I like to think of the career journey as going from where you are now to where you want to be — and smack dab in the middle is an unknown, ominous Forbidden Forest straight out of Harry Potter’s world.
Do you have useful tools like the invisible cloak on hand? Have you learned the right spells to ward off dangerous creatures? Do you have companions beside you who can help you when you’re in need?
For the non-Harry Potter fans out there, sorry for dragging you through a wizard world analogy. (I’d be lying if I told you that’s the last one though.)
Take another, less fantastical example. Imagine you’re about to go on a 5-day hiking trek through the Rocky Mountains. You’d probably train and prepare essential supplies prior to hitting the dirt trail.
Why not treat our careers the same way and take inventory of our personal and professional assets, otherwise known as our career capital, before we embark for our destination?
Computer scientist and career book author Cal Newport defines ‘career capital’ as the skills you have that are both rare and valuable and that can be used as leverage in defining your career. I like to broaden the definition to also include our motivations, knowledge, and network — since these can be used as leverage as well.
In previous articles, we’ve discussed how crafting our career map helps us identify where we want to go. The next step is to get a clear picture of the career assets we have at our disposal, so we can reach our promised land safe and sound.
What is Career Capital?
Let’s start off by talking about the different categories of career capital:
- Motivations: the internal and external factors that are driving your career transition. This includes your sense of personal mission and/or values.
- Skills/Knowledge: what you’ve learned to do on the job, in school, and in your free time.
- Network: these are the relationships you’ve developed in your personal and professional life whom can help in your career transition.
Another way to think about career capital is viewing our jobs as a trade of our assets in exchange for our desired role, responsibilities, and lifestyle. Through this lens, each one of these categories above can help you create leverage to get what you want.
Now let’s examine a few cases that help illustrate this point.
Take my first job out of college. I joined an online education startup first as a marketer. Even though my responsibilities were technically limited to paid advertising, my manager appreciated my data and technical aptitude. I was able to leverage these skills into autonomy working on projects more aligned with my product interests, such as launching an MVP for our mini-courses.
The body of work that I created eventually caught the attention of our senior executives, who happened to be scouting for a growth product manager. I got tapped for the role, taking my first step into product management. And because I had gained the trust of our product team through my previous work, I joined the team with significant flexibility for the types of projects I worked on.
My point isn’t to brag, but to show you how I leveraged my skills to get closer to the type of work (product management) and lifestyle (autonomy) that I wanted.
Or consider my coaching client, a software engineering lead for an early-stage startup. He started off as a contractor and was in negotiations with the two founders (who both have business backgrounds) to convert his role to a full-time position.
During these conversations, he was able to leverage his rare technical skillset to get his desired lifestyle (higher base compensation than equity, more flexible work hours to have time with his family) because the founders knew it’d be difficult to replace him.
Finally, one of my close friends works at an education company and manages their instructor relationships. She’s developed a strong network of instructors over time, which is critical to the business’ success, so she’s able to leverage it to work on more projects that she’s excited about in other areas of the business like content creation.
These are just a few examples from my life, but there are plenty more out there. I hope you can see how career capital is a powerful concept when used effectively.
You might be thinking, OK this idea of career capital sounds neat. So how do I use it?
The first step is to record what assets you have at your disposal. Try brainstorming using the following prompts:
- What are the main internal and external drivers in your career?
- Do you have a personal mission? What is it?
- What are your values? How do they relate to your career?
- What are the professional skills that you’ve gained in your career?
- What are skills you’ve developed in your hobbies or personal life?
- Which knowledge areas do you feel comfortable calling yourself an “expert” in?
- Which knowledge areas do you feel competent in even though you wouldn’t call yourself an “expert?”
- Who are the people that make up your personal and professional network? How do you know them and are they connected to each other in anyway?
Now that you have a brain dump of all your assets, let’s carefully pick out the ones that you can use more by answering the following questions.
- Which of your motivations align particularly well with your target career path?
- Which skills or knowledge areas that you feel competent in are the most desired in your target career path?
- Which individuals or circles of people do you feel comfortable asking for help? What can you ask them for help with?
Congratulations! You now have a list of specific motivations, skills/knowledge, and your network that you can leverage to get to your target role, responsibilities, and lifestyle.
If you were standing at the brink of the Forbidden Forest, you’d have the right spells at your disposal and have dependable companions by your side to make it to where ever you want to go.
You’re ready to hit the dirt path on your career journey now, where you’ll face a whole new set of challenges. What experiences should you get to change career paths? How do you explore a career path without any experience to begin with?
In future posts, I’ll write more about frameworks and tools for handling these upcoming challenges, as well as more tips and case studies for leveraging your career capital.
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