Job vs. Career and the Effort Spectrum

By Carlos Portocarrero

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There’s been a bit of a debate going between the two PF finance kings (JD at GetRichSlowly and Trent at The Simple Dollar) about the difference between a job and a career. The gist of it: Trent think that if you don’t care about a job and are only doing it for the money, then you should treat is as such. That means doing the work that is required of you but nothing more — no staying late and killing yourself to impress your boss or any of that brown-nosing. Instead, take that energy and put it towards side project you really care about (like writing or blogging or starting a business). A career, on the other hand, is when you see a future for yourself at that company/industry and are really looking to make a name for yourself (so you work accordingly hard). JD countered that with several examples of how he took his “jobs” a little more seriously and that no matter what kind of job you’re doing, you should try to shine because good things will come of it.

At first, I agreed with Trent. My last job was kind of a time sink and after that initial period of trying my best to do great things and come up with great ideas, I kind of fell into a lull. For a couple years. After I hit that wall, I realized all I was going to do was what it took to get by — nothing more. It sounds awful because it’s a reflection on my work ethic. But looking back, I just didn’t care about the job and I was starting to feel antagonistic towards management. So I got to work, got everything done (still with the pride that comes with putting my name on something), and then left. I didn’t think about work at home and I didn’t let it stress me out — at 5pm it was over and I compartmentalized it from the rest of my life.

Then I read JD’s piece. It made me reevaluate my thoughts about the whole thing because now my answers really felt like I was a lazy, irresponsible piece of crap. I wasn’t, I assure you. It’s not like I got to work and did a mediocre job. Far from it — I was good at my job and it’s something I took pride in. But it wasn’t rewarding to me and I knew it wasn’t a field I cared to be in. The job no longer gave me that feeling of a job well done because every time I got to work I thought, “Why are you here? You should be applying yourself and using your skills in a more worthwhile way.” In other words, I had outgrown the job.

So how do I really feel? Should we always try as hard as possible to go “above and beyond” the call of duty at our jobs, or should we only go all in when we’re at a career that truly means something? I think the reason I was debating this myself was because we tend to see things in extremes:

The Effort Spectrum

The reason I’m waffling between sides here is that JD’s piece made me feel that if I wasn’t giving 100%, which I would be at the “perfect career,” then I was probably giving 0% at my old job, which isn’t true at all. There is a vast middle ground here that shouldn’t go ignored.

It also depends on personality. When JD told his story about being a busboy, you can tell the way he took to the job had to do with who he was as a person. Some people are outgoing, some are not. Some people are lazy, some are not. If who you are as a person means you want to just get to work and get out as soon as possible, that’s going to affect how you tackle your job/career. At my old job, there were a series of processes that needed to get done and the way they were being done when I got there were terribly inefficient. So I figured out a way to make it faster so it took less work. Was that because I was giving 100% or because I didn’t want to work as hard? Neither — I just thrive on making things as efficient as possible, no matter what we’re talking about and no matter how much I don’t enjoy a job. Efficiency, in my eyes, is king. That’s just who I am and it shined through at my job. Did I have to do that? No. Did it go over well with management? Of course it did — no one else took the initiative to do it, so it made me look good.

In the End

I think that the whole “job vs. career” argument needs to take personality into account. You can’t pretend that you’re a robot that will perform one way if you have a job and another if you have a career. I’ll always be on the lookout to make things more efficient, no matter what kind of job I have. But I’ll admit, it’s much more fun when you’re doing it for a career.

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