Sunday, November 04, 2012

Rebuilding Career Capital

When I wrote my review of Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You, one of the things I highlighted was his idea of "career capital" and how having a good store of it can help you get the type of life you want. I wrote about how I have been cashing in some of my career capital to get the flexibility and autonomy that makes it possible for me to combine work and motherhood in a way that makes me feel good about both, and how I think that it is time for me to start building career capital again.

That's the swamp of career failure on the left,
the pit of bad motherhood on the right
That part of the post resonated with a few commenters, and we had a nice little discussion in the comment section about it. Laura Vanderkam mentioned that she was interesting in hearing more about the topic, specifically about how one goes about rebuilding career capital after "emptying the pot."

This post gives some of the details, at least from my perspective.

Cashing In

First of all, I don't think of the cashing in I've done in the early years of motherhood as "emptying the pot" so much as "not building more capital." To abuse the metaphor a bit, I think I've been spending the interest on the capital I had built in my early career, not the principal. I suppose that if I kept going as I am now, I'd eventually be spending the principal, but I've only been in this "cash in" mode for about six years. As a rough guesstimate, I think it would take ten years in the "cash in" mode for me to burn down to the principal.

Being in a "cash in" phase doesn't mean that I haven't been meeting the expectations of my employers- in fact, if I believe my performance reviews, I've been exceeding those expectations most of the time. It also doesn't mean that I haven't been learning and expanding my skills- looking back over the past six years, I can identify multiple skills that I can list on my resume now that I couldn't have claimed before my daughters were born. And no, I don't mean things like my ability to change the diaper of a squirming, screaming toddler or negotiate snack time with a headstrong preschooler- I mean bona fide work-related skills, like building SharePoint sites or managing a chemistry cartridge in Oracle.

I have not, however, been doing things specifically to build my skill set and expand my career capital. Broadly speaking, I have not been reaching out beyond the core of my job. What this looks like will be different for different people, because different jobs have different things at their core. For me, it means that I have been to only one conference and a couple of user group meetings in the last six years, and all of those have been local. I have not been out looking for useful scientific and technical articles to read, although there are a few relevant blogs that I keep in my reader. I have not expanded my technical skill set much. Specifically, my programming skills are now so out of date as to be rather laughable. I have, however, kept up my core technical skills, and through my jobs, I have updated those.

The reason for this is fairly obvious to me, but it isn't the usual "there just aren't enough hours in the day" sort of reason. It is that I've been too exhausted to put in the effort required to build career capital. Don't get me wrong, there were some extra logistical issues due to having kids, particularly around the attending of conferences, and particularly when I still had a nursing baby. And yes, the day care drop off/pick up routine adds to my commute time, especially now that we have the dreaded double drop off with Pumpkin in Kindergarten and Petunia in day care at a different site. But I have quite flexible work hours, a fairly excellent support system, and the money to buy my way out of a lot of logistical problems. These things could have been overcome.

The thing that I couldn't overcome was that I was just too damn tired to stay awake after the kids were in bed, and if I could stay awake, I didn't have the energy for anything but the most urgent tasks. In fact, there were several time periods during which I was too tired during the day to do the intense work required to learn new skills. Cal Newport has some interesting things to say about the sort of effort it takes to actually get better at something, and I agree with him- learning new skills or pushing to expand your existing skills is some of the most tiring work there is in "knowledge work" careers like mine. I could muster the energy to do that work when it was explicitly required by the job I was doing right then, but I could not muster the energy to do extra.

I know that parents of school-aged kids often argue that the parenting demands actually ramp up, not down as the kids get older. I can see their point- the issues I deal with for my Kindergartener are more complex and emotionally draining than the issues I deal with for my 3 year old, or that I dealt with when the kids were babies. But I still find that the exhaustion factor has gotten much, much, much better as my kids have gotten older. I had two kids who did not sleep through the night until they were two. In fact, Petunia (who is now three) still isn't reliably sleeping through the night all the time, although she does it often enough and is usually non-disruptive enough when she doesn't sleep through that I consider the intense sleep-deprivation phase of parenting to be in my past. Bedtimes are slowly converting from endurance tests to enjoyable routines. Pumpkin is past the phase where she insists on having me take care of her. Petunia is slowing getting past that phase, but is still Mommy-preferring enough that even with a willing and supportive partner, I struggle to put together long chunks of time to work or do work or project related activities when both Petunia and I are at home.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that this experience is not universal. Some kids sleep well from quite early on. My husband and I have a parenting philosophy that requires a large amount of energy in these early years. But that is the point- to combine work with parenting and be happy with how I was doing both, I needed a fair amount of flexibility in my jobs, and the career capital I had stored up from my early career allowed me to get that.


