ONE QUESTION

How Do We Measure Progress in Our Careers?

Money is a shitty metric for work. Only you can find the right one.

Nilofer Merchant
Marker
Published in
7 min readDec 19, 2019

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Credit: twomeows/Getty Images

“I“I wonder if you’d help me,” you wrote. “How do you measure progress in a person’s career?” you asked. You feel “that time is running out” and you’ve not achieved as much as you would have liked to. You’re successful enough in your career, working at a hot pre-IPO company, and yet you work nearly nonstop and most weekends at a place that seems to be churning through people rather than bringing out the best in people. Including yourself. And you wanted advice.

Your question struck me, because I’ve been pondering something similar.

I wrote you right back, to remind you that, first, life is long. At 29 years old, you are just getting started. You are not out of time. Despite stories of 19-year-old startup founders like Mark Zuckerberg, the fact is that the average age of a successful entrepreneur is 45. And while you likely recognize a certain “Hallelujah” song, you might not know that at your age, its creator, Leonard Cohen, didn’t imagine he would be a singer; he started that career at age 33. And while Beyoncé started her career earlier than you, we can collectively see her craft advancing and her genius shining brighter than before in both Lemonade and Homecoming. Your time is not running out; you’re just getting started.

I pointed out the obvious: You’re being way too hard on yourself by telling yourself a story that is not that useful. I sent you a clipping of a Harvard Business Review article I had written six years ago on the first step to being powerful. In it, I said the way we talk about ourselves and to ourselves grants power — narrative power — to what happens next.

But you know what I didn’t tell you?

That I am struggling right alongside you.

I don’t like to admit it, but for most of 2019, I earned very little money. As in, far less than Starbucks barista money. Count expenses to do the work, and it became negative cash flow. I first realized it the week after I gave the opening keynote at TEDxUniversityofNevada. I had been so focused on that commitment that I didn’t notice that a bunch of proposed work hadn’t closed. I felt ashamed…

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Nilofer Merchant
Marker

Centering that source of all innovation, #ONLYNESS, the distinct value of EACH of us. 3-time Author, 25 years as Tech exec, whose @tedtalks quoted 300M+ times