Summary and Review: Your Career Game
How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals
✍️ The Author
This book was written by Nathan Bennet and Stephen Miles and published in 2010.
💡 Thesis of the Book
Careers are games. In particular, careers are dynamic games, so the key to being a good player is “career agility”, which they define as the “ability to leverage your competencies in a manner that exploits career opportunities.” The authors propose this player characteristic is the best predictor of success in the career game because it keeps you resilient in the face of disruption and adaptable to any circumstance, which is important in a game where the players, rules, and available moves change.
💭 My Thoughts
I like that the book discusses theory of career strategy accompanied with a synthesis of conversations they held with a diverse group of professionals. This gave it a nice practical element to go along with the theory. For anyone familiar with career advancement literature, the argument they present for what makes a successful careerist will not surprise you. I wanted to read this book because I have thought about career from a game theoretic perspective since Junior year of undergraduate study, and I wanted to expand on that conceptualization. Many of the core ideas were not new to me, but there were a few moments that got me thinking. I would recommend this book to professionals that have not already conceptualized career as a game (which I highly recommend you should), but otherwise there is not much else it offers.
👍 Main Takeaways
- When entering a new position, avoid the mistake of coming in with big changes and new initiatives to demonstrate bold leadership. Take time to understand the culture, status quo, and resistance to change. Don’t try to instantiate change for the wrong reasons, that is, for reasons of posturing.
- Many young people are hopping from company to company just to collect a set of prestigous-looking roles on their resume, but the quality and depth of those experiences are not substantive and will not be enough to qualify for senior-level executive roles. Instead, focus on delivering lasting impact. At each point in your journey, permanently alter the trajectory of the business or a sub-organization in a positive way. This resume is far more impressive.
- Three propositions for succeeding in the career game:
- Individuals who understand the nature of the game have a playing advantage over those who don’t
- Individuals who can predict the downstream effects of a move on their career game will execute better moves than those who can’t
- Individuals who continually evaluate the conditions of the game, their own competencies, and how the two are aligned, are more agile than those who don’t
- Neither short-term thinking or long-term thinking are optimal in isolation. The optimal strategy lies somewhere in between. Produce results in the here-and-now, but also plan for the future. Short-term action is like the propulsion system in a car, and long-term strategy is the steering system. You need both to get to the destination.
📕 Chapter Summaries
The objective of this book is to apply game theory concepts to career, which can help us strategize better paths to career success. Throughout the book, the authors discuss why it is useful to conceptualize careers as games, fundamental game theory concepts, prerequisites for playing a career game, and examples of career moves. The central thesis of the book is that careers are games, and the key to winning career games is “career agility”.
Chapter 1: Your Career as a Game
Game theory has been used in business strategy, but it can also be useful in career strategy. Your career involves players, rules, time structures, incentives, goals that define “winning”, and boundaries. By applying a game theoretic framework to career, you can start to map out strategies to “win” (according to your definition of “winning”). The ultimate question becomes how to be a good player, and the authors will argue that career agility is the secret ingredient. They define career-agile individuals as those that “have high emotional intelligence, are politically savvy, are comfortable with uncertainty and risk, and thus demonstrate high degrees of successful portability from position to position over time.”
Chapter 2: Understanding Fundamental Game Theory Concepts
This chapter introduces important concepts from game theory that are relevant in the career game. The player must be able to identify the elements of the game, such as boundaries, players, time structures, and goals, before playing it. Career games are not like board games because the rules and objectives are not defined explicitly for you, which means you have to formulate the nature of the game yourself. Think about questions that come to mind when you sit down to play a board game with a group of people. What are the time constraints? What information asymmetries exist? Which players can you trust? Who should you cooperate with? What are the incentive structures? Refining your conceptual representation of the game will set you up for the next step, which is to craft a strategy to win.
- Sequential games - players take turns (ex. Chess)
- Simultaneous games - players make moves at the same time (ex. Age of Empires)
- Sequential games require planning and reasoning around future moves, whereas simultaneous games require prediction of how other players will act.
- Equilibrium - all players are in the best possible position to maximize payoff, no need to make additional moves
- Repeated play - the game involves iterations with the same players, so a history of moves becomes known, giving rise to reputations (ex. careers)
- Finite repeated play means the number of iterations is bounded, giving rise to new behavior near the end that is not seen in infinite repeated play games
- Each move made impacts how players view you in the future
- Player - a player is anyone who could potentially impact the game, the proximity to the game determines the likelihood of impacting the game
- Options - what moves are available to each player?
- Incentive structure - what goals are each player pursuing. Recognize the incentive structure is dynamic.
- Rationality - assumption that players seek to optimize their outcomes (maximize expected utility)
- Gives you a framework for predicting what moves other players will make.
- Crucial to understand incentive structure of the player, because moves that appear irrational in the frame of your goals may be rational in the frame the player’s goals
- Payoffs - value actualized by a move or set of moves
- Determines which moves are “rational”
- Difficulty is that payoffs are subjective, and often obscure to us
- Credibility - how you weigh publicly stated courses of action depend on the credibility of the player to commit to what they claim to do, threats or favors have no influence if they are not credible
- Players have reputations for ability to keep a commitment. Can you trust them?
