A simple framework for optimizing career decisions


I reached out to a mentor this year to seek advice on career growth – I was going through a rough patch and wanted to learn from more experienced leaders. He shared his optimization framework which I found so insightful that I incorporated it into my career toolbox.

Looking from the outside, he appears to have made a couple of befuddling decisions. He moved cities, leaving a high-paying high-profile job for a risky startup, to lead a smaller team and earn less remuneration.

When he shared his framework, I immediately understood how his decision aligned with his principles. In retrospect, that risky decision propelled him to even higher heights.

The career choices Framework

You can optimize your career based on three constraints:

  1. Financial remuneration (Cash, $$$)
  2. Intellectual growth
  3. Work-life balance
WLB vs Cash ($$$$) vs Learning

Set aside some time yearly to reflect on the three constraints and choose the constraint that you want to prioritize. Your focus should be choosing what is most important to you.

Note that finding a position that satisfies all the three constraints would be incredibly difficult so if you do find one, jump on it. It is more likely that you would have to choose between options and this framework simplifies the trade-off process based on your desires.

Let’s explore the various options.

1. Optimizing for financial remuneration ($$$$)

This means you have to be willing to give up on work-life balance and potentially stretching to new limits on the job.

While it might be possible to learn a lot at a fast-growing startup; you could earn a higher salary in the short-term by getting a job at an established company. So, compare the remuneration/hours-of-effort before making such comparisons.

Also, be prepared to work long hours or travel since your most important focus is financial remuneration.

2. Optimizing for Learning

Herein, you are thinking of learning as much as you want and might consider leaving that cushy job for a risky startup with unclear prospects. This explains why some people leave top-level positions to join new companies.

Fast-paced jobs on rocket ships demand a lot of time, energy and sacrifice. Furthermore, the risk involved in most startups means there is a potential of losing out on remuneration too (if the company folds, or if stock options do not vest). The upside, however, is that these jobs offer a lot of learning and expose you to challenging problems across multiple domains. My personal experience on 4 – 5 V1 projects in the past 5 years confirms this too.

If you are optimizing for learning, then be picky and choose opportunities that propel your learning. You might have to work extra long hours and be wary of the risks involved.

3. Optimizing for work-life balance

This option is for those who want to spend time with loved ones, pursue education or do other things (e.g. travel, hobbies etc.). Folks optimizing for this see the job as a contract that pays the bills and would be willing to accept slower growth and maybe give up on remuneration.

This might mean taking on a job that allows you to fulfil your obligations without requiring extra long hours. If work-life balance is your most important needle, then you might need to revisit your decision to join that company with 80-hour workweeks.

How does this apply to Famous Person X?

This framework is so versatile in its simplicity that it can be easily applied to several scenarios.

Look around, there are several examples of people who quit their day jobs to optimize for work-life balance. On the other hand, some of the top tech visionaries can be viewed as optimizing for learning over the other two aspects. Elon Musk or Steve Jobs? Read their biographies and see where they fit.

What are you optimizing for in your career choices?

Use this framework as you think of your next career choice. What is most important to you and what are you optimizing for?

I have worked with several folks who optimized for work-life balance and thus did not seek further promotion. They only wanted to do their day job and concentrated their energy on their interests and hobbies. The Radical Candor book describes some Olympians at Google. While preparing for the Olympics, they scaled back their career ambitions and immediately after retiring from athletics, they vigorously pursued their careers.

On the other hand, I know several people (including my mentor) who have always optimized for growth and learning so far. I have a couple of friends who have left for startups for the same reason too.

I have optimized learning by seeking new growth challenges. Through my career, I have been blessed to have worked in a wide variety of organizations and on disparate products. Simply put, the experience has been amazing.

Thanks to Anand for his advice and for reviewing this post!

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