Updated on 07.31.14

Is Your Career Really Your Most Valuable Asset? I Say No

Trent Hamm

I came across an article recently at Free Money Finance that argued strongly on behalf of the idea that one’s career is their most valuable asset. To quote:

But I wanted to have one post where I listed the main reasons I think it’s so important to your financial health, so here goes. It pays all your living expenses. Without it, you couldn’t survive. It is the source of all of your investments — retirement, college for your kids, and so on. It helps you acquire other big assets like your home and cars. In short, it’s the source of everything you have financially — unless you inherited a ton of money — the source of your net worth. Even though spending less than you earn is the way to getting wealthy, you must have some income (and the higher the better) to spend less than. In other words, even a miser can’t get rich spending less than he earns if his income is zero.

I found this article about three months after walking away from a very stable and healthy career in order to chase my dreams. And thus, not surprisingly, I don’t agree with the premise.

Your career is not your most valuable asset. Your career is just a series of employments that hopefully build into something that can produce useful income to you, but the career itself is not the valuable asset.

The valuable asset is you.

If you work on building yourself as an asset – constantly adding new skills, new friendships and acquaintances, and new approaches – you’re not building your career at all. You’re building inherent value in yourself, value that you can carry from job to job within your current career or that you can take with you if a great opportunity presents itself.

Investing time in your career is great if it maximizes your value, but if you’re merely toiling away in obscure drudgery, you’re not investing in anything other than the same old paycheck you could get by doing any number of things.

Instead, invest in yourself: personal growth, education and cultural literacy, personal appearance, self-confidence, public speaking, diet and exercise, mental and spiritual health, networking, and perhaps most importantly, feeling good and relaxing. These steps may add value to your career, but they unquestionably add value to you.

Why is investing in yourself more important than investing in your career? There are several strong reasons.

First, you retain that personal value regardless of what happens in your career. Let’s say you work for ten years at a company and it goes under. If you spent all of your time investing solely in your career, you’re likely up the creek. If you spent your time investing in yourself, you’ve got the personal assets and contacts needed to quickly move on from there.

Second, investing in yourself often overlaps with career investment. For example, look at making contacts. Having a huge network of people can help you in your current career, but can help you greatly in making the leap to something completely different. My own personal network of people was key in enabling me to leap from my old career to my new writing-oriented career.

Third, it greatly expands your potential horizons and hands you countless little opportunities. If you’ve built value in yourself, you don’t have to spend your time merely looking straight ahead at the next move within your career path. Many, many other avenues open up to you – sideways leaps within your career to something different, perhaps a giant leap in your current career, or a jump to something entirely different. If you’ve made yourself valuable, those alternative choices open up.

Fourth, it allows you to center around the true values in your life. Investing in your career means you stay late at the office every night so that you have the best chances of advancing in your career, Investing in yourself means you do what’s most valuable to you – spending time with your family, building a larger network of people, improving yourself, and learning new things.

If you want to truly succeed, you need to be more than just a warm body filling a slot in a company and cranking out work product. To become more than that, you need to invest in yourself first, not in whatever might give you another inch in whatever happens to be your current career path.

Remember, it’s you that provides value to your spouse and your children, not your career. If your company shuts down and your career path blows away, ask yourself what’s really left over and use that as your guide.

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  1. Andy says:

    On the broad scale of things I think you’re more or less right on this. At the same time, I think Free Money Finance’s advice still holds true – it is a good idea to cultivate and invest in your career since that will probably maximize your earnings. I guess I’m saying don’t neglect either side (I know, way to take a stance, Andy).

  2. Heidi says:

    Does the word “career” necessarily imply that one must be working “for” someone else? Isn’t more accurate to say that you gave up your career in IT (or engineering or whatever your corporate job was) to pursue a career as a writer?

    I agree with what you’re saying, more or less, I think my objection is semantic. There’s too much overlap for me to separate who I am as a person from my career. I would argue that a career is more than the path you take to earn a living. You can have a career as a blogger, or a career in finance, healthcare, academia, etc. (or all of the above at the same time, as is currently my situation), but that’ s not exclusive from personal development.

