Solving problems that matter

Your career might not be the most important thing to you at every stage in your life, but it also doesn’t have to be the thing you do just to pay the rent. You can, and should, get more out of it – both in terms of the experience of the work itself, as well as the lifestyle it can afford you.

By: Abu Addae

Over the course of your life, you’re going to spend many of your young and able years working for an income: an estimated 80 000 hours. Your career might not be the most important thing to you at every stage in your life, but it also doesn’t have to be the thing you do just to pay the rent. You can, and should, get more out of it - both in terms of the experience of the work itself, as well as the lifestyle it can afford you. Beyond that, you want to be able to look back on your life’s work one day with a sense of accomplishment, knowing that those thousands of hours counted for something. In many ways, your career decisions are going to be amongst the biggest decisions you make in life.

With this 4-part series, we’re here to help you get started with designing your career strategy. This is not the same as a traditional career plan, which, for many reasons we’ll get into later, is about as useful as owning a cassette player. Our aim is not to create a step-by-step formula for success - no two people are the same, so a “one-size-fits-all” approach simply doesn’t work. Rather, we hope to equip you with the decision-making tools you’ll need when making your next big career move.

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life”

Chances are you’re already familiar with this popular, but entirely useless, piece of career advice. It has been attributed to an eclectic mix of individuals, including: Confucius (dubious), Marc Anthony (the musician, who also sang: “Fame is addictive… but golf is second to none!”), famed business author Harvey Mackay, and of course Mark Twain, who is possibly the most misquoted person of all time.

It’s popular, of course, because it sounds great - who wouldn’t want to get paid for doing something they actually enjoy?! Unfortunately, life doesn’t usually work that way. It’s the classic ‘Holy Grail’ hypothesis: if you’re working and it feels like work, it must be because you haven’t yet found “The Job.” So you keep searching for your Holy Grail… The truth is, it’s little more than a recipe for perpetual disappointment and frustration. Bottom line: a picture of a mountain with a Mark Twain quote does not constitute a career strategy!

Let’s try a different tack, and start with a more relevant and realistic question:

Why should someone else pay you to do what you love?

The answer to this question is what this first instalment is all about. As with most important questions in life, the answer is not straightforward. Here are some appealing, but incorrect, responses:

  • Because I have a fancy degree in XYZ and I studied hard to become a whatnotscopist
  • Because I work really hard
  • Because I need the money
  • Because I am a good person

At the end of the day, there’s only one reason for you to be getting paid: you are solving a problem that matters.

The ability to get paid for your work is critical to creating a viable career strategy. It sounds obvious, yet our little pearl of career “wisdom” makes no mention of it. Getting paid is what eventually earns you the right to “not have to work a day in your life”, either because you have a greater degree of financial freedom, or because you’ve arrived at a sweet spot where the thing you enjoy doing solves problems for people who are willing and able to pay you for it. But either way you have to earn it.

Earning that right means you have to solve problems that matter and be aware of things in the external world that will influence the problems and opportunities you’re building your career on. Most prosperous careers are helped along by trends already in motion: riding one of these “waves” with enough momentum can propel you much further than you could get through skill and hard work alone (more on this later).

The myth of being your own boss

One of the most common reasons people give for wanting to freelance or start their own thing is the allure of not having to report to somebody else. The thinking is usually something like this: “if I work for myself then I don’t have a boss, which means I can do what I want and have the freedom to pursue my passion to its fullest.”

In reality, freelancers and entrepreneurs have many bosses in the form of their customers or clients, which often means multiple projects or requests coming through at the same time. In addition, getting paid is not as simple as a salary coming through at the end of the month, not to mention you can be fired at any time, zero option of a CCMA process or exit interview…!

In this series, one point we’ll keep returning to is that salaried employees and entrepreneurs actually have a great deal more in common than one might think, and can be considered two sides of the same coin.

As we mentioned earlier, getting paid means solving a problem for someone. That person - whether by employment contract, freelance contract, handshake or by them simply walking in and out of your shop - is your boss.

To be sure, there are people out there who are getting paid (and maybe even quite well) but aren’t solving any problems at all, let alone problems that matter. But eventually the world notices, and people ask why they are paying money for no good reason, and then they stop. The employees of IBM famously discovered this in July 1993. Once seen as a permanent fixture of corporate life in America, with jobs for life and generous pensions, the Big Blue was forced to lay off 60 000 employees in its first ever retrenchment. The cause: customers stopped paying IBM to make mainframes and started opting for PCs instead. As a result, many hardworking, honest, kind men and women with families to support suddenly found themselves in working world that seemed alien to them, and a lot of them never managed to find work again.

