How to visualize your career using the Electron Theory
And 3 orbit shifting moves to propel you ahead
Everyone wants to be rich and successful. Yet, only a few make the orbit-shifting moves that will get them to the top.
To try and explain why, I present:
The Electron Theory of Careers
The Electron Theory of careers states that from a career perspective, we are all a bit like electrons in an atomic orbit. Once we enter a particular career orbit, we tend to follow the bounds of that orbit, with occasional jumps to higher 'energy' orbits depending on the career.
A simplified (non-quantum1) view of the orbits would be something like this.
The career you choose determines your payoff arc.
Some start at a higher level and are thus placed higher on the payoff arc (more money, prestige, power, opportunities); most start at the bottom.
Over time, some jump to higher orbits, usually with an external catalyst that helps us level up to a higher orbit, thus progressing on the payoff arc.
Some sustain the higher levels, and some fall.
Some choose the lower levels willingly; many are stuck to it.
Once you are in a specific orbit, if you continue to perform at an adequate level, you will progress in that orbit, and the payoff curve will climb ever higher until a particular stage.
Some payoff curves are flatter; others are more curved, and some are exponential.
Some people will outperform at every level and jump to higher orbits far faster than others. But the payoff curve remains more or less the same in the same career.
The critical point to note is that this is true of every career.
If you are a taxi driver, you're on the taxi driver payoff curve.
If you are a security guard, you're on the security guard payoff curve.
If you are a big-tech engineer, you're on the big-tech engineer payoff curve.
If you are in banking, you're on the banker payoff curve.
As you jump to higher levels, you also progress along the payoff curve.
You gain more money, more prestige, and likely more influence and power. The higher levels, of course, come with a lot more accountability, responsibility, risk, and possibly stress.
The payoff curve for a daily wage laborer is much flatter than for a software engineer in Big Tech. The labourer's salary and prestige do not increase with experience as much as they do for the engineers.
But regardless of the profession, you can still jump to higher orbits, as we'll cover later.
The Electron Theory of careers is as true for the tea seller, the cobbler, the carpenter, and the plumber as it is for the computer engineer, the lawyer, and the banker.
People stay in the same career orbit because of familiarity, fear and constraints.
Consider the payoff curve of the following two careