The Difference Between a Job and a Career

Convenience store by i_yudai on Flickr!Most of the emails I get from people asking for advice about their employment situation stem between a confusion between what a job is and what a career is.

A job is simply something you do to earn money. Career advancement is not something you’re interested in there and the work often doesn’t interest you at all. In five years, you’ll likely not be doing anything like your current job.

A career is a series of connected employment opportunities, where you build up skills at earlier employment opportunities to move you into higher paying and higher prestige employment opportunities later on. In five years, you’re planning to be doing something very similar to what you’re doing now, but hopefully with more income and more interesting problems to tackle.

Perhaps looking at some differences might help clarify it even further.

A job has minimal impact on future resumes and job applications because it’s completely unrelated to the stuff you’ll be applying for. A career is a series of heavily related jobs that will always be used on future applications and resumes.

A job is just there to put some easy cash in your pocket. A career provides the backbone of experiences and learning that will fuel your professional life for years, if not your entire life.

A job offers very few networking opportunities, because the people at a job are not people you’ll likely know at a future job. A career is loaded with networking opportunities, as most of the people around you are involved in similar careers to yours and they’ll keep popping up time and time again.

Advice About Jobs

At a typical job, your goal is usually just to get the task done and not annoy the boss. All you really want from a job is a regular paycheck and a positive reference from the boss, and all you have to do to get that done is to get your tasks done and stay out of the way.

This means that you shouldn’t be investing significant emotional energy into the job. Just do what you’re supposed to do with the minimum amount of expended mental and physical and emotional energy, and save that energy for other endeavors.

If your employment situation sounds more like a job than a career, you shouldn’t be killing yourself for it. You should be doing the tasks that are required, then conserving your energy for the other things going on in your life – a second job, raising a family, trying to jump-start a career, and so on.

Advice About Careers

In a career, however, your goal is to not only get the task done, but it’s also to learn skills, gain experiences, build connections, and put yourself in position for promotions, raises, and possibly similar positions in other organizations. That’s a lot more than just getting the task done, and that means putting your ear to the grindstone.

In other words, you should be investing at least some emotional energy into a career. You should be looking for ways that you can get promotions and raises and bonuses and useful resume-building skills and experience. This means always going the extra mile and doing tasks that are beyond your minimum job description, building positive relationships with people around you, and so on.

You should fight hard for a career until you get to the level of success that you want. That doesn’t mean alienating other pieces of your life. It means setting a professional goal, figuring out what you have to do to get there, and getting to work.

A Comparative Example: Convenience Store Clerk

Most people treat convenience store clerking as a job. They go in, do the minimal tasks that are assigned to them by the manager, and watch the clock until they can get out of there to do something else. You know what? That’s what they should be doing. It’s merely a job to them – a way to trade some time for some cash. They don’t want to work at this all their life – they just want a few bucks in their pocket.

Some people treat it as more than a job, though. They hope to become a manager at the store and, perhaps someday, own a store. They take the work seriously, and when there’s no clerking tasks to go around, they spend their time doing other things that need to be done: cleaning the store, learning how the accounting procedures work, and other things like that. They ask lots of questions of the manager and use that for fuel to learn what’s going on, and they often remain as a clerk for many years. Quite often, these people get promoted to assistant manager and sometimes do become the manager. I know at least one person who started working as a clerk at a Casey’s (a gas station/convenience store chain here in Iowa) and eventually wound up owning two of them.

The Big Point

Know going in whether or not this employment opportunity is a job or a career. Ask yourself whether you hope to be promoted at some point, or you just need to collect a paycheck.

If you just need a paycheck, simply don’t become emotionally involved at all. Do the tasks you’re told to do and conserve your emotional and mental energy for the other pieces of your life. If you’re hoping that this employment opportunity will push you on to other things, then turn on the passion.

Figuring this out right off the bat can save you a ton of investment in a job. Save that investment for your family, your passions, or your career.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.