Planning Your Career: Values and Superpowers

[ career life ] · 10 min read

A typical career spans decades. As Cedric Chin writes, the first 10 years of a career is often considered early game.

If we assume that it takes around 10 years to get good at something, and a few more years to faff around and find that thing, then having the first 10-15 years of a career appear to be a bit of a wash makes a ton of sense. — Cedric Chin

But how do we find that thing? One way is to reflect and deeply understand our values and superpowers which then guide our career choices.

Values: What we gain fulfillment from

To be mature you have to realize what you value most.

It is extraordinary to discover that comparatively few people reach this level of maturity. They seem never to have paused to consider what has value for them. They spend great effort and sometimes make great sacrifices for values that, fundamentally, meet no real needs of their own. Perhaps they have imbibed the values of their particular profession or job, of their community or their neighbors, of their parents or family.

Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for. — Eleanor Roosevelt

Start by understanding what you care about most. This fill-in-the-blank might help: “I care about being/having ____”. As we reflect on past experiences, the values that matter most should naturally stand out—what events led to higher-than-average fulfillment?

Identifying our own values requires deliberately silencing the values imposed on us by society, parents, and friends. As we’re exposed to their values, we’re also primed by those values and may unconsciously adopt them as our own. You may also be tempted to google “values” to find a list to pick from—don’t! Instead, try asking yourself the following:

  • What do I get great satisfaction from?
  • What can I (not) live without?
  • What are some achievements I’m most proud of?
  • What would I do if money was not a concern?

After listing our values, we can order them via pairwise comparison. First, pick any two values and rank them in order of importance. Then, pick another value, compare it to each of the ranked values, and insert the new value in the right order. Continue until all the values are ranked. Ideally, there should be a clear hierarchy instead of a cyclic relationship such as scissors > paper > stone > scissors > …

Or your can use this free tool. H/T to Charlie for bringing it to my attention.

Superpowers: What we (can) excel at

Next, understand what your natural or learned strengths are. What do you currently—or have the potential to—do better than 95 - 99% of people?

Reflect on your past experiences—when did you achieve outsized success relative to people around you (e.g., peers, industry)? This sounds straightforward but can be deceptively tricky—you might become so good at something that you take it for granted. (Sometimes, it grows into an expert blind spot where you forget how difficult it was to learn the subject or skill.) Here are some questions that might help:

  • What do people reach out to me for (e.g., help, advice)?
  • What seems easy for me, but difficult for others?
  • What do I do that amazes others?

You can also seek feedback from people you’ve worked and mentors, or refer to past performance reviews (if they have a section on strengths and weaknesses). Some questions you might ask include:

  • What do I do better than most people (on the team)?
  • How do I contribute that’s unique?

Superpowers come in various forms. For example, Julian Shapiro, Paul Graham, and Cedric Chin have writing superpowers while Alexey Grigorev and Shawn Wang have build-a-community superpowers (DataTalk.Club and Coding Career respectively). At work, some superpowers I’ve seen are the ability to explain complex subjects in a simple manner (i.e., ELI5) and asking the right questions that uncover risks and uncertainties.

Superpowers are sometimes disguised as weaknesses

Poor attention to detail is clearly a weakness. However, someone with poor attention to detail might have the superpower of being focused on the big picture. For them, it’s easy to see how everything is connected and which levers to pull to achieve the overall goal. They excel at planning and coordination.

Whether a trait is a superpower or kryptonite depends on the context. Here are some example weaknesses and their mirror superpowers:

  • Being seen as unrealistic/naive in staid teams ≈ Being a visionary in startups
  • Lacking structure and organization ≈ Having high adaptability and spontaneity
  • Being stubborn and inflexible ≈ Having persistence and purpose

It also depends on your role. Attention to detail is a strength for accountants, auditors, and QA engineers while big picture thinking is a superpower for product folks and managers. You’ll want to find roles that leverage your strengths, which leads us to the next point…

Base your career choices on values and superpowers

IMHO, our careers are more fulfilling when they’re aligned with our values. Consider the values of money and knowledge. Someone who values money might not be fulfilled as an academic. Conversely, someone who values knowledge might not gain satisfaction from selling houses. They might do better if their roles were switched. (It’s a contrived example but you get the point.)

Also, does the role take advantage of your superpowers? Your superpower in cutting-edge research might not fit well in a bootstrapped B2C startup that’s still struggling to find product-market fit—you’ll probably do better in a research lab. On the other hand, if your superpower is solving problems via a pragmatic 80/20 approach, you might find a better fit in a startup than a research lab.

Sometimes, we need to be flexible with our superpowers

If you’re lucky enough to be in a role that embraces your superpowers, remember that what the team needs from you might change from time to time.

