Some Useful Distinctions When Thinking About Your Career

I recently had a call with someone trying to start a blogging business. They asked me a lot of insightful questions, as I walked through my own history in the career and what I thought about it.

As a follow-up, I was interested in knowing what kinds of conclusions this person had drawn from our chat, so I asked what career assets he would be working on developing as a result. He told me that patience was a recurring theme in our chat, so he wanted to work on that.

Hmmm… I don’t think that’s quite right.

The problem isn’t that patience isn’t a useful quality. But it’s not really an asset you can easily develop. You can be more patient, but that tends to happen by… being patient. If someone was being impatient with their business, the solution would be to change their perspective, not go off and deliberately train the skill of “patience”.

The Distinction Between Assets and Attitudes

To see why patience isn’t a good fit for the concept of a career “asset” let’s start by asking what an asset is: it’s something you can work on directly, which once developed, can enable opportunities or create returns for you in your career.

Skills are usually career assets. If I know how to program in Java, I can put that on my resume, use it to get jobs or even learn other languages. If I’m an excellent presenter, that too is an asset, I can use in communication and sales roles at work. Same for analytical skills, leadership skills, design skills and so on.

Credentials are career assets. Having a college degree is something that can give me access to jobs that might require it. In some cases, extra credentials are a bonus. In other cases, they’re a necessary asset to even consider pursuing a career path (think doctors or lawyers).

Relationships, knowledge and experience can also be career assets. In my own business, my audience and platform as a blogger is an asset that is important if I want to publish a book or partner with another blogger. In short, there’s lots of types of career assets.

Attitudes, however, are a little different. They tend to be based more on a way of looking at things, rather than something you possess. Patience is an attitude. So is confidence, humility, ambitiousness, meticulousness, etc.

This line between assets and attitudes can blur a little when an attitude really represents a kind of skill that needs to be learned. For instance, “thinking strategically” can be viewed as a kind of attitude since it represents a choice from using trial-and-error or optimization approaches to solve problems. But, in order to perceive the correct strategy, that requires a kind of analytical skill to navigate a particular problem—so it’s also a skill.

If there’s doubt, a good rule of thumb is that an asset should be something you can’t possess until you build or learn it. An attitude, in contrast, is closer to a mental habit. Something you can cultivate, but also something you could immediately get better at by a change in perspective.

For example, if I told you that you need to be more meticulous in your work, you could probably apply that right away, even if it meant taking longer as you double-checked things. If, instead, I told you to be a better programmer, speak French or give an amazing presentation, those can’t be flipped on by changing how you see things.

Habits and Attitudes

Attitudes themselves are part of a broader category of habits. Habits are also useful, but they’re also not normally assets because, once again, they can be turned on by a simple change of routines.

Writing every week is a habit, but not an asset. The reason it’s not an asset, is that if you discovered that writing every week was the key to success, you could just start writing every week. If, on the other hand, you discovered that producing Pulitzer-level research in your writing was important, that would take awhile to cultivate (hence an asset).

The line is somewhat fuzzy where a habit really represents an underlying skill. Consider having a habit for how you prepare presentations, but that you also needed to learn. The line can also be fuzzy if building the habit itself is difficult enough that it represents an enduring competency.

Assets and Accomplishments

This brings me to another important concept within career assets I think is useful to make, between assets and accomplishments.

Accomplishments are a more specific type of asset that you build, with the purpose of showing it to others.

For instance, improving your programming skill is likely an asset, but may not be an accomplishment if you have no easy way of demonstrating that your skill has improved. Instead, your invisible asset must make itself known through other accomplishments—such as getting a high-level certificate or completing complex work on an open source project.

It’s also easy to see in a career where any asset can be helpful and where you definitively need an accomplishment. The latter tend to be necessary when the person or people you need to make career progress have less direct access to the quality of the work you produce. Therefore, it’s not enough to be good, you must be demonstrably good.

If I’m trying to get more traffic to my blog, I don’t necessarily need more accomplishments. Any asset that improves the quality of my writing or the experience I offer to my readers can do the trick. The reason is that readers themselves can easily evaluate what I’m offering, and if it gets better, there will be more response.

On the other hand, if I’m trying to convince a third party to let me write a guest post for them, and they may not be familiar with my work, accomplishments are going to be a lot more important. The other person will want to see signs that I can deliver on my promises and can’t just take my word for it.

Credentials are widely standardized and hard-to-fake accomplishments. These are good because of their reliability and comparability.

Understanding the Distinctions

The biggest distinction is between assets and habits. Assets are things that, if you don’t possess them already, you must develop them in order to have them. Habits are things that can be useful, but can often be “turned on” so-to-speak by a simple change of behavior or perspective.

Attitudes are a kind of mental habit. They’re something that you can bring about by a choice between two competing attitudes (should you be meticulous or deliver results quickly?), or through a conscious effort to approach decisions in a particular way.

Accomplishments are a kind of asset. They’re conspicuous assets that other people can perceive. Sometimes you don’t need an accomplishment, if the value of the asset, can be perceived directly by those who care about it. Other times, you need an accomplishment because they may not have first-hand knowledge about the value you can bring.

Sometimes, accomplishments must be of a particular type. Credentials are sometimes mandatory. Past experience may be a requirement for particular job positions. Having met particular milestones or having relationships with particular people might be necessary accomplishments to move forward.

While, in truth, there are no sharp lines which separate these categories, I think it is useful to map broad distinctions. Concepts are mental tools. Being able to distinguish different types of things in the world gives you a power to reason and manipulate them.

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  • Alberto

    Very interesting post. It’s true that the goal with useful personality/temperamental attitudes and “general outlook” attitudes is just to switch them on in some way, while skills are information rich: there’s no way around absorbing a lot of information if you want to learn Russian.

    But it seems to me that there are also information-rich attitudes. Think for example of the acquired patience of a surgeon, based on lot of experience and on the deep understanding that “this is the only way to do the job”. The professional patience of a surgeon is not a general outlook “switched on”, but is part and parcel of his information rich professional understanding of the field. The surgeon could explain with countless examples and details why that patient behaviour is necessary.
    I think that this understanding based patience and temperamental patience are two different cognitive phenomena, possibly operating at different levels in the brain.

  • hi

    you believe in knowledge I believe in knowledge too
    I believe in so much more things too.

  • Thought provoking Scott

    Would you think that Attitudes can be Habits? I suppose on the surface the two are quite different from one another. However, I ask you to think about a gut-reaction to something…anything. The sort of reaction where the individual does not think about what they say or do.

    Typically, gut-reactions are brought upon by years of repetition. They have been ingrained in the individual because that is “how they’ve always reacted”.

    If, it has been built up through years of repetition and repetition is the focus point of habits, can it be perceived that attitudes are a by-product of habits?