Why Is Someone Paying You?

Have I ever told you about my first job?

When I was in high school, maybe the summer after my freshman year, I got a job at Temp Power. It was one of those jobs not exactly designed for high schoolers. But a mentor hooked me up with the job, so I was excited to be there. I started every day at 6 am and worked until 3 pm in a warehouse repairing the electrical boxes that were at the base of these power poles (that would get dinged and damaged by construction crews and their trucks).

I shocked myself. I cut myself. I got metal splinters in my fingers, and once in my eye. (That wasn't fun.) It was my first real job. And when summer was over, I even stayed for another semester, working after school.

I liked the job. I liked the people I worked with. And while working there, I learned two things.

Years later I had another job that most people wouldn't envy.

My first two jobs in college, while at Cal, were going door to door to raise money, and calling people during their dinners to raise money. They were sales jobs, but not even great sales jobs. I didn't have an incredible offer. I was just asking people to sign up and donate funds to causes.

I got yelled at. I got hung up on. It was a job that was defined by how long you lasted because most people got let go for poor results.

Turns out, I wasn't half bad at persistence. Or maybe I just didn't want to get fired. But I lasted a two or three more weeks than most in the first, and months longer than most in the second.

There are two kinds of jobs

I'm not an expert in classifying things. But let's imagine I'm right. Two kinds of jobs. What are they?

I think one kind of job is where you do something for someone.

In the world that I live in today, where I interact with a lot of digital agencies, we'd likely think about this kind of job where we deliver digital services.

Someone is hiring you because:

  • you have expertise that they don't
  • you have time that they don't
  • you have the staff that they don't

The three jobs I just told you about were all of that. I was delivering a service (repairing an electrical box, going door to door, or dialing for dollars) that likely someone else could have done. But I had the time. And maybe some of the expertise.

There is another kind of job. It's where you do thinking for someone else.

In this case, someone is hiring you because:

  • you have experience that they don't
  • you have expertise that they don't
  • you can translate that into ideas that they can't

In the first kind, you can be swapped out for someone else. Sometimes the bar for your replacement won't be that high.

After all, just about anyone could (and did) replace me in those first three jobs.

But it's harder to replace a person who can think in directions that others can't. It's harder to replace the experience and expertise that you've developed that would take a while for others to replicate.

This one time working for a client…

I was working on an estimate for a project for a client one time and a peer challenged me to let someone else create the estimate. He asked me, how long would it take to help someone else to get up to speed on creating estimates.

This was for fairly large technical projects. Somewhere in the order of $300,000-$500,000 projects.

I know he thought I would say 3-4 weeks. Instead I replied 10-15 years.

I'm not super special. That's not the point of the story. The point of the story is that my experience made it easy for me to know how to estimate these complex projects. And it wasn't going to be an easy or fast thing to get someone else up to speed (because they'd likely have to make the mistakes I had made, to learn what I had learned).

(Not joking, the next two estimates were made by other people. In one case, they under-estimated the project by several weeks and only learned later where their mistake had been. In the other case, they completely missed a chunk of work and missed about 50% of the effort.)

Why is someone paying you?

Maybe all of this is to say it as simply as Vala Afshar does.

I talk about it as two kinds of jobs. People pay you for what you can do for them, or the kind of thinking you provide them. But if I were as clear as Vala, I'd say you get paid for your time or your mind.

My preference is to get paid for my mind.

And if you pursue that approach, then you'll likely need to follow the advice of another mentor of mine when I worked at Berkeley Lab (my first job after finishing college).

“Don't try to peak too early. Keep learning. Keep trying new things. You won't know right away when you'll need it, but eventually it will all be useful.”

Dennis Hall of Berkeley Lab