Friday, September 14, 2007

Values and career

I was taking an assessment of "values" related to careers at the Career Development Center (CDC) on campus. The assessment consists of a bunch of cards with one word or phrase on each card (like "family", "money", "personal growth") and you put the cards into piles of "Very Important" "Important" "Sometimes important" "Not important". After that, you take the Very Important pile and pick out your top ten and put them in rank order.

I commented to my husband that my top ten did not include "money". He was surprised. Mine, instead, included things like "passion", "integrity", "challenge", "competence". Money, to me, is a given in a job. Of course, I expect to be paid. I'm not Richard Stallman, nor am I independently wealthy, so yeah, I work to be paid. It's a survival thing.

My husband responded, "but money isn't just for survival; you like iPhones and jewelry and travel and the things money can buy. Money as a value is about being able to have it to spend." I had to think about that - and on my walk home, I realized there are two aspects to money for me: survival and fun. I will compromise on certain values (like passion and personal growth) for survival. If it's a choice between letting my babies starve and putting up with an awful work environment, of course I will work - just as most parents would. But once I've gotten past the level of survival, then money for fun just isn't as important to me as work environment. I don't want to work at a place I hate just to make enough to buy stuff or do stuff.

I just find it interesting to consider how different my husband's answers might be from mine. OTOH - he's always had sufficient money for survival, so he's never had to make that choice. I think that makes a difference. I've had to make the choice - and live the choice. I spent too many years putting in my time, just getting through the day, putting up with less than ideal jobs or workplaces because I had to make a living. At this point, I suspect that any job I take upon graduation is likely to fulfill the "make a survivable wage" and so it falls into the "fun" category, for me. If I had to choose between enjoying my job and making enough money to spend on toys and travel, I'd cut out the toys and travel. I expect to spend 40+ hours a week at a job - that's a *huge* chunk of my life. Doing that anywhere that I hate (and if the place violates my top ten values, I would hate it) just isn't worth it to me for anything other than survival. And that's the point of an assessment tool like that - it helps define what's important to me, and what I need to consider in jobseeking, and careerseeking. I also have to accept that my values are going to be different from his and take that into consideration. But that's a whole 'nother topic.

So what are my values? "passion", "integrity", "personal growth", "challenge", "honesty", "open communication", "competence", "trust", "learning" and "knowledge" were the top ten.

passion: I want a career/company that values passion, that wants people who are passionate about what they do, that isn't going to stomp on people for being "too intense".
integrity: I've been at places where CYA was the norm and people got set up as scapegoats. It's hard to say "I screwed up" when it's going to be used against you. I want a place where I can acknowledge mistakes, where people accept responsibility for their actions, and where everyone is more focused on finding solutions and working to achieve a goal than on blaming others. Intellectual integrity is another aspect of this: being able to say "I don't know" and "I was wrong" and with people who will do that is important to me.
honesty and open communication go hand in hand for me. A place where answering a question by, say upper management, isn't going to get me in trouble for A) answering honestly and B) "violating chain of command". (Again, BTDT.) I don't do well with office politics - I need a place where I can be honest (not tactless, but honest) and open with people. I also tend to find my way around silos, and make connections with people in a wide variety of positions and departments wherever I've worked. That's important to me. Work places that encourage and support that are great. Places that discourage it are unpleasant at best.
All of these lead to a huge value for me, which is trust: I need to be able to trust the people above me and around me. And I need to be treated with trust. If I feel that I can't trust my boss and coworkers, it affects my health, my stress levels, my performance.
personal growth is important to me in a job, and is tied in to learning. I start to feel like I'm in a rut, getting stale, if I'm not getting to stretch myself and learn new things.

A conflicting set of goals for me is competence (which ties in with knowledge) and challenge: I need people around me (bosses and coworkers and any reports) who are competent at their job. I find it hard to respect people who are incompetent at their own jobs, and I find it hard to mask that. I don't expect them to be competent at the same things I am, just at the things *they're* supposed to be doing. I do, however, like being surrounded by people who are knowledgable, and having knowledge myself. To me, those are two sides of a coin: knowledge is knowing stuff, competence is being able to apply knowledge effectively. I value being challenged: I love problem-solving, and tend to be a bit of a bulldog about problems. I like having to stretch and put in effort to figure out things.
The conflict I'm having about competence is that I value my own competence highly (and need to be treated as competent). This leads me to question whether or not I should be pursuing jobs that are a stretch, because I worry I might not be sufficiently competent. This provides for a conflict between challenge and competence for me. Of course, that conflict is part of what fuels personal growth, so a company that supports personal growth is necessary for me to be able to properly balance competence and challenge.

My biggest challenge in picking my concentration in my major is, I think, that conflict in values. I think I would be quite competent as a researcher in CogSci or Neuroscience, but more challenged working in HCI out in the field. I'm equally passionate about all three, in different ways. I think my trouble picking has been the conflict between challenge and competence presented by the choice. Am I going to actually be good enough at it to pursue it? Or is it going to be wasted effort and embarrassment? If I pick something where I don't doubt my competence, am I going to get bored after a time? Will I feel sufficiently challenged or have enough opporunities to apply my knowledge? These are the kind of questions I'm wrestling with.

Next week, I'm going to take another assessment, this one on skills. It'll be interesting to see what comes up with that.

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