Defining Your Career Use Case

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A former student of mine, who know works on mentoring initiatives for PeopleGrove, recently shared an article that really got me thinking about how little we do to help students conceptualize what they want out of their career. For our Life Design Summer Institute curriculum, we use Johann Neem’s excellent What’s the Point of College? to provide a framework for how to conceptualize their college experience. But for the Workview, we just throw them into the deep-end and ask them to write a paragraph on what work means to them. It’s no wonder then that most workviews are vague and generic.

The article, Grow Your Career Like You Grow Your Product, offers a way to get past that. It encourages users to treat their career like they would a business, “focusing on creating a sustainable, predictable, and fulfilling growth system for you.” Central to any successful business is the retention and engagement of users/customers, and the key to retention is having a clearly defined use case. In thinking about how this applies to your own career, the authors note:

You have to know what makes you sparkle in order to put yourself in a position to do so as much as possible. Being clear on your career use case and value proposition will fuel your positioning, brand, and channel strategy when it’s time to look for new opportunities.

To understand retention, you have to understand your core user and use case. This should be easy, since for once, YOU are the customer! You might be surprised by how little you’ve reflected on your career in this way.

To help users define their career use case, the authors lay out four main steps.

  1. Define the problem – What problem for you are you solving with your career?
  2. Find your Why – What is your motivation for solving this problem?
  3. Alternatives – What others paths could you take to solve this problem?
  4. Core Usage Metric – What is the best way to allocate your time to maximize your talents?

To help visualize this process, the authors came up with this handy worksheet:

I love this worksheet and could see using it in a future workshop or class. Helping students understand what they are really hoping to “solve” with their career allows them to not only connect their career back to their core and aspirational values, but also helps them understand their motivates and “find their why.” From there it’s easier to then figure out alternative paths that would address these problems and motivations and identify “core usage metrics” to gauge their progress.

For my workshops I would probably go a step further and make explicit what is implicit in this article: namely that career “problems” can be organized into one of several broad categories:

  1. Recognition – This category would be driven – at least in part – by a desire for prestige. Obtaining at spot at Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Google, Harvard Law, Johns Hopkins Medicine, or the White House not only conveys social capital by opening up networks and opportunities, it also imparts a psychic benefit in signaling to others that you are successful.
  2. Mission and impact – This category would be driven by a desire to make an impact on the world in an area that aligns with your values. Career fields that might fall into this category could include things like teaching, social work, government, advocacy and other roles in the non-profit space, but also roles at mission driven for-profit institutions that aim to effect social change.
  3. Financial – This category would be driven by monetary rewards. Careers in Investment Banking, Private Equity, Corporate Law, Big Tech, and Speciality Medicine could fall into this category, but so too could any career in which maximizing your income is the primary motivator.
  4. Growth – Career paths in this category would be driven by personal and professional growth. Working overseas, at an early phase startup, for Teach for America, or for a busy Emergency Room would all be the kinds of jobs that would put your skills to the test and allow you to grow both personally and professionally.
  5. Flexibility – Careers in this category would afford you the flexibility to attend to other values or interests in your life. Maybe it’s a 100% remote job that allows you to work from anywhere. Or a role where you set your own hours so that you can accommodate family or other obligations. Or work that would provide the time and space (and perhaps funding) to pursue a graduate degree.

This seems like a good starting point. Students could certainly come up with their own career problems if none of these seemed to describe their situation exactly. I think a more common situation would be students whose primary career goal seems to fit with any of the above problems. For example, for many students a career in medicine is perceived as way to make an upper-middle class income without any of the downside of other lucrative careers. In their minds, a career as a neurosurgeon is prestigious, impactful, lucrative, challenging, and offers a degree of flexibility and few other career paths check all of these boxes. Framing the problem in this way not only idealizes the medical profession (students tend to overlook many of the downsides of a career as a physician) but also doesn’t leave a student with a lot of options. I would instead push the student to see if they can settle on one or two of these problems. This will help them articulate their career motivations (their “Why?”) but also help them identify alternative careers that would also satisfy these motivations.

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