A while ago I heard an interesting idea from Jordan Lee Peterson, he said something to the effect of “Most people have jobs, they don’t have careers”. I didn’t fully understand what that meant, but looking at it closer it’s actually a very profound idea. Simply put, a job is work that is performed to earn money. It refers to the short term and doesn’t include a long term plan or progression, it’s just your right now. While a career is more of a long term occupation that allows for advancement or progression. Jordan Peterson asserted that most people have jobs, meaning that they simply take on work to pay for their expenses but don’t have a long term trajectory. The numbers seem to back this up, one study found that only 15% of people were engaged on their job. Here I’m going to discuss this idea, how people fall into this trap and some tips on how you can avoid making this mistake.
Why do people end up with multiple jobs but no career?
The first reason I would say is lack of long term planning. In order to have a successful career, for most people it will require planning ahead, deciding on where you want to go and figuring out how you can get there. This doesn’t mean you don’t ever change or pivot but you have to look beyond your immediate situation and look 5 to 10 years ahead.
Secondly, is having too many large bills/expenses. This can be mortgage, rent, children, student debt or expensive habits. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, which up to 78% of workers are, it will be very difficult for you to make good long term decisions because you have no room for temporary downsize. For example if you are working at a job right now, but you want to move into a different industry. To make that move you may need to take a temporary pay cut and get an entry level position to get experience and break into the industry. But if you’re living paycheck to paycheck and have a bunch of bills to pay, you aren’t flexible enough to make that decision. This can be applied to starting a business, businesses can take 1-3 years to start making good money, even if it’s a great idea. You want to have enough breathing room that you can sacrifice the short term for the long term.
Thirdly, you need to be willing to try new things, even against the wishes of your family, friends and peer pressure. Gary V, talks about this a lot and even though I don’t agree with everything he says, I like this one. He often talks about how when you’re young 18-25, most people often go the conservative route and get a safe job in their field of study. But while your expenses are the lowest, this is the best time to try new things. If you take time to try out different things, explore new career options while you are young, you are more likely to find something you will want to commit to long term and this will give you a better chance of having a good career.
Lastly, be creative with your approach when you’re pursuing a career. A common example I see with this is university/college, where people go through a degree program, graduate and then apply to jobs hoping to find work. The job market is competitive and business is even more competitive. Once you make a choice to go in a certain direction, you need to find ways to stand out among the crowd. This includes picking a specialization, having an online presence so people can find you and being proactive, not waiting to get a job before you start doing whatever it is you want to do. If you want to be a writer for example, there’s free platforms like medium where you can start doing that for free. Youtube is free for making videos, if you want to develop software you can work on open source projects and the list goes on and on.
What are the benefits to having a good career?
You become an expert: If you find a path and continue along that, you will eventually reach a point of mastery. You will have a deep understanding of that area and that comes with many benefits such as higher pay, more work opportunities, you can start a business and you feel much better about yourself, because you know you bring value to the situation.
Higher Pay: People want to pay for people that have done the work before and people who are experts in an area. The longer you can find and commit to becoming an expert, the more you can demand.
It’s easier to change industries: This refers to something called the “halo effect”. This is a tendency among people where if someone is really good in one area, we tend to assume that they are good in other areas as well. So if you become an expert in one area, it will be easier for you to transition into another area because people will make assumptions about your ability. To some extent, it is true that people who are successful in one area tend to be successful in other areas, because some of the traits will transfer over. Lastly, if you take the opposite approach and have multiple jobs that have nothing in common, it can seem like you don’t have a plan and won’t look good to employers.
A job is a short term assignment while a career is a long term series of jobs that allows for progression along a certain path. While having a “Dead end” job isn’t a big issue in the short term, if you continue to take these types of jobs it’s not going to be good for your long term future. You want to take time to decide on a path, even if you have to switch later on and go after that. In the interim you want to keep your expenses low to make sure you’re flexible enough to sacrifice some money in the short term, in order to set yourself up for something better in the long run. I recommend having at least enough money to cover you for 6 months, preferably a year at any given time. Lastly, by advancing yourself down a path, you will have more specialized knowledge, you can become an expert and at that point you will have far more opportunity available to you then if you simply took jobs at will.