Career Strategy

Just this week I was at a startup event talking to a guy, Jeremy, who started one company part-time. He started the company with something he was passionate about (web comics) and worked on it for years, hoping it would take off and allow him to quit his job. It hasn’t. For the past two years, he has been working a job he doesn’t enjoy that doesn’t stimulate or challenge him.

Recently, I had a feeling where I just “got” something that I’d been struggling with for years: the difference between strategy and tactics. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in terms of my career. I have found it useful to envision the type of career I want (strategy), and work backwards to figure out how to then accomplish that goal (tactics). I am convinced that strategy without tactics is useless, and tactics without strategy will leave you with a host of skills and no real usage for them.

Earlier today, one of my friends tweeted that he needed a job by the time he graduates in May but doesn’t think it is going to happen. In my opinion, this is a major case of strategy without tactics. Each year, millions of students graduate college and are told “get a job”. Beginning in grade school, kids are told to get good grades so they can move up to the next level – be it high school or college – and by doing so they will “succeed”. After college, the next step is to get a job, no strategy required. The progressions from school to job are checkboxes designed to give one a successful (or at least self-sufficient) life. The problem with such tactics is that they aren’t dictated by strategy. In my friend’s case, he simply did what he was told to do – and now he’s stuck.

These steps exist because at one point in time they worked, almost without fail. It was expected that if you went to college, you could graduate and get a job as long as your grades were decent. Rapidly growing unemployment among graduates suggests this is no longer the case. In the current economic climate, it should be obvious that change is necessary. The same tactics that worked in the old economy simply won’t cut it now. So many students have adopted a general strategy (get a job) that wasn’t their own, and after graduating find themselves in a bad spot. In war, strategy should change along with battlefield conditions. Though economic conditions have changed, general career strategy has remained the same – do well in school, get whatever job you can.

Even though he failed, I completely respect Jeremy for trying to start a company. He may have suffered a setback, but he will come out on top. There’s a huge difference between him and most people – his failure came as part of a grander strategy. He may have failed, but he is meeting new people, attending startup events, staying involved in the community and working on several interesting side projects. At some point, something is going to work out. At the very least, he will have a broad network and a litany of skills that he can utilize in such an uncertain economy. He may have lost a battle, but he will win the war.

Compare this approach with sitting at home blasting out resumes. So you get a job – what then? How does getting a job further your life aspirations? Attending “networking” events, surfing for job postings… all lack purpose. It would be far better to learn a new skill, work on something valuable and meet others also doing interesting things. Jeremy failed, learned from it, and is biding his time until his next project. He is taking what he can from his current job and using those assets to build something greater, to fund his eventual victory. That’s an approach I respect and am working to emulate.

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