Career markets: playing to win, playing to lose

From 2012 to 2014, I wrote a blog called The UnStudent in which I explored issues related to academic life and finding meaning in work. It was an experiment in working through my career anxiety by writing. I’ve now migrated some of those thought pieces and edited them for Medium. This post was originally published April 1, 2013.

Photo credit: Sadie Hernandez

One of the most interesting things I gleaned recently from reading Cal Newport’s new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is that you can understand job markets as existing in two categories:

Winner-Take-All Markets

In these types of job markets, there are usually a small number of highly-prized jobs available, and there are many people competing for them very intensely. Usually, it is a very small number of skills or traits that job candidates are being measured by. Only the very best get positions, and often reap disproportionate rewards.

Examples of winner-take-all job markets are: tenured faculty positions at major universities, orchestra positions, television screenwriting, bestselling fiction writers, actor/actress.

For each of these kinds of jobs, which are highly competitive, there is one major type of career capital that counts for a lot. For the tenured faculty position in academia, it is the number of highly-cited papers you have published. For the orchestra position, it is your musical ability, as demonstrated during auditions and international competitions. For television writing, it is the quality of your written scripts.

In a winner-take-all market, it may not matter much if you came in third place at the big international piano competition. You’re not at the head of the pack, and so you’re out of luck. No recording contract for you. Sorry, please play again.

In academia, where universities are churning out twice as many PhDs as there are positions to fill, the prospects facing new graduates have never been harder, especially for those desiring to stay within academia.

The Atlantic laid out the situation in a fascinating article through a series of figures, one of which I reproduced below.

From Jordan Weissmann’s article for The Atlantic, “The Ph.D Bust: America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists — in 7 Charts

While the academic job market hasn’t always been a winner-take-all, it is increasingly becoming one. Strategy, quickly acquiring career capital, cycling through one or several postdoctoral fellowships, and networking is becoming increasingly important. The faculty positions, and, increasingly, the postdoctoral fellowships are going to those candidates who are at the top of the pile upon graduating.

Photo credit: YankeeInCanada

Auction Markets

Cal Newport identifies a second type of career market, which he calls the auction market.

An auction market, by contrast, is less structured: There are many different types of career capital, and each person might generate a unique collection.

In an auction market, what matters more than having capitalized on one unique skill or attribute (number of papers published, violin ability, script-writing ability) is putting together a unique package of skills that make the individual attractive within the auction market.

The difficulty with auction markets is that each one is unique and so it’s harder to offer helpful examples. Authors like Chris Guillebeau claim not to have any special skills, but rather chose a non-conformist career path and figured things out along the way. I think Chris doesn’t give himself enough credit, because he’s actually exhibiting what it means to succeed in an auction market: he’s pieced together a set of skills from his diverse life experiences (which included a lot of traveling, volunteering, writing, and talking to people) that make him uniquely interesting and inspiring to his readers, who purchase his material.

In Chris Guillebeau’s book, The $100 Startup, he gives example after example of people who were essentially forced into auction markets through job losses or other circumstances. These people built new careers out of the hodgepodge of skills that they already possessed and were able to support themselves in these new ways.

Photo credit: Ol.v!er [H2vPk]

In a Wall Street Journal article titled “How to Get a Real Education at College”, Dilbert creator Scott Adams writes about combining skills:

The first thing you should learn in a course on entrepreneurship is how to make yourself valuable. It’s unlikely that any average student can develop a world-class skill in one particular area. But it’s easy to learn how to do several different things fairly well. I succeeded as a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world. The “Dilbert” comic is a combination of all four skills. The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person. That’s how value is created.

Success in the auction market depends on creating something valuable through the combination of the right skills.

Final Thoughts

I see a trend towards more auction-market-type work. A phrase I’ve been hearing repeatedly is that the traditional job that characterized much of the 20th century is an endangered species. The economy in North America has stalled in almost every sector besides Tech. Globalization and automation have been a boon for the few chief executives at the top, who are earning more than at any time in history, despite recession and austerity.

Markets on a personal level are growing. Seth Godin characterizes the phenomenon as the “connection economy”–everyone using their unique backpack of skills to trade with other members of their network, made cheap and simple by virtue of the internet.

You still need to develop your skills to an expert level, exemplify yourself, and deliver something others will pay for (i.e. something they value). But you may not need to compete in the crowded winner-take-all markets. My complaint against Cal Newport’s book is that he seems to focus on this kind of market. I can’t really blame him, since it is the one he has competed (and thrived) in. But the problem with winner-take-all markets is that they produce a lot of losers. And there are already too many personal improvement books and blogs saying you need to be the best in order not to be a loser. I don’t like looking at the world that way. It does little to benefit most people.

Instead, find a need that others have and that you are gifted to fill. Use and develop the right collection of skills needed to make a difference. Get paid.