    I feel that any energy I spend on personal development benefits my career development and vice versa. My career includes my network of friends, professors, and colleagues. It includes my education. It includes all of the volunteer activities that I am involved in. I could walk away from my corporate job tomorrow and my career would be intact.

    That’s not to say that people can’t make career-ending moves, either intentional (abandoning a one career entirely for another) or unintentional. But in my opinion, the things that most people do to unintentionally end a career typically have more to do with poor personal and ethical choices as opposed to strictly professional ones.

  3. Shanel Yang says:

    I like all your points about family and friends being more important than your career — generally speaking. However, the way I read that Free Money Finance (FMF) quote is it limits itself only to what is the most important asset for one’s financial health. Read that way, I agree with FMF’s point. Especially since “career” can mean much more than a McJob at some awful grind of a corporation; it also includes satisfying self-employment, such as writing or blogging.

    Perhaps FMF wanted to teach that one’s home is not our most valuable asset (as many Americans believe), but that one’s earning capacity is.

  4. Tina says:

    You couldn’t be more right. When my husband’s 23 year career came to an abrupt end during a merger we both discovered the dangers of putting a career above all else and of basing our identities and self-worth on something over which we ultimately have so little control. The last 20 years have been all the better for it, too, as difficult as they were at times.

  5. Trent,
    I enjoyed the article but had a question that I was hoping users might be able to answer.

    On your quote about putting all your efforts into your current job and it goes under, isn’t that what you should be doing? I know that building up your skills is important no matter what happens but if you have a sole employer, shouldn’t you be giving it everything you have so that they are successful no matter what field they are in?

  6. irina says:

    A career, or many different careers, all in all it is basically your earning ability. If you can get out of your bed, and you have two legs and two arms, and most importantly your mind you should have a few options on how to earn.

    Take me, for example. I went from a being a medical doctor, to being a vice president of a PR firm to becoming a full time professional entertainer. Which one is my true career? I don’t really care.

    I know if I stop being a full time entertainer, I have at least 5 other ways how I might earn money.

    My husband however lost his ability to earn income due to his total disability. He suffers Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. Lucky for him, he doesn’t have to earn because he has me to do that earning thingie… :-)

    I don’t hope to be so lucky as to have someone to provide for me if some weird illness strikes me at some point. I do line up different strategies on what I will do if I am 100% unable to earn.

    Seeing what my husband went through taught me to take nothing for granted.

    You can be handsome, brilliant, with a great potential and it all can be taken away from you through no fault of your own.

    Be thankful for every day you can get out of your bed and get out. I certainly am.

  7. Tana says:

    So if this is true (and I think it is), the argument that moms are sacrificing their career in order to stay at home with their kids while their children are young is null and void. You may not have a job-job to put on a resume in that slot, but you are practicing people skills, organization, management, networking, etc. which are all things that can make or break your success at a job. Interesting.

  8. M says:

    The way I view it, a job is where one develops, practices, and refines a bundle of skills while a career is the path you take through multiple jobs. One’s career doesn’t change even if there is a major switch in jobs, like a switch from an IT job to running a motorcycle repair shop. The strategic skills are still there, positive interaction with customers or the ability to think through a problem, for example. It’s the tactical skills that change, in this case knowing how to rebuild a carburetor instead of knowing how to configure a database.

    I like to think that people are, for the most part, always true to their career path regardless of what they do for wages every day.

  9. Jarrod says:

    I agree that your focus should primarily be on yourself (personal development) and secondarily your ability to earn income. Yes we need money. But more importantly I think we need better people in the world. If everyone took becoming a better person as their top priority I think the world would benefit.

  10. Right, I think the point is that if you invest in yourself and develop the right skills, there will always be career opportunities for you. And any specific career can be lost without warning.

  11. Kim says:

    I agree with Shanel Yang (comment #3).

    FMF is talking about one’s financial assets.

    Whereas Trent is talking about the human-element in gaining those financial assets.

    Obviously, a career is much dependent on the person.

    So, both parties are correct; just depends how you want to look at it.

  12. fathersez says:

    I, too, share your view. It’s “us” who are our biggest financial asset. How we make use of “us” and how we nurture “us” might include performing superbly at a career.

