TLDR there is a method to the madness!
Choosing a career is one of the most maddening, stressful activities we must engage in as young people. How do we balance the need of money and desire of fulfillment? How do we plan for a future that might be totally different in 10 years?
I know the challenge too well. When I left a tech startup in 2017, the world told me I should be in management consulting, but it didn’t feel right to me. I left Silicon Valley and drove south on my motorcycle. Where to? I was going to drive south until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
I made it all the way to Peru.
All the while I asked: What am I supposed to be? There were no easy answers but after months of motorcycle riding, I discovered there were a few guideposts to help me find a career (some guideposts more hidden than others).
Did it work? Yes, this story does have a happy ending. I found the career I wanted (and the partner of my dreams, too). I’m making more money than ever before while loving my job. The sun broke through the clouds.
Here are the guideposts that worked for me. I hope they help you too. At the end, there’s a tool to help you brainstorm career ideas keeping these guidelines in mind.
Is it interesting for 5 to 10 years?
To do anything important, you have to be patient. This is a result of compounding. You’re probably familiar with compound interest at the bank.
The power of compounding happens in a career as well. If you’re not in the career for at least 5-10 years you can’t expect to get compound interest. Compound interest happens when someone you meet in the first year of your career pops up again nine years later with a big job for you. If you didn’t stick around for those nine years, you would miss out.
This isn’t about being passionate about a cause. It’s about the money I can make this year. Rather, can I be interested in this kind of work for years on end?
Which leads to the next guidepost...
Do you enjoy the day-to-day?
Lots of jobs seem sexy and fun. But would you like them? Travel blogging looks so romantic. But it’s super competitive, low pay, and draining as you have to keep moving from country to country to get more content. The more successful you are, the faster you have to go to keep up.
When I was in college, I liked the idea of being a scientist. I liked the idea of chasing the truth and sparring with collaborators in a university. But I hated the day-to-day. As a research student, it’s a lot of measuring exact quantities, following precise protocols, and waiting around. I didn’t get excited. I didn’t meet a lot of different kinds of people.
So what do you love on a day-to-day basis?
Here’s what worked for me: before working in Silicon Valley I ran a Biogas company in Kenya for 5 years. My day-to-day was riding my motorcycle on dirt roads visiting fairly poor farmers, and hearing about their life stories over more cups of chai tea than I can count. Basically, I got to do endurance motorcycle riding while visiting people very different from me, who completely blew my mind.
Find a job where you enjoy the day-to-day, not just the idea of it.
Have a life you look back on with pride
Imagine yourself on your deathbed. Will you say, “I’m proud of the life I lived” or not? The dollars in your bank account that you can’t take to the next world won’t be on your mind. You will remember the relationships you had, the difference you made for other people, the impact your life had on others. The times you laughed, the times you cried.
Many prestigious jobs are never-ending loops: you work hard, get a promotion, get more pay, work harder, etc. But what was the end goal? Work hard so you can work harder in the future? It’s like a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.
Enough of that madness! Exit the loop. Do what matters.
Learning makes the present interesting and makes you prepared for a great future. You’ll be happy today while building skills that give you optionality tomorrow. They say that the trade-off between working at a big company vs. a startup is that they pay you more at a big company, but the learning is slower. At a (small) startup, you learn on the fly about a range of things.
With the effects of compounding, having a slower learning rate can mean that some people get left behind at the age of 55, unhirable, untrainable, a career killed one “safe” decision at a time.
Find your people
There are some people that you think you want to be around, they are popular or attractive or rich or seem to have exciting stories, but once you’re around them, you’re bored, you're embarrassed for them, or they just don’t have the same values.
Find a career surrounded by people in your tribe. You only have one life, and a large part of your adult waking life is with your colleagues.
I choose to start grant writing for entrepreneurs in developing countries. Not non-profits in the US, but for-profit organizations mostly in agriculture, energy and healthcare in Africa. Entrepreneurs have so much energy, optimism, and courage that makes me excited as well. And working in a developing country heightens that experience.
Those are my people. Who are yours?
