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Career capital includes the abilities and resources you develop which allow you to do more with your career in the future. Significant components of career capital include skills, credentials, connections, and savings. Career capital is an important consideration in career planning, especially in the early stages of your career.
Career capital includes any acquired abilities or resources that can affect the trajectory of your career and empower you to do more good. It can affect what jobs (or roles) you can get, or how well you perform in them.
While many people find it obvious that going to university or gaining professional experience can help them achieve their personal career goals, this fact is often forgotten when people try to optimize their social impact. Often, conscientiously-inclined people will rush to have an impact immediately, not taking into account the extent to which expertise, experience, influence and resources can vastly increase the value they can provide to the causes and organizations they believe in. Building career capital allows you to increase your future impact at the expense of immediate impact you could have achieved with your work today. Whether that investment is worth it depends on your circumstances.
Career capital can include many things, but four primary components are often discussed:
Skills - the collection of what you can do. Examples include quantitative, interpersonal, and organizational skills, domain expertise, and many others. The skills you acquire and improve can have a major influence on what jobs you can land, and how effectively you can carry them out. Improving career-relevant skills should usually be one of your top priorities early in your career.
Credentials - externally verifiable evidence of your training, competence or achievements. This can include academic degree certifications, previous titles (especially in prestigious companies), awards, specific projects you can showcase, etc. These can be important for opening doors to various opportunities, in some cases even more so than the direct skills they are meant to give evidence for.
Connections - the interpersonal relationships you develop and maintain. Humans are incredibly social creatures not only in their leisure but at work as well. Your connections can heavily influence what jobs you hear about, get recommended for, and your ability to exert influence in many positions.
Savings - the financial resources you’ve accumulated. There are important personal reasons to save money, but such savings can also allow you to take career paths you couldn’t have otherwise - most notably those that involve little financial compensation or high financial risk like extended higher education, starting your own company, or working in the nonprofit sector.
Career capital is particularly important early in your career. This is true for several reasons. First, early in our career we still have decades of work left - so every improvement to our abilities can serve us across a wide range of opportunities and efforts. Second, most of us start our career with relatively few exceptional skills - and so the direct impact we would be sacrificing early in our career is small relative to the much larger impact we could have as seasoned professionals. Finally, there are diminishing returns on education. At the extremes, it’s hard to have a large impact without learning how to read and write, while it’s quite rare that being effective at a certain role will require multiple PhDs.
One consideration when thinking of your career capital is how flexible it is. Some career capital can be useful across a wide range of fields and paths. This can include, for example, getting a degree from a highly prestigious university, working for a company famous for hiring the best people, or studying a degree that is in high demand across fields (like mathematics). Other career capital can be extremely specialized for a specific domain, or even role - like studying synthetic biology to help pandemic preparedness. The answer of which one you pursue depends on your circumstances. If you are confident in the path you want to pursue or are already committed to it in other ways, it often makes sense to focus on specialized career capital, as it can be more useful in that particular context. If you’re still uncertain about the most important causes to work on, which profession is a good fit for you, or how you’ll feel about these questions in a few years - pursuing flexible career capital can be really useful.
It’s important to note though that gaining career capital does not necessarily come at the expense of doing directly impactful work. In fact, especially when gaining specialized career capital, doing the work you’re eventually interested in can be one of the best ways to get the relevant career capital. This means that career capital is not a reason to avoid seeking direct impact - it is just sometimes something that should be weighed against direct impact when different options provide more of each.