For example, you might have superpowers in conducting thorough analysis that helps the team make sound, forward-thinking decisions that play out well over the long run. Nonetheless, unusual events (e.g., production emergencies, COVID) might require you to deviate from your modus operandi and make decisions in a quick and dirty manner. Ideally, this should be the exception, not the norm. Nonetheless, the point is to be flexible and adapt to whatever the team or situation needs.

Be so good they can’t ignore you

As you hone your superpowers (and become world-class at them), the situation might reverse—instead of having to look for roles or opportunities, those opportunities go look for you. Here are two lesser-known examples where hobbies grew into unmatched expertise and led to valuable careers. We start with the story of Thomas Mueller:

Thomas Mueller started with buying and putting together mail-order rocket kits before eventually building his own devices. At 12, he crafted a mock-up space shuttle that could be attached to a rocket, set up into the air, and then glide back to the ground. For a science project, he borrowed his dad’s oxyacetylene torch to make a rocket engine prototype—this won him a couple of science fair competitions.

After graduating from college, he worked for Hughes Aircraft on satellites before joining TRW Space and Electronics. Here, he experimented with crazy types of propellents and oversaw the development of the TR-106 engine that was fueled by liquid oxygen and hydrogen.

As a hobby, he hung out with amateur rocket builders at the Reaction Research Society. On weekends, he would travel out to the Mojave Desert to push the limits of his rockets. His crowning achievement was an 80-pound engine that could produce 13,000 pounds of thrust.

His work caught the attention of Elon Musk who visited him on a Sunday in January 2002. Musk started interrogating him: How much thrust does the engine have? Have you worked on anything bigger? How much would it cost to build a bigger engine? They ended up chatting for hours.

In February 2002, PayPal went public and Musk’s net worth increased from tens of millions to hundreds of millions. In June 2002, SpaceX was founded. Mueller joined as a founding employee and eventually became CTO of Propulsion at SpaceX. — Elon Musk

Daniel Bowen has a similar story. He was a long-time amateur balloonist and between 2005 and 2008, he autonomously flew 3,300 miles in 40 hours, surpassing the records of his peers. From 2010 to 2012, he worked on long-duration balloons and led the White Star Trans-Atlantic Balloon project.

In early 2012, Bowen decided to leave his day job and focus on his passion for high-altitude balloons. His new LinkedIn profile was up for less than two weeks when a Google recruiter called asking if he would join Google X’s Project Loon. He then spent 2013 to 2018 guiding Project Loon to maturity. (Loon was shut down in January 2021).

What are your values and superpowers?

Are you aware of your values and superpowers? If not, take some time to reflect and/or ask your loved ones and colleagues. Having a better understanding will help with building a rewarding, sustainable career.

If you’re already in such a role, congrats! Recognize how lucky you are and keep at it. If not, commit a year (or three) to learn/build in public, hone your craft, and take steps into a role that leverages your values and superpowers.

Identifying our values and superpowers is not a one-off exercise—they can change over time. A fresh graduate might initially value growth and career but shift towards family and freedom as he becomes a parent. We might also discover or gain new superpowers. Thus, check in with yourself every now and then and tweak your career objectives accordingly.

Feeling stuck with finding your values and superpowers? Here’s how I did it.

Note: I encourage you to have a grasp of your values and superpowers before reading further. Be aware that going through this section may prime (i.e., influence) how you reflect and think about your values/superpowers.

To identify my values, I reflected on past experiences. Which were awesome and which were blah? Why were some experiences awesome? I also asked loved ones what they thought I valued based on how I behaved. This helped identify six values of which four were relevant to career:

  • Growth: Continuous learning via working at the edge of my abilities.
  • Creation: Building ML systems & teams through code & leadership.
  • Service: Improving lives and leaving things better than I found them.
  • Autonomy: Freedom to figure out the best way to approach problems.

To understand my superpowers (and weaknesses), I’m consistently asking people for feedback. I also reflect on past work reviews (e.g., Amazon’s annual review has a specific section for superpowers) and the LinkedIn recommendations others wrote for me. This led to five superpowers:

  • Empathy: I care about doing the right thing for customers and the team.
  • Ownership: I cannot help but act like an owner; nothing is not my job.
  • Bias for action + Delivering results: I iterate fast and measure results.
  • Pragmatism + Simplicity: I design simple solutions to complex problems.
  • Communication: I’m told that I write & speak better than most tech folks.

With these values and superpowers in mind, I deliberately sought roles (including my current role) that have elements of the following:

  • Two-pizza teams that iterate fast and provide rapid growth and feedback.
  • Opportunity to build pragmatic ML systems that serve customers.
  • Autonomy to define the right problems decide how to solve them.

Further reading

Thanks to Yang Xinyi for reading drafts of this.

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