Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of needs is a valuable mental model describing the progression of needs, which he classically applied to psychology. The idea behind Maslow's Hierarchy is that one can only work on obtaining a higher level of need when the needs of a given level (and the levels below) are fully met.
I find the same model helpful in thinking about career progression. More specifically, being intentional with career choices. I'd like to propose a career pyramid with four levels:
Income -> Skill Acquisition -> Meaningful Work -> Life's Work
When we first enter the work-force, whether after graduating college or via some other path, our first goal is to get a job. We now have bills to pay and need an income to match. We're happy to be on our own, working, finding our way in life. We may have a few job options from which we naturally choose the best one. To be in the pyramid at all is thrilling. It's an exciting time of life.
We learn and grow in any professional position. In addition to fulfilling your base need of income, I think much of the goal of this base level is figuring out what type of work you enjoy, and equally as important, learning what type of work you don't enjoy. As you start to put together these pieces, you can begin to deepen your skills in an area.
With a deeper skill-set and the passage of time, doors open up and new opportunities arise. Those opportunities are probably with a new employer (one of which might be self-employment), but could also be fulfilled by taking on a new role with your current employer.
The new opportunity doesn't even need to be a step up in role or job title. It could simply be the same role in a more personally aligned company, or for better pay, or in a more desirable location, or with better people, etc. We all make this type of lateral move naturally as the choice tends to be obvious. Most of us move around multiple times within this same bottom level of the pyramid. And you should, all else being equal.
However, I think it's important to choose skill acquisition over cushiness, something I did wrong for a long time. If the choice is between better pay for staying within your comfort zone, or less pay, but in a job that will deepen a skill-set, choose the skills, as that is the best way to move up to the next level of the pyramid.
Out of college I originally found a job as an IT generalist. There was some programming in my first job, maybe 25%. Over time, I learned that I wanted to be a developer. I remember the anxious feeling that there was a whole world of development that I was getting further from. I was gaining skills, but not in an area that I had as much interest in.
It was time to narrow my focus, deepen my skills, and find a development job. I did just that, after a long and hard job search, taking a pay cut in the process. I made a lateral move within the same bottom tier of the pyramid, but that set me up skill-wise to start ascending the pyramid.
After working a few years in a job, you've probably learned a thing or two about what you enjoy, and what you dislike. Moving to that next level of the pyramid is a focus on skill acquisition. You should have a bit of a financial cushion by now if you're playing your financial cards correctly. Bills aren't as hard to pay each month. By definition you're out of that bottom level - you aren't primarily concerned with paying bills, and you're focused on skill acquisition. The corollary to this is that if you can't figure out a way to spend less than you earn (and hopefully significantly less), you'll never get out of the bottom level, no matter how many skills you acquire.
As you go deeper in your specialty, it's important to hone those skills and show that you can do that job well. If you can do that, abundant opportunities will open-up because there's never a lack of demand for someone with a proven track record in a rare and valuable skill.
I believe it's possible, though rare, to jump straight into this second level of the pyramid. If you happen to land your first professional job in exactly the area that you want to develop a deep skill-set, you can both satisfy your income needs and acquire a deep skill-set at the same time. Again, I think this is the exception, not the rule, and you should not feel anxious or lacking in some way if the stars didn't align for you. There is plenty of time to get where you ultimately want to go.
Once you get to this position, you have the opportunity to again move up in the pyramid. Unfortunately, I think many of us stay at this level. It's comfortable - we're good at our job and we're probably making pretty good money. I don't think that you need to move up immediately - there's value in earning money and giving yourself a solid financial base, but the option is now there.
I worked in that second job for three years, deepening my skills as a developer. I also learned that I specifically enjoyed web development. So, my next career move was to become a web developer, which involved another change of employment. I then learned that I like working with Ruby on Rails because of the type of projects that it enables. My next change of employment was to a company that worked with Ruby on Rails.
My career-moves have corresponded with a narrowing and deepening of skills in a particular area:
IT -> Developer -> Web Developer in Java -> Web Developer in Ruby on Rails.
I believe Meaningful Work should be the goal of our working lives, whatever that means for you.
Ask yourself this question, "Given that my income needs are met, that I have a valuable skill-set with which I find enjoyment and that there are endless problems in this world, what is it that I want to spend my limited time on?"
Being able to ask yourself this question is a position to aspire towards. I would go as far as to say it should be the goal of our working lives. Non-profit work opens-up, solving a need in the world opens-up, moving to a fulfilling job that doesn't pay as much opens-up.
Here are some of the projects and companies that appeal to me:
Your list may be very different. What's important is that you have a list. That list could include your own venture.
Life's Work is an interesting concept. I'm not sure I know what it means yet. I've heard Bruce Hornsby say that his Life's Work is mastering the piano, clearly an impossible task. Life's Work could be a craft, it could be an art, it certainly doesn't have to be related to income.
If we remove the hobby aspect of Life's Work and focus on vocation, I think Life's Work is Meaningful Work, but in a way that fills your soul. This is perhaps more of an existential or metaphysical question, the intersection of meaningful work, and your own deep desires and passions. It's the last job you'll ever do because every other job is a step-down, by definition.
I don't have experience in this area, I'm only really starting to ask those questions and investigate what I think my life's work is, or can be, or even if I have that level of purpose or drive.
It has certainly helped me to think about work and career paths using this mental model. There is an anxiety that comes when you're not progressing up the pyramid as quickly or easily as you feel you should, or in the time-frame that you think you should. I've gone through that anxiety a few times, and no doubt will again as I wrestle with the question of "Meaningful Work", and "Life's Work".
I also want to encourage us to strive for the Meaningful Work tier, at least. I see so many people that only optimize for income, or cushiness, or are counting down the days to not work at all. Many people stay where they are simply because of inertia. We will live in a better world when more of us are finding our own version of Meaningful Work. I think it's one of life's great joys to be able to reach that position. I hope to get there one day myself.