Building Career Capital
7 MINUTE READ
So far, we’ve discussed how to think about specific roles and assess their potential for doing good. When it comes to actually pursuing these roles, there’s another big consideration to keep in mind: how can your career make the greatest impact over the long run?
Career capital refers to the abilities and resources that allow you to do more with your career in the future. These could be specific skills, credentials, connections, financial resources, or flexible knowledge and abilities. It’s obvious that gaining career capital could advance your professional career, but people often underestimate how valuable it can be in making a positive impact on the world – even if this means taking a job that doesn’t seem as directly impactful in the near term.
Let’s say, for example, that you’ve just finished your undergraduate degree in graphic design. In hopes of doing something good for the world, you apply to marketing & design roles at different nonprofit organizations. This seems like a good way to utilize your skills for a good cause, especially if the organization is effectively tackling significant problems.
Eventually, you’re offered a junior marketing position at a nonprofit with a great track record. As you consider taking the job, you learn about a different opportunity to try user experience design through an internship program at a big tech company. This also seems like a great opportunity and would teach you a whole set of new skills. It may even lead to a fairly well-paying job that could help you establish a financial safety net.
At first glance, it seems like the nonprofit job will help the most people. But what about in the long term? While the tech company isn’t exactly improving the world, it’s often easier to develop new knowledge or skills in the private sector since many (though not all) nonprofits don’t have the same capacity to invest in their employee’s professional development. You also worry that you’d feel stagnant or burnt out in the marketing field after a while. Because of this, it seems like the UX internship could set you up to help more people throughout your entire career.
There can often be a tradeoff between the positive impact you can make now and the change you can make over time. Ultimately, though, you can’t help the causes or organizations you care about unless you’re able to contribute something they need. You’re likely to offer a lot more value to these causes if you can also bring a lot of skills, experiences, insights, and strengths to the table.
What are the different types of career capital?
These are specific abilities you possess, such as knowledge of a programming language, familiarity with project management, or proficiency in marketing analytics. Acquiring and developing your skill set can have a major influence on what jobs you can land and how effectively you can carry them out.
These can be any sort of externally verifiable evidence for your training, competence or achievements. This can include academic degree certifications, previous titles (especially in prestigious companies), awards, specific projects you can showcase, etc. Often your credentials can open doors to various opportunities, perhaps even more so than the direct skills they are meant to provide evidence for.
These are the different types of interpersonal relationships you develop and maintain, within or outside of a professional context. Your connections can heavily influence what jobs you hear about, get recommended for, and your ability to exert influence in many positions.
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.
Things to keep in mind
Career capital is especially important in the earlier stages of your career
The most impactful opportunities often require significant experiences, expertise, and skills to excel in. If you’re in the earlier stages of your career, it could be less of a sacrifice to focus on developing career capital (which will benefit you for more future years of work) than making a direct impact now. Once you grow your abilities and knowledge in a field, you will be able to contribute much more to the causes you care about. However, if you are in the later stages of your career, it could make more sense to apply the skills and experience you’ve gained so far to the most promising opportunity you can find.
Think about what sort of career capital will be relevant (or essential) to your career path
If you plan on entering a competitive, niche, or complex field (say, in research or academia), it might be necessary to build up highly specialized career capital. This would likely look like investing in gaining credentials or building expertise through extensive years of study. The potential downside of specialized career capital is that it could make it challenging to change your career or field later on.
If you don’t know what direction or path you want to pursue, it can be helpful to gain transferable career capital. These can be skills or experiences that could be applied to several fields and opportunities – like management, interpersonal communication, project management, operations, connections to successful individuals, etc.
Consider the return on investment
Not all career capital is useful or worth the time it takes to build. Taking on a role that requires significant investment into developing your skill-set or financing your own education could yield promising long-term returns, but they’re not guaranteed. Further, gaining experience or career capital without a strategy could lead you to settle for a less impactful path. Make sure to do your research thoroughly (for example, using our career path profiles) and think realistically about how the career capital you’re gaining will factor into your career progression over the long run.
Look out for unique or unusual opportunities
We can try to strategize and plan out the best possible career path, but oftentimes, a bit of uncertainty and serendipity can lend you an extremely valuable skill set or special knowledge. For instance, maybe you’ll come across something that doesn’t necessarily seem impactful but that offers some unique and unusual experience that could be an asset. This could be something like spending an extended period of time in another culture, or working with a very high-profile individual. Even if it’s unclear how exactly these experiences will translate to your next job, these sorts of rare experiences could provide you with some extra insight that could be useful in several areas.
Sustain your motivation to help others
If you spend a long time building career capital in a field or job that doesn’t help others (for the sake of making a positive impact later on), it’s important to find ways to commit to your values and sustain motivation. It’s easy to let our values drift over time, especially if we get stuck in the inertia of a career. To reduce these chances, you could volunteer for a cause you find important, join a community that’s especially focused on helping others, or frequently engage with your plans to utilize your expertise to help others.
Planning for the long term
No matter what opportunity or role you’re considering, it’s a good idea to ask how much career capital you could gain in this position. Even if a job doesn’t look impactful when analyzed through the SELF framework, it could be worth considering early on. Roles that could open future doors or help you develop a unique skill could be especially promising and worth prioritizing. Take the time to understand what kind of career capital a particular opportunity could provide you with and whether or not the tradeoff in the impact you make now could be worth the long term investment.
Up next, we’ll look at one more important consideration when planning your impact over the long term: counterfactual impact.