Building a Career that MattersMarch 22nd, 2020 · 22 comments
A reader recently asked me the following question:
“You talk about developing rare and valuable skills specially those which the market values, but at what point do find yourself doing something meaningful? Yes, society would value you and compensate you, but at what costs. I know many people that are highly skilled, but hate their job/life. Is there an equilibrium in which you can develop rare and value skills while still being happy/proud about what you do?”
This question is important. In fact, it’s so important that I dedicated the fourth and final rule of my book So Good They Can’t Ignore You to this topic. Since it’s been nearly eight years since that book came out, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief summary of the answer I provided back then.
I started this rule noting that for many people, having a “unifying mission” to your working life can be a source of great satisfaction. To illustrate this point, I then told the story of Pardis Sabeti, a brilliant biology professor at Harvard who uses advanced algorithms to help find cures to deadly viral diseases.
“As I spent time with Pardis,” I wrote, “I recognized that her happiness comes from the fact that she built her career on a clear and compelling mission — something that not only gives meaning to her work but provides the energy needed to embrace life beyond the lab.” The question I then tackled is how one finds the type of mission that sustains Pardis Sabeti.
My answer spans four chapters, but here’s the main idea: it’s very difficult to identify a truly impactful and satisfying mission until you master useful skills. As I argued, cribbing a term from the systems biologist Stuart Kauffman, the really interesting missions, like Pardis Sabeti using cutting-edge algorithm theory to cure old diseases, are usually found in the adjacent possible — the space just beyond the cutting-edge of the relevant skills.
The conclusion is that if you want to do something truly useful with your professional life, don’t start by figuring out your “mission.” Instead, identify some potentially useful-looking skills, then push yourself to the cutting edge with a single-minded intensity. It’s only then, once you’ve mastered the foundational abilities, that you’ll be able to find that spot in the adjacent possible where the meaningful mission lurks, waiting for its champion.