On value-driven career advice

Too often, the discussion centers around simple tradeoffs like compensation (where can I earn more?), the size of the company (startup or big company?), and degrees (do I need to go to grad school?). […] Consider a value-driven approach instead.

I frequently ask older people how they planned their careers. Asking this helps me to plan my own career, whether it be to weigh the benefits of grad school or maintain a work-family balance down the road.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have gone on TigerTrek 2013. If you’re a Princeton undergraduate, apply! We received a variety of career advice on the trip, but they all seemed to have a unifying theme. Career choices tied back to one’s “values”.

A concept so simple might seem obvious, but values don’t get enough attention in the career choice conversation. Too often, the discussion centers around simple tradeoffs like compensation (where can I earn more?), the size of the company (startup or big company?), and degrees (do I need to go to grad school?).

There’s nothing wrong with asking these other questions; they should to be asked. To find the answer, though, consider a value-driven approach instead. First decide what you value and then make the choices that uphold those values throughout your career.

How to decide what you value

What do you value? Is it the opportunity to solve technically interesting problems? Or the chance to build something that has impact? Maybe it’s simply to work with fun, genuine people.

It’s not easy to decide what you value, but it might help to ask other people their values. Consider the values we heard on TigerTrek from DJ Patil, Chief Data Scientist at Greylock Partners:

  1. Have fun and learn a lot
  2. Make lots of money. It gives you the opportunity to do other things
  3. Grow teams and grow people. Help them buy their first homes, for example, and have the opportunity to do other things

That’s it. It’s the things he ultimately cares about in a career that drive his career choices. The last point struck me as meaningful. The opportunity to build teams and grow people is not obvious early in a career, but the impact can be powerful.

Values don’t have to be set it stone; they can change over the course of your career. Clay Bavor, a Product VP at Google, illustrated how his values changed over time:

  Start of Career Middle of Career End of Career
Learning Y Y Y
Compensation   Y Y
Enjoyment     Y

Early in life you value the experiences you gain and the things you learn. As you settle down to grow a family, compensation becomes more important. Finally, by the end of your career, you seek some personal fulfilment by doing work that’s truly enjoyable. This evolution can all take place in the same job throughout your life. Alternatively, you might consider changing jobs to keep up with your values as they evolve.

I want to touch on one more example of values that people hold. Work-family balance is often discussed under career values. How much should you value career development? How much should you value time with your family?

I think Vic Gundotra, former VP of Social at Google, offered an interesting perspective. The way Vic sees it: instead of trying to “balance” work and family, first decide what you cannot sacrifice. Whether it’s attending each of your daughter’s soccer games or having dinner with your family every night, decide what are those things you have to do. Then, avoid sacrificing those few things at all cost.

It takes time to decide values, but once you do, making many important career choices can boil down to a clearer pick between what maintains your values the most.

How to uphold your values through career choices

Once you’ve decided on a few values, consider paying attention to how career choices impact those values. Interestingly on TigerTrek, we received a great amount of advice on how to make career choices that uphold our values, particularly as they relate to the companies we choose to work for.

When considering a company, Bill Campbell suggests you start by asking just two important questions: (1) Who am I going to work for? (2) What are they going to teach me?

While it came at a completely different meeting, Paul Graham’s advice is a perfect complement to Campbell’s. Graham suggests you work for the people you aspire to be like. You will spend so many hours around these people that you’ll inevitably pick up their values, mannerisms, and ways of thinking.

To cap it off, I want to present one final framework you might use to find a company-value match. Venture capitalist John Doerr cites a pattern first noted in a book called The Monk and the Riddle by Randy Komisar: Mercenaries vs. Missionaries. Companies fall into one category or the other. Mercenary companies are driven by fear. They execute with force. They seek to “crush” the competition.

Missionary companies, on the other hand, are driven by passion. They’re still competitive, but they’re driven by a meaningful, unifying mission. It’s an interesting scale to weigh companies on, and ultimately reveals what a company values at its core.


This collection of value-driven career advice is by no means the definite answer; it’s just a few of the perspectives we encountered on TigerTrek 2013. Despite all the career planning anyone can do, we have to acknowledge that life is chaotic. For every planned career we heard about on TigerTrek, we heard of two careers shaped by curiously random events. Though it’s important to seek opportunities and be open to change, values can certainly serve as a foundational guideline.

June 2014