Should I change job? Earn, learn or quit.

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A question that I occasionally get asked is whether someone should stick with their current job or get something different. 

Now, the first and most important thing I state is that I can’t possibly answer that question: everybody is an individual with a unique set of work, life and money circumstances. I certainly don’t want to be responsible for any regrettable decisions!

However I do understand when people want a sounding board to check their reasoning before making a choice that can be difficult to reverse if it doesn’t work out. And that’s not to mention that preparing for job interviews is no small feat: it can entail weeks of stressful studying during evenings and weekends.

The best thing that I can do when asked this question is to point at something that Garry Tan posted a couple of years ago as part of his Founder’s Journey series: that you should either learn, earn, or quit.

More specifically, the quote was: 

“At every job, you should either learn or earn. Either is fine. Both are best. But if it’s neither, quit.”

It’s short and sweet and it’s worth keeping it in mind as you pass through milestones at work such as anniversaries, team changes, manager changes, the end of large projects, and so on. Are you learning? Are you earning? And if you’re not, what are you going to do about it?

Learning and earning, mixed with the right amount of good timing and opportunity, have a symbiotic relationship:

  • The more that you learn, the more that you increase your earning potential. Experience pays, and it can open doors for you in terms of bigger roles and opportunities down the line.
  • The more that you earn, the more that you increase the chance of being able to take a financial risk for more learning. For example, once you have a certain amount of money, taking a pay cut to have a more senior position than your current one at a start-up or scale-up becomes more palatable for yourself and your family.

Earning and learning tend to form a cycle:

Going back to the original question of whether or not you should change jobs: it’s an optimization problem on the above cycle where the unique variable — and only person that can solve it — is you. Are you learning? Are you earning? And what do those terms mean to you specifically? Do you have a particular role that you are aiming for? Over what timeframe and what size of company? Are you trying to earn a certain amount of money? Do you want to guarantee a steady, predictable monthly income, or could you take a bet on a big payday in the future for less money right now?

This symbiotic cycle of earning and learning is a pattern that you often see in the resumes of the most senior folks at notable companies. This is because it is far less likely to go all the way from the bottom to the top of the career tracks by staying at the same place: to do so you have to completely luck out with growth, opportunity and timing. 

For most of us, that’s off the cards. 

As much as you wish you could become VP at your current company, if there already is a good VP in place and the company is unlikely to grow much in the coming years, you’re probably not going to become VP. Typically the amount of org chart growth required to need a new VP is huge. And who’s to say they wouldn’t hire externally? If you want to hit high six figures in total compensation whilst working for a small local business, that probably isn’t going to happen no matter how well you perform. Instead, it is far more sensible to switch up jobs when you start to hit ceilings of earning or learning. 

Go where the chance to get what you want is higher.

For example, being an engineer at a big tech company for some time gives you the experience and financial padding to take a risk by being the CTO of a start-up: most of your total compensation is imaginary money for all but one side of a twenty-sided dice roll. However, doing this can supercharge your learning. Conversely, being one of the first managers in a scale-up gives you the opportunity to learn at a frenetic pace if you can take much less pay than you could command elsewhere. However, the experience that you could gain through a successful growth journey, raising money, taking part in M&A and exiting could line you up for a Director or VP role at a much larger company later. Your learning contributes to your future earning, and your earning can create space for learning.

Growth is very rarely a straight line: it’s a pendulum swing. And where that pendulum will swing depends on you. How much do you want to earn? What do you want to learn? 

Only you have the answer.


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