Let’s talk about career decisions. Specifically, how you make the right ones.
Look. The fact of the matter is during your career, you are going to need to make tons and tons of decisions throughout your career. And not only that, but these decisions often need to be made without complete information. That means that now, and possibly years into the future, there’s no way for us to know whether we made the “right” decision.
For instance, you may find yourself needing to make a decision between two different job offers. Both jobs seem great, but both offer different pros and cons. How do you know which is the right one?
Another example could be deciding between the next language or technology stack to invest your time and energy into learning. Which one is going to give you the best return on investment?
These are just a few of the plethora of situations you will inevitably encounter on your journey as a software engineer. While there is not an objective measure of which choice is indeed the “best” or “right” one, there is framework that can be used to determine what is likely the more optimal choice for you.
In this post, I’ll show you the framework I use.
Making the right decision with limited information
So how do we make the “right” decision with only a limited amount of information?
For the sake of example, let's consider you have the scenario we mentioned previously of having two equally compelling job offers. This is a decision that, while you may not be facing it presently, is one that you will most likely face throughout the course of your career.
On top of that, while we will be using this job offer scenario as an example, this framework is applicable to a multitude of other such choices you will inevitably have to make during your career, so it's a valuable framework to adapt into your arsenal.
The key point here is that, whether you are confronted with multiple job offers, determining what the best language to spend your time learning is, or selecting the project to dive into at work, this framework gives you the appropriate thought process to approach each of those types of decisions.
The four steps to making the right decision
So let’s break down this framework for making the right decisions.
Step 1: Have a clear North Star
This is one of those things that I think is often so obvious that most people don’t actually do it, but it’s absolutely critical. Your “North Star” is the direction that you're presently heading. It is the general bearing so that you know broadly which way to go.
Without knowing where you're heading, it's impossible to make a decision about how to know what's going to move you to or away from that goal.
Oftentimes, we make decisions solely based on what sounds good at the present time without taking into account the larger picture as to whether or not that the decision will be moving you towards or away from your North Star. When a decision is made without taking into account the broader context, we often find ourselves far off course from where we really wanted to be heading.
Maybe you don't presently have a “North Star” for yourself. If that’s the case, then you NEED to sit down and really think about what direction you are trying to go. What is valuable to you? What do you prioritize? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
This will guide you in making these types of decisions. Once you know where your North Star is, being confronted with seemingly difficult decisions becomes much more manageable as you can simply ask yourself whether the outcome of the decision will be moving you closer to or further from your North Star.
Take sailing as an example for our metaphor here. If you want to sail upwind, you can't go straight upwind. You actually need to perform what looks like a bit of a zig zag move to actually sail upwind. While a given decision might not move you directly toward your North Star, those zig zag motions do eventually culminate to getting you to the end goal that you're after.
If you know which direction you're trying to go, you can look at the decisions that you're making and ask yourself “how is this decision directly moving me towards my North Star”? Or, how could I take a couple logical jumps that will in the end, take me to where I want to go?
Step 2: Always prioritize growth
Let's say you are confronted with two good opportunities. Both seem great in their own way, but you're having a difficult time selecting which opportunity would be the best fit for you. Assuming both of these possibilities are moving you towards your “North Star” (refer to Step 1), I ALWAYS recommend prioritizing growth.
It’s difficult to go wrong with the outcome of the decision if you prioritize growth. It may be the case that your growth is oriented in the wrong direction. Perhaps you're growing towards something that isn't taking you *directly* to your goal. However, if you are growing and improving, you are always going to be moving in a positive direction.
For example, maybe you spend some time developing the skill of learning a specific language or framework – say React Native. Your goal (or North Star) might not be become the best React Native developer, however, learning this skill will lead to an overall improvement of your skill sets and experience.
Even though this particular example might not be “the goal”, it is still providing you an overall improvement and it's still going to help you make positive progress. That’s because you're learning something new.
You're learning the techniques. You're learning “how to learn more effectively”, which on its own is an incredibly valuable skill. You’re learning things that will lead to learning other things in the future.
Consider the alternative. Say you choose a job where you are not learning, not growing, and getting too comfortable. If you are in this situation, then you're not making progress forward and you start to stagnate. Maybe, you are working on projects that you are not excited about. Because you're not making progress, you're going to be bored.
In a way, it becomes this “self-fulfilling prophecy” of:
I'm not excited about work…
Therefore, I'm not trying at work…
Therefore I'm not growing…
Therefore I don't get to work on projects that I find exciting…
Therefore I am less excited about work…
You want to avoid this type of cycle and to prioritize your growth when it comes to new opportunities can help you in overcoming that.
Don't do another coding interview…
…Until you've mastered these 50 questions!
Step 3: Take asymmetric risks
Often when we are confronted with a decision, there is some binary outcome. Say an outcome of either a win or a loss.
One of the things that often gets overlooked is that while there may indeed be a binary outcome overall for a given decision, there may be a much bigger upside or a much bigger downside relatively speaking.
There's an example that illustrates this concept from Paul Tudor Jones of an individual who bought 20 million nickels. Why? Because 20 million nickels as an investment is always going to be worth what he paid for it: $1,000,000.
That means there’s no downside. However, the value of the metal in the nickel could go up to the point where it’s worth a lot more than that $1M he paid in the first place.
This is an example of an investment where the downside is zero. The individual could always just cash in their nickels for the initial investment cost. However, if the price of metal increases, the value of the nickel could be worth more than the initial investment.
Now, this is a hypothetical example, but it does a great job of illustrating an example of asymmetric risk. Take an investment that offers a very low downside and a very high upside.
See how you can apply this approach to a decision you may be facing in your career. Perhaps there is a job opportunity where the best case scenario outcome is really high and the worst case scenario offers no explicit downside.
When confronted with decisions and opportunities in your career, ask yourself if there is an underlying element of asymmetric risk at play.
Step 4: Make the decision that is right for you
Maybe this one seems obvious. However, so often in our careers and lives in general, we make decisions because “that is what someone else wants us to do”. We make a decision because we believe that this is the “right” thing for us to do–without actually taking the time to ask what it is that we want to do.
I want to give you permission to really ask “what are the things that I really want”?
When making a decision, there is certainly a logical structure that is followed, but at the end of the day, you should also take into account that “gut feeling”. Ask yourself what you really want and don't try to over analyze your answer to this question.
A key thing to look out for here is to prioritize what you actually want and try to ignore some of the external advice (even well-intentioned advice) when making your decision.
As you're going through your career it's crucial to ask yourself what it is that you truly want and how can you make the decision that is truly right for me.
At the end of the day, there are going to be tons of decisions you have to make throughout your career. And the reality is that you’re not always going to make the right ones.
But the beauty of having a framework is that it makes it much easier to make the best decision with the information that you DO have. If you follow these steps, you’ll be well on your way to making better decisions:
- Identify your North Star
- Prioritize growth
- Look for opportunities that offer asymmetric risk
- Finally, do the thing that is the “right” decision for yourself
Let us know in the comments, what is one big decision you need to make right now. After following this framework, what did you decide?
If you want to go deeper on the topic of making good decisions, Annie Duke has a fantastic book on the topic. Check it out here (note: I get a small commission if you purchase through this link)