Life isn’t fair - don’t plan as if it is

One of the most painful truths about the world of work is that bad things happen to good people. Hardworking men and women who have done nothing wrong get retrenched in a downturn. And what makes it even harder to get your head around is that it isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. In some cases, people in charge mismanage a company and make decisions that really could have been avoided, due to greed, negligence, fraud or a combination thereof. You might hear something about investment bankers and collateralised debt obligations, the collapse of an Icelandic bank, lower than expected interest rates, weather conditions, oil prices, changes in fish migration patterns, the whims of American teenagers, shifts in NGO funding policy, a new American president, some kids in a garage halfway across the world, and then all of a sudden it somehow affects your job out here in Africa. A leader can try their very best to navigate this chaos and still fail, and be left with incredibly tough choices that affect you and your career. Sometimes a fisherman goes out to sea and the fish simply don’t show up. You wait the whole day, pack away your equipment, and go home empty-handed and that’s the best you could have done. That’s just the nature of work. And life.

This is one of the reasons why linear career plans make no sense. A plan requires much more detail than a strategy, and as a result is rigid and inflexible. You would therefore need a completely different plan for every possible scenario. They create the illusion of certainty and control, but inevitably rely on assumptions which may or may not prove to be correct. As Mike Tyson famously said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” (or was that Mark Twain…?). By contrast, a strategy is more of a mindset: a way of thinking about and evaluating options that helps you react to changing circumstances and make decisions that are consistent with your values and goals.

Understanding the truth of this volatile, uncertain, and chaotic world is necessary if you want to build a career that is resilient as well as fulfilling. You have to be able to accept that bad things can happen, that life can be fundamentally unfair, and yet still realise that amidst all of this you can make better choices and move closer towards your goals.

When it comes to bad outcomes in a career, it’s not just the risk of being called in one day and told to find another job. Sometimes that’s one of the better outcomes, because you know you can find something else. Worse is the time spent doing something that doesn’t matter, that you’re not enjoying or passionate about; time that should have been filled more meaningfully, or at least should have paid you better so you could enjoy other aspects of your life. That’s the hardest reality of the lot: the time that you never get back.

Solving tomorrow’s problems

The best career strategies are forward-looking. In a fast-changing world, the problems you were getting paid to solve yesterday may no longer exist tomorrow. Back in the 80’s everyone wanted to work at IBM, but the smarter bet would have been the emerging companies that would shape the digital revolution - Microsoft, Apple, Intel, or even many more that failed – where riding the crest of that wave would have given you much greater opportunities to join one of the winners as the new industry emerged. That way, you would have spent more of your time solving problems that would continue to matter in the future.

If you’re working in a company, understanding the problems you solve means understanding what your company does and how it makes money. It means knowing why they hired you, rather than outsourcing to some consultant sitting in Switzerland, or some more efficient worker in Bangladesh or Pakistan. Alternatively, if you’re a professional running a practice or your own small consultancy, it’s understanding where your profession or industry is going and what opportunities, threats or emerging trends might affect you. If you work in the NGO sector, it’s knowing what problems funders care about and keeping vigilant when it comes to public sentiment and a landscape that is constantly shifting.

Lean in, be curious, ask why, learn more

In his interview for LifeCheq’s Up or Out talk, David Shapiro - investment manager, TV personality and Director at Sasfin Securities - makes the point that you have to “make yourself useful… and understand why you’re getting paid.”

Taking control of your career development means starting with this outward orientation. It means thinking about the problems you play a part in solving out in the world and why people out there are willing to pay for the solving of these problems. You need to lean in, treat your work as if it’s your own business with customers you need to solve problems for, and find out how to do that better than anyone else. This is how you earn the right to own your time and eventually create far more flexible options around how you work.

Being externally oriented means that you start to see your career as something you drive, not as something someone else plans for you. The primary role of a manager is to run the company and make sure it is sustainable, so that your job exists in the first place. And here’s the often unexpected truth: every good boss will want you to take control of your own career development because it means that you want to solve problems that matter and work together with them to build something great. You taking control of your career means you step up, lean in and join them in doing what ultimately matters both for your job and for the company, rather than trying to do the bare minimum in exchange for your wage.

Only small-minded bosses will be threatened by employees who take control, ask tough questions and expect more from work. A good boss, customer or colleague will challenge you to do more, hold you to higher standards and provide opportunities for candid feedback and learning. But these are also things you should strive for in your own capacity. Take an interest in the work you’re delivering to someone else. Ask questions such as ‘Were they happy? Did I solve their problem? Could I have done it better? How do the best people do it? How can I learn from them?’

Asking the right questions is the critical first step in creating a good career strategy. Once you have identified the “what” - a problem you want to solve, and can get paid for doing so - the next step is figuring out the “how”: the actions you need to take to get the point where you are able to start working on this problem. We’ll consider this in our next instalment, “Building a Navigation System” which focuses on identifying your passions and strengths as well as the skills you’ll need to acquire to start solving problems that matter.

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