Make enough money that money is not a constraint
Money’s just a tool. But life without specific tools would be...hell. Hammering a nail with your fist is painful, bloody, and dispiriting. Think of money the same way.
Some industries just don’t pay well. It’s not a matter of intelligence; it’s just the nature of the industry. If Bill Gates had decided to become a teacher, he probably would’ve been a good teacher, but there’s no way he would make the same money.
As I was applying for college, I remember telling my (poor) uncle that I was considering either philosophy or engineering major. He, a professor of philosophy, said: “It’s all well and good to follow your passion. But in my experience, as a grad student with nothing in his pocket, only able to afford discounted wine and the cheapest sandwich shops, and years paying off grad school loans on a professor’s salary, I wouldn’t recommend that path.” Always the eloquent speaker.
You don’t need to be a billionaire to be financially free. One of the easiest ways to increase your upside when things go well. If you are patient for 10 years (see the first guidepost) eventually things will go really well. That’s why I like grant writing. When we help an entrepreneur raise capital we win big. This aligns our interests with theirs.
Working for a tech startup and getting equity is another way to have a big potential upside. The challenge is that all your eggs are in one basket, which brings me to the next guidepost.
Diversify your income (Become Antifragile)
Let’s compare an employed banker to the Uber driver who drives the banker to work. Which one is better off? The banker makes more every month, and her salary is consistent. Meanwhile, the Uber driver’s income varies from month to month.
But consider the freedom the Uber driver has. He only works when he wants to. If he wants to take off work for his son’s football game--no problem. Meanwhile, the banker has missed every single one of her daughter’s cross country races.
Then, suddenly, one day, the banker is fired, and the economy crashes, and she can’t get a new job.
The banker was lulled into a false sense of security. The steady paycheck was not a sign of stability. It was a sign of fragility. The banker only had one revenue stream, and when she lost it, she lost all of her revenue. Meanwhile, the Uber driver only lost one customer. The banker now can’t afford her mortgage. The Uber driver, knowing that he could never count on any given month, never lived beyond his means and knows he will never lose his cozy house.
Diversify your revenue to become Antifragile. If you are employed, you have one client; if you're a consultant, you have many.
(Antifragile is a book I can highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.)
Choose a rising tide
“A rising tide floats all boats.”
The first investor in my biogas business worked on Wall Street in the 1990s and early 2000s. He said it was like shooting fish in a barrel. It was so easy to make your quota and get a bonus. The phones were ringing off the hook. Then in 2006, he retired early. Just in time, too! One year before the market crashed.
My investor experienced a rising tide. Choose a career in a market that has a rising tide. Struggling against the current is wasted effort. Better to be thoughtful, take your time to choose the right market. “Work smarter; not harder,” my (rich) uncle once advised me. This is not something you can do overnight. Talk to a lot of people and do a lot of reading. Think 10 to 20 years into the future.
Let’s take an example. Is it a good idea to become a professor now? I’d say no. Many universities will go bankrupt, which means a lot more supply than demand for professor jobs.
What will be rising tides in the future? I think developing countries will be one rising tide. Now that countries in Africa are mostly politically stable and growing rapidly, the amount of capital flowing to these parts of the world will be massive.
Here’s another way to look at it: Agricultural productivity in the UK, a country blanketed in snow much of the year, is 5x greater than Africa, a continent with two growing seasons. This is a consequence of underinvestment, not the fundamental nature of the land. That’s why I’m bullish on grant writing for companies in developing countries. We will be well-positioned to help money in developed markets go to developing markets.
During my motorcycle trip, I ranked my career ideas against the guideposts listed above.
That’s why I started a Grant Writing business.
If you made it this far, maybe you're the kind of person who would also enjoy making such a spreadsheet to assess your career options. So I made something specifically for you. Yes, you, the one with two thumbs reading this right now. Here is a spreadsheet you can fill out for yourself.
And if you’ve decided you also want to be a grant writer, consider applying to work with us at thegrant.co/jobs.
Kyle founded Grant&Co after running a biogas company in Kenya for 5 years. We raised a lot of grant capital there. And now we help other entrepreneurs raise capital.