    Nevertheless, the career is only one option from the many that are available to a well maintained and looked after “us”.

  13. clint says:

    My job is becoming less and less important in my financial life, because my other streams of income are getting larger and larger.

    clint lawton


  14. Shevaun says:

    I agree with the semantic distinction made in comment #2. Trent, while I agree with your concept, I think there is a difference between “job” and “career.” For example, I am a full-time-adjunct college professor. That is, I teach part time at four different schools, combining to make a double-full-time work load. Any one of my schools is a job, but my life’s work of eduction is my career. So ultimately, I agree with you, but just as you say, investing in your greatest asset–you–builds your own professional worth. I would submit that if you conceive of your “career” as your life’s work, then ultimately your career *is* you. And just in case I sound too work-is-life-ish, I also think that raising my daughter is my life’s work, as are my loves for cooking, sewing, being a kind person, and acting as a responsible citizen. All this together is a life’s work.

  15. VM says:

    If we all took a minute to view our lives as a pie and broke it up into its various ‘pieces’ – don’t you think it would be sad if our work/careers were the largest piece? I think we should all be far above that and look at our lives as much more than simply ‘what we earn’. What we do with those earnings and how they help us to survive is indeed important. However, there are many other ‘pieces’ that are more important than that. If we all learn how to step out of ‘me’ and into ‘others’, this world would be better for it. I don’t feel life is about ‘me’ at all.

  16. rob says:

    I think this post is right on. For me, a career is something you do. By investing in yourself rather than a career, you shift the focus from what you do to what you are. And this makes a big difference.

    My job and career is only a small part of what I am.

  17. gr8whyte says:

    I agree with Shanel Yang (comment #3) and Kim (comment #11) for people who can adapt/learn to switch/change jobs; it’s semantic quibbling. For those who can’t, their existing job/career may be their single biggest asset in today’s employment environment.

  18. Steve says:

    I think you confused “career” with “job.” If your company goes under, your job may be history, but your career is not.

  19. Mark B. says:


    As a long-time reader of this blog and FMF, I think he uses the term “career” loosely. What he really means is that your “ability to earn income” is your greatest financial asset.

    While you may have quit your “career” your ability to earn money (this blog, books, etc.) is still your greatest asset. As you mentioned a while back, if you were to become disabled and lose your income, how long could you and your family survive? Maybe 6-12 months, but once your emergency fund is out, then what?

    I think you took his definition of “career” too literally. Replace “career” with “ability to earn money” and his comments make a lot of sense.

  20. Carmen says:


    Whilst I appreciate with the points in the article, your basis for ‘disagreement’ lost me completely. You haven’t given up your career, unless you have retired since the last time I checked in? :)

    Career does not equal employee. An invaluable fact that could be included in your proposed High School Curriculum regarding employees never becoming (comparatively) rich. :)

  21. The way I’ve always seen it, you are your career. There are no lines separating the two. It’s your job to take yourself as far up in life as you can, doing whatever it may be for whoever it might be for (or starting your own thing).

  22. Jerry Dill says:

    This article does show that getting a necessary skill set is good, however I think it helps your overall abilities down the road, such as obtaining the necessary skills that set you apart from other people and provide you with experience. This can also give you a greater income. I think that since your job is your greatest income compared to stocks and other investments, you need to focus on how to diversify yourself.

  23. junkcafe says:

    You can take the career out of the person (you) but not the person out of the career. This logic may seem confusing. Yet, reflecting on my experience, I see the distinction that Trent is making. To me, Trent is describing a holistic approach to career development. The paradigm shift away from the corporate lifer to free agent status(highly recommend reading Daniel Pink’s Free Agent Nation) is one of the reasons for this introspection. The history of companies investing in its people in exchange for your loyalty is a thing of the past. Today, a good company recognizes the value of training to attract candidates and retain them with the sobering realization that the employee is poised to leave for greener pastures. As you may notice in your place of employment, training is being reshaped as personalized professional development.

    I think it’s wise for Trent to post this topic. On another level, it also draws upon the individualist philosophical core of our nation. Can we agree that class mobility is a result of individual rights?

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