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Individual factors are straightforward to understand superficially but complex to understand fundamentally and I’ll explore in writing later. When referencing the second set of factors, societal, it’s important to understand what society is.
Society is essentially how people relate to one another. I’ll give a brief perspective on society as it relates to careers here, but I encourage reading WaitButWhy’s The Story of Us for an excellent deep dive on the subject of what society is. Relations between people can occur either via somewhere in two-dimensional space with formal to informal on one axis and structured to unstructured on the other axis. Examples include:
- Large business, large non-profit, government: formal/structured
- Small business or small non-profit: formal/unstructured
- Recreational volleyball league: informal/(relatively) structured
- Friend group: informal/unstructured
If we recall the four dimensions of personal improvement (physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual), we can recognize some social organizations can contribute across all four personal dimensions such as family and friend groups while others are more specialized such as religious organizations for spiritual development, academic institutions for intellectual development, etc.
While we could live on an isolated, self-sufficient compound, specialization and trade create enormous benefits for us individually and society collectively. Therefore, people will specialize and contribute to a social organization in a way that creates value for themselves (a livelihood) and for society. We call these specializations and contributions over time a career.
Most careers take place in a more formal and structured environment, though some also exist in a formal, but maybe less structured environment (like entrepreneurial careers). These organizations mostly exist to either improve the lives of people physically or help other organizations do their work better. The former is most of what we think about when we think about the economy — food, housing, clothing, healthcare, etc. The latter are organizations like technology companies (e.g. HR software) and professional services (e.g. an accounting firm) that help .
All of that being said, economic growth is just the measure of providing more of all the things which make our lives better. It’s by no means the only measure and there’s a lot of work to be done figuring out how to integrate multiple forms of well-being and understand the normative assumptions under the way we measure and incentivize economic growth today. (Check out Mary Hirschfeld’s work.) One could also argue improvement in health or faith or happiness is more important, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. But when it comes to the physical improvement in our lives, economic growth is primary, and this is something I feel more strongly about than any other way to improve lives.
So how does economic growth happen and how do I fit into that vision? Well, the first question has an entire field of study devoted to answering it, but the vast majority of actions which drive improvement can be boiled down to innovation. Innovation is the primary driver of long term economic growth. If you want to delve into that idea, read this summary from the Mercatus Center.
So to improve economic growth, and thus improve people’s lives, we need to develop and apply new technology. This can happen either through innovations at the frontier or deploying existing innovations in new contexts. I think there is an opportunity to deploy capital in ways that speed the development and distribution of technology.
First, investors are focused on what is most likely to give them the best return, and as much as they like to tout their forward-thinking or “contrarian” approach, they tend to look either at what has worked in the past or something which has already proven itself. Second, so much capital has gone towards “pure” software entrepreneurs in NYC, BOS, and SF because they have great economics and can produce outsize returns.
However, there is so much opportunity to bring the benefits of innovation to so much of the world by investing in innovation in nontraditional locales and industries. This will be hard due to the endemic nature of entrenched, often politically protected incumbents as well as cultural resistance to change and progress in these areas. However, I believe I have the patience and vision to overcome these obstacles to help those seeking to innovate in nontraditional areas.
So what specifically will I do? I will work as an investor, either in development finance or in venture capital. These two options are not as dissimilar as they may seem given the argument laid out above. I will generate returns for investors like pension funds, endowments, insurance companies, etc. by investing capital in either applying new technology or distributing existing technology in new contexts to improve the lives of people across the world. Initially, this may have a transportation/logistics related given my background but eventually can evolve into many different areas. My experience in digging deep on unit economics will be helpful regardless of the specific industry.
This was the external perspective. Next will be the final piece in this series on wrapping this all up into a career vision. Update: Part Four is here.
As always, my goal here is to flesh out my own ideas, but my opinions may change so please comment to add on or tell me where you disagree. If you find anything factually incorrect, I’ll buy you a drink!