Career advice for young high-performers

There's growing concern among today's brightest young professionals about how the rapid rise of artificial intelligence will impact their careers. I've had several conversations lately with people in their 20s worried about being automated out of a job. And it's a valid concern: for many well-defined, "good enough" tasks, AI is already more than capable of handling the work previously done by junior employees.

So what's a smart, ambitious person to do? How can you intelligently position your career in a world where AI is automating more and more knowledge work? I don't think anyone can predict exactly how it will play out. But here are some principles I believe will hold true:

First, if you want the safest possible career, pick a job focused on the "squishy" human side of things that computers can't easily replicate. Become a nurse, or a plumber, or a kindergarten teacher. These roles will only become more important as AI takes over other work. I'm not being facetious — for many, this is truly the best path.

Many ambitious people I talk to aren't satisfied with that. They want a career based on intellectual creativity — where they're paid to innovate and come up with novel solutions and insights. They want to be on the frontier of human knowledge, and have an impact.

While this is often paired with a personality that must perform to feel good enough, I empathize deeply. There are three key principles to building a successful and lucrative career:

  1. Work in an industry where there is exposure to money, such as in sectors like tech, finance, energy, biotech, etc. These are industries with high profit margins and capital inflows. Your specific field matters a lot, too: within tech, machine learning is far stronger than IT services. You want to be somewhere with a high "base rate" of success and big budgets. It's just easier to do well when your industry is thriving.
  2. Have leverage, so that you benefit from more than just trading hours for dollars. The most common forms are managing other people and harnessing computers/technology. Traditionally, having equity in a company is the ultimate leverage. You want a career where your value and impact can scale beyond just the hours you put in.
  3. Don't have a narrowly defined role. The more your job consists of just carrying out a predetermined process or set of tasks, the more at risk it is of being automated. You want to be defining the problems to work on, not just executing the solutions.

Not all successful careers need all three of these. With a high enough hourly rate, you can do well in an industry without much leverage. Or with enough leverage, you can thrive in a stagnant field. But these three dimensions are where you find the most potential. Artificial intelligence isn't actually a new threat — it's just the latest technology threatening to commoditize labor that was previously hard to automate. In the past it was factory and farming work, now it's hitting knowledge workers.

So what skills should ambitious professionals focus on developing? The most important is being a generalist. Have a wide base of knowledge in many different fields. But often this means developing little depth. Don't do this; actually develop expertise in multiple areas. You can have top 1% of knowledge and experience in many different domains. Be good at defining the meta-problems, the problems behind the problems. Automate your own work and look for ways to scale your impact and responsibilities.

Seek out work where the deliverables are ambiguous and you're responsible for figuring out the right path, rather than just following a playbook. Work that feels more like art and less like assembly. If your job could be replaced easily by someone else, it'll also be easier to automate. Develop taste and a sense for well-run organizational processes.

The world is always changing, so you have to adapt and grow and reinvent yourself throughout your career. In a world of AI eating the world, combining breadth, leverage and creativity will be the key to staying ahead of the machines. Don't compete with computers, focus on what they can't do yet. Become the person defining the work to be done, not the one with the narrow skills to execute it.

Hopefully, AI will create abundance in the coming decades. But it will also accelerate the race between technology and education. You can thrive in that race, if you aim yourself at the right targets. Ignore the lure of narrow prestige and "hot" but niche skills. Focus on generating real, hard-to-replicate value. Have hobbies that expose you to things outside your normal job role. Always stay curious and keep learning, with a keen eye for creating value for others. Choosing the right race to run is half the battle.

Photo courtesy of Noah Maier

Stay connected

I send out occasional updates on posts, interesting finds, and projects I'm working on. I'd love to include you. No tracking, one-click unsubscribe.