- Gains from trade - players trade to elevate mutual gain in a non-zero-sum game situation
- Think about how a player could benefit through cooperation with you
- Mixed - you mix up your moves in order to stay unpredictable
- Pure - you are consistent with your moves, which makes you more predictable
- Dominant - the strategy that maximizes payoff for a player regardless of what other players do, which is not necessarily the best joint strategy for the group (ex. in prisoner’s dilemma, the dominant strategy is not the same as the best group strategy)
- Perfect information game - all possible information (previous moves, motives, payoffs, players) are known (ex. chess)
- Imperfect information game - players work with incomplete information since some information is hidden (ex. Prisoner’s dilemma)
- Information asymmetry - some players know more information than other players, information asymmetries tilt the game in favor of the player with more information.
Chapter 3: What You Need to Know to Play
There are several elements of the game you need to know prior to play. You first need to know how you will tilt the information aysmmetries in your favor, or at least mitigate the disdadvantages of those not in your favor. Second, you need to know the incentive structures and risk tolerances of influential players (companies, recruiters, job candidates, executives, clients, etc.). That is, what motivates their gameplay and how risky are they willing to get? This information will help you predict moves and countermoves. Third, you need to know the playing field. In careers, the playing field constitutes internal and external labor markets, which decide the supply and demand of skills. Fourth, you need to know what your relative strengths and weaknesses are. Emphasis on the word “relative”, because the objective here is to identify where you can outcompete other players and where you will likely lose. It also sets you up to capture gains through trade, which is a game theory concept where two players in a non-zero-sum game situation join forces to reap greater gains for those in the group.
Chapter 4: Moves in the Career Game
The authors propose a typology of career moves to classify them based on their consequences. The most mundane move is an incidental move, which merely fulfills the obligation to “take a turn” and delivers little to no impact on your career. The moves that impact your career are instrumental moves and blunders. Instrumental moves can be career-refining, where they incrementally improve your career with low-risk, low-reward movements, or they can be career-defining, where they significantly change the game in a way that pushes you much closer to your career goals. Career-refining moves can be thought of as little swings, like learning a new skill or accepting a promotion, that pivot your career path by a few degrees. Career-defining moves are big swings, like quitting your job to start a company or pivoting into an entirely new career field, that are disruptive to the career path. The flip side of instrumental moves are blunders. Similar to instrumental moves, blunders can take on low-magnitude impact, what they call career-distracting moves, or they can substantially alter the game in a way that severely limits your career options, which they call career-limiting moves. Blunders are hits to the career game, and they vary in damage. They can sting (you get fired), they can knock you off your balance (your startup fails), and they can knock you out (you get arrested for malpractices). Just like a boxer, resilience will determine how many hits you can take to keep playing the game.
Chapter 5: Building the Foundation for Your Successor
This chapter focuses on a single career move: exits. Exits are important moves that can affect your reputation as a player depending on how you execute the move. The departing executive has tremendous impact on the career game of the successor, but this is often overlooked. An insightful way to judge the leadership quality of an executive is to observe how their successors perform after leadership transitions. A good executive, and leader, should be able to leave a business environment in a good state and pass the baton to the next person, so that the incoming executive is set up for success in their career game. On the other hand, the successor should avoid the mistake of coming in with grand changes and new initiatives for the purposes of posturing. When entering a new position, take time to understand the culture, status quo, and internal resistance to change.
Chapter 6: Career Agility
The best predictor of success in the career game is career agility, which is defined as the “ability to leverage your competencies in a manner that exploits career opportunities”. The essence of career agility is to be resourceful, that is, make the most of what is available to you. Maximize the benefits that your current competitive advantage affords you, and strategize on how to strengthen your position by studying the game. Career games are tricky because the underlying game structure is dynamic. The rules changes, new players rise, and positional strength is not stagnant. The desired competencies in the labor markets are not consistent, so what works now may not work later. Agile players are more resilient because they can quickly adapt to disruptions, sudden changes, and novel situations, so it is the best trait to cultivate if you want to play the game well in the long-term.
When playing the game, players should avoid “extreme careerism”, or the set of moves that are unethical and “below the board.” It is important to play the game with integrity so you don’t undermine your character and moral duty as a human. As final advice, the authors offer three propositions for succeeding in the career game: 1) Individuals who understand the nature of the game have a playing advantage over those who don’t; 2) Individuals who can predict the downstream effects of a move on their career game will execute better moves than those who can’t; 3) Individuals who continually evaluate the conditions of the game, their own competencies, and how the two are aligned, are more agile than those who don’t. When playing the game, remember that neither short-term thinking or long-term thinking are optimal in isolation. The optimal strategy lies somewhere in between. Produce results in the here-and-now, but also plan for the future. Effective playing is an oscillation between action and strategy.