So here I am, feeling like I once again have the energy to rebuild some career capital. How am I going to do that? In some ways, it is quite simple: I'm just going to change my focus at work slightly. Instead of focusing purely on what this particular job needs from me, I will expand my focus to include what I need from this job, i.e., what skills I want to build to get me to the next level in my career.

That simplicity is deceptive, though, because the correct answer to the critical question of which skills to build is far from obvious. I am currently thinking very hard about where to focus my growth efforts. There are three aspects of my job: science, technology, and management. I could decide to focus on any of the three, or any combination of them, and there are many different avenues for growth within each area. To make this decision, I'll have to think about the prospects for my particular field and for my overall industry, and also about the potential for making lateral moves- or heading in completely new directions. It will take me some time to sort through all of that, so I have decided to start making some changes now, even though the best strategy is far from clear. Here is my list:

1. I've started saying "yes" to more local seminars and networking events, particularly if they are during the work day. I'll still have to get my work done, so this leads to longer days, but is less intrusive and easier to organize logistically than the typical after work networking happy hour. (This actually leads me to an interesting side observation: if you want to network with more senior people, you should probably look for seminars and lunch time or even breakfast events, and not happy hours. I've noticed that few of my peers and even fewer of the people senior to me go to the happy hour events. This is not to say that happy hour events are useless- networking with peers and early career folks is a good thing. But if you want the senior people, you probably need to look elsewhere.)

2.  I've printed out a few journal articles that I want to read. My plan is to pick one day a week to designate as "paper reading day" and to read one paper with morning tea on that day. I made this plan just as budgeting and goal setting madness overtook my schedule. Next week, I may actually get to implement the plan, assuming I can unearth the papers from underneath the pile of budget spreadsheets on my desk.

I want to read the paper with my morning tea because I'm sharpest first thing in the morning, and reading and really understanding a journal article is hard work. Once again, my "regular" work will still need to get done, so this may lead to more work after the kids are in bed, but now that I can regularly stay awake for an hour (or more!) after they go to sleep, that is a possibility.

3. I'm taking note of unfamiliar technical concepts that I come across, and I plan to spend one lunchtime per week research the concepts I note down. I usually spend roughly 30 minutes eating lunch, and I usually work through at least half of that time. The other half I spend reading random stuff on the internet- this is where my weekend links posts come from, and is a very good brain cleansing break, so I think it would be foolish to jettison that practice altogether. But once a week, I can have slightly more direction to my internet searching. And of course, I can still take a walk after I finish eating, which is the other half of my lunch time rejuvenation scheme.

And that is it, at least for now. I may eventually decide to do something more drastic- I'm toying with the idea of assigning myself a non-work project that will force me to learn some more modern programming skills. But I don't think I'm ready for that quite yet. Bedtime still takes too long, and weekends are still too fragmented for me to feel up for that sort of project. Besides, it might cut into my writing time, and I find writing to be a very useful way to work through issues and ideas that might be distracting me, and also just to relax and refresh so that I'm ready to focus on work again the next day. And it is fun, so I'm not willing to give it up.

What about you? Have you ever come up with a plan to build career capital? Have you ever been in a period where you spent that capital- and how long did it last? Did you think you were spending interest or principal by the end of that time? I think this is a topic for which individual experiences will vary quite a bit, so I'd love to hear what you all think about it in the comments.


  1. My favorite thing is to attend classroom training classes - preferably during the work day, but I've done some project management stuff at night at the local college as well.

