Stop Rushing the Career Ladder

Why you should refuse the Golden Cage and quit high paying jobs

During the time window in which many others get ‘stuck’ in what has often been called the golden cage, it makes sense to quit to go on to the next challenge. That is, if you want to maximise for learning.

Why this strategy makes sense

With every job switch, you have to start a lot of things over. People have to get to know you and you have to build a reputation. You need to get to know the company, domain, and many other things. This has typically taken me a year to a year and a half in each new job.

Research shows that the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind

Although this is a significant investment of time, if you want to maximise your own learning, it does help to switch. This 1–1.5 years spent can be seen as annoying or even frustrating. But frustration is not a sign you are not learning, ease is. In fact, research shows that the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind. This is because the struggle itself is the essence of the learning process (To see this: it is indeed the opposite of a fixed talent).

There is a real risk in growing too fast in your career and slowing down your learning path. I’ve seen this happen to a number of people and I’m sure you know a few yourself. These people do well, get promoted fast, and end up at the top of the org chart*. But you can only conclude they sit too high up for the experience they actually have. After all, they’ve often only seen one or two companies in their entire careers, and spent a very short time doing the actual work.

Naturally these people become reluctant of switching companies or roles. They are deep in the golden cage by now, looking at a solid financial situation and reputation in the company that they are afraid to lose when moving out.

Considering the average career length is about 40 years, which learning path do you want to take? The graph on the left or on the one on the right? Are you really in a rush to hit a top position in the first 10 years? Or even in the first 5? If you reached the top after 5 years, you have another 35 years to go. You could get stuck and slow down or even stop your learning progress during the remaining 87% of your career.

I’m not saying this will happen for sure, maybe you are learning a lot and enjoy a top management or individual contributor position. Maybe you don’t need extra learning from other levels in the organisation. Maybe you are on top but have the courage to change. This is obviously a very simplified representation of reality, but I hope you see the point I’m making.

Now, let’s assume it makes sense to add more years in the trenches building up experience and learning, or even exploring different roles before you specialise into one area and climb the career ladder. What else do you need to know?

Generalise before you specialise

Turns out it is more than just my intuition to explore more broadly before rushing your career in a certain direction. In the book Range, David Epstein points out there are multiple studies showing how technological inventors increased their creative impact by accumulating experience in different domains, compared to peers who drilled more deeply into one. They actually benefited by proactively sacrificing a modicum of depth for breadth as their careers progressed.

Shockingly, there can even be negative value in specialising altogether. For example, experts are shown to be less adaptive and can be too confident in their expertise. Some research shows that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident — a dangerous combination.

They actually benefited by proactively sacrificing a modicum of depth for breadth as their careers progressed.

Take an expert chess player for example. They are shown to ‘think’ less than beginners. Rather, they see patterns and let themselves be guided by their experience from the past rather than attempt to calculate turns far into the future. This is because they offloaded their hard won skills from their ‘deliberative mind’ to their ‘reflexive mind’ (also called System 2 and System 1) And that’s not all; it has been shown that when these players are given too much time to think, they will do increasingly worse moves.

While specialising in chess is obviously still useful for playing chess, it’s not useful for almost anything else. Even slightly outside of the comfort zone of chess, with changed rules, expert players were shown to struggle more to adapt than did non-experts.

Applying this knowledge to your own career, there is not only a danger of specialising too soon, but also of specialising too much.

The take away

I see three things that are important to remember:

  • If you can hold off jumping up the career ladder too fast, that might actually be a good idea.
  • Generalising before you specialise is key to maximise your true potential.
  • Watch out with specialising too much since there are risks attached to doing so.

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*An important thing to add is that you can see climbing up a ladder as being a generalist move into management. But that’s not necessarily true. First of all, you can climb the individual contributor ladder, which requires heavy specialisation. And even when going into (senior) management, you should have specialised experience (e.g. finance for a CFO)