The Career Arc

The more career advice I get, the more I seem to hear things like, “don’t overthink it” and “you can’t plan your career.” However, my personality precludes me from this counsel. I don’t want to (nor do I think I can) plan out the projects, jobs, industries or even cities that I aspire to work in. On the other hand, I want to have some long-term gameplan to structure the next 50 years of my career, even if it gets tweaked (or scrapped entirely) over time.

Jack Ma offered a great piece of insight about career arcs. He structures one’s career in terms of single decades, each with its own primary, driving goal. He says,

When you’re 20 to 30 years old: follow a good boss, join a good company to learn how to do things properly.

When you’re 30-40 years old: if you want to do something yourself, just do it. You still can afford to lose, to fail.

When you’re 40-50 years old: do things that you are good at. Don’t pursue dangerous interests.

When you’re 50-60 years old: spend your time training and developing young people.

When you’re 60+: spend time with your family.

I like this framework. It’s simple enough for anybody to find value in it, and it emphasizes just how many years we have to create our career journey. I’ve modeled my own gameplan accordingly, with a couple adjustments:

  • 20-30: Discover & Learn
    • In my twenties, I’ll likely have the fewest commitments (therefore greatest financial, geographic and career freedom), the most open mind, greatest energy levels and best health. My youth might also help avoid suspicion for any ulterior motives that I could otherwise have; we’re lucky that people still seem to have inherent trust in and respect for the young ambitious kid just trying to figure the world out for himself.
  • 30-40: Apply & Prove
    • In my thirties, I want to have found a groove. Ideally this will have been made clear in my late twenties, and will result from the set of career experiments as well as unanticipated and/or random life events, such as family situation, relationships of both personal and professional nature, and more.
  • 40-50: Direct & Build
    • Let’s be honest, I can’t even think to project what my mindset’s going to be like in five years, let alone when I’m forty or beyond.
  • 50-60: Own & Oversee
  • 60+: Appreciate & Give

I take this framework with a grain of salt. There is plenty of overlap; learning doesn’t stop at 30, and I better not wait until I’m 60 to appreciate life. But I think this is a useful mindset.

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