    My company has a TON of good training in-house, in many different areas so I take advantage of that as much as I can, especially to increase my programming/technical knowledge.

    1. That is a nice thing about a big company- in house training! I got my PM training that way. At my littler company, I have budget for training and/or conferences, but I have to hunt it down and it isn't onsite.

  2. Part of being able to slow down was making sure I had my p and qs organized before I had my first baby. My husband, wise man, insisted that I have my book manuscript drafted before I got pregnant. This was a godsend, because even though pregnancy can be an energetic and busy time for some women, it turns out that I had hyperemesis (getting significantly worse in pregnancy #2, in which I was basically on disability), so I couldn't work outside of what was absolutely necessary. So my ms was done and going out for review before the baby, and I finished my revisions in the weeks before the baby was born. After #2 was born, I was sitting down finishing the page proofs, which I was able to do thanks to my mom, who held the baby while I worked a couple of hours a day in order to stay on schedule. Having the book put to bed meant that I had a bit of breathing space, since that's the biggest element to getting tenure. Now, re-building capital means writing articles again, applying aggressively for grants, attending seminars, talks, and conferences, which I had been doing, but at a slower pace.

    I see what you mean, Cloud, about older kids vs younger kids and I agree with you. my kids are complex and they still need me, but not with the same intensity as a nursling. A huge element holding me "back" when my kids were babies was the travel. I did travel with them, but it wasn't very efficient. Now I can leave them for 3-5 days and then later this winter, I'm planning a long research trip without them. This is what I need to re-build career capital. I also feel a lot more energized and revitalized now that I have my body back to myself, and the kids are so much more independent.

    Mostly, I was helped by having the long-term vision of my career, which we've talked about here before. I understood my slow-down with the babies as a temporary downturn in a long career that promised to be very active. So I didn't panic, and I could see decades in front of me, not just the immediate baby years. So I planned, before, during, and after having the babies. I think every one goes through periods of slowing down at work - whether it's an illness, accident, divorce/heartbreak, grief, parental care, or baby or whatever. We go through more than one. We need to stop viewing having babies as somehow different from every other life event that affects our work.

    1. I love this comment, all of it, but especially your point that there are other things that can cause periods where you cash in rather than build up career capital. So true.

  3. Thanks for writing this post (a topic I think I'll write about soon too!) I have been going back and forth about the state of my pot, as it were. My biggest career breakthroughs have come after I had children, so I'm not sure I put a lot of stuff in the pot prior (I also got pregnant for the first time at age 27, so there just wasn't much time for pot stuffing) I was realizing, the other day, though, that I have been doing about zero marketing in terms of finding new places to write for. I have also been letting editors give me topics to write on, rather than pitching topis. It's efficient, but it means I might not write about things I find quite as fascinating. Hard to know. It's a function of energy and logistics. I have time for things that rise to the top of the priority list. The question is whether stuff in the middle might also be a good idea. But when my baby (who sleeps much better than the other two!) goes down by 7:30, I can turn on the TV for the older two and actually work if I want. Not just after 9 when they go to bed. I can have the whole evening. While I don't want to do this every night, it opens up new hours, and so I've been pondering what I could do to use that time best.

    1. One of the advantages of being an "older mom" or whatever the demographers call women like me (I had my first kid right before I turned 35) is that I'd build up a fair amount of career capital before I had my first baby. I'm not sure that this advantage is sufficiently big to lead me to recommend that women gamble on their fertility and plan to do what I did, though! In my case, I hadn't met the father of my kids until I was almost 30, and we needed some "couple time" before we had kids. I wasn't thinking about career implications at all. But in retrospect, the timing worked well for me.

      But- your timing seems to be working well for you! I suspect the truth is that any timing can work, given enough intelligence and drive and a healthy dose of luck.

    2. @Cloud- I go back and forth on this, whether there is a "right" age. I assume not socially (though perhaps biologically -- which seems to be mid/late 20s). The data seem to support you in terms of workforce participation and all that, but I also think there's a more jarring experience if you've built your career without kids but then have to incorporate them into your life, vs. building your career with kids in tow, so it never exists in a form that can't accommodate them.

