The career as high-stakes gambling

If you conceived of a career as a certain kind of game and knew how the game worked, then you’d conclude before you even began playing that the house always wins. Consider how much you’d have to ante up simply to be able to come to the table:

  • Time: Somewhere between 4 years minimum and 15 years maximum (BS, MD, residency, post-doc fellowship) of your life;
  • Resources: Approximately $20,000 to $200,000, typically in loans;
  • Excellences: The acquisition of a highly specialized set of tools, skills, and a discrete body of knowledge that may or may not–after 4 to 15 years–have any, or as much, market value.

Now consider the risks:

  • Volatility: A job market which is highly variable and not, contrary to what some economists would have you believe, all that predictable;
  • Potential Earnings: These fluctuate. Sometimes, the payoff is quite high. Sometimes, due to a streak of bad luck or bad hands, the payoff doesn’t come.
  • Specialization: The claim that you can do this one thing very well does not entail that there are careers in which doing this one thing well yields material rewards.
  • Stuckness: You’re early 30s to mid-40s, you’ve done this one thing for 1 to 2 decades, it’s awful for any number of reasons, but because you’re in debt or because you’ve overspent or because you have dependents (etc.) or because you’ve no clue what you could do with your life, you’re stuck: you can’t roll back the clock, and you can’t go on this way for another 10 years.

The career is high-stakes gambling. First you’re encourage to bet high, then you lose. Then you notice that you keep losing, but you’re forced to stay in the game because you’re incentivized to believe that it’s the only way you can make up for your increasing loses. Walking away is too risky, but staying in the game is too costly. The House always wins, therefore, because even when on the rare occasion when you win, in the long run you lose.

Tomorrow, I’ll propose that there’s a good way out of all this.

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