  4. Anonymous12:26 PM

    I'm so crazy busy trying to get back that capital. I think what's going to have to happen is my hobbies are going to have to disappear again. I don't know why I was holding on to them this time around except that I seem mentally kaput sooner each day in my old age. Also my RAs aren't as good this time around which makes things more difficult. I'm working on that.

    I just have so much to do. And maybe I should be spending that capital down, but I think I already did that with the pregnancy and the vomiting and the not having any papers under review, even if I have gotten too many grants (all with end deadlines this summer).

    Ugh. I should get back to work. Good thing I'm out of Georgette Heyer novels to reread...

    1. I hate the "hobbies disappear" phase of early parenthood. My hobbies took a huge hit after Pumpkin was born, came back a bit, and then went down again after Petunia was born. The only thing I managed to hold on to was writing, and that is because it is such a flexible hobby. I miss yoga, though- I think I may be ready to try to bring that back again.

      Good luck!

  5. Cloud - on a completely unrelated note, the Mitt Romney ads following me around the web are now showing up on your website. I thought you'd find that humorous. If I click on them, do you get paid?

    1. Ha! They target based on your location and other things only Google knows. It is pretty amusing that you're seeing a Romney ad next to this post. I didn't even say anything about being in a binder! (Sorry, couldn't resist....) I do get money if you click on them, but not much. And actually, the more accurate statement is that money goes into my Google account. I have something misconfigured and haven't gotten a pay out from that yet. The fact that I am not hugely motivated to sort that out should give an indication of how little those ads pay!

  6. Awesome post! I have been running on fumes for a while now, and what has been keeping me from expanding my capital are kids plus my other kids (students). My group is too large probably and they are keeping me quite busy.

    I think an important aspect of rebuilding career capital is that it is intellectually invigorating. I have been itching to learn several new things and I know what they are, I just don't have the required time to master them. But I probably should; I am set grantwise till mid-2015, so I can afford to spend another year just working on the current projects and learning new stuff. In principle.

    But the "too tired to work after the kids' bedtime" is killing me too. It's amazing how much work there is with three kids. I adore them but, boy, are they exhausting...

    1. Thanks! I think your littlest one is still in the age range during which I found it impossible to do much "extra". I say cut yourself some slack, focus on your core work, and trust that you'll be back in full swing in a year or so.

      But of course, I'm not an academic, so my sense of timing for academia is not to be trusted!

  7. The idea of career capital and this post really resonates with me! I, too, have exhausted my career capital and I've noticed a subtle change in how people perceive me. It's hard for me to devote energy to rebuilding this capital and I truly wish that past performances/reputations lasted longer but it is a dog-eat-dog corporate world. I need to write a post about this! Thanks for the good ideas..I may have to devote time to increasing my skill set and reading work-related materials again.

    1. To abuse my metaphor further... it is like there is inflation that degrades the value of your career capital over time, so that you have to keep adding to it to stay even. That sucks, but I think it is true. I look forward to reading your post!

    2. Ha. I may just end up linking to your post..

  8. I had never thought of it in these terms before reading your post, but I guess I've been spending career capital. I was laid off in 2010 when I was 3 months pregnant. Needless to say I needed to find work, and fast. Since my existing career path was out of the question (due to jobs being so highly competitive and few & far between), I accepted the first job I could find that came with benefits and drew upon my expertise. As luck would have it, I was very fortunate to land in a job that has been nothing but incredibly supportive of my role as a new mom. Allowing me a proper maternity leave when in fact I was not entitled to one, letting me telecommute on occasion to help alleviate the sleep deprivation (or whenever the kiddo is sent home from daycare sick), giving me adequate time to get up to speed in this new field...

    While that's all been grand, your post makes me acknowledge something that's been brewing for a few months - that it's not an ideal fit. It was a hasty job search by necessity, and it has served me well (and for that, I will always be grateful), but it's time for me to start rebuilding some career capital to transition into something that suits me & my skills better. Now I can be more mindful to build that time into my workweek. Thanks!

  9. Cloud, thank for this post.
    I have never though of career capital until now.

    This is exactly why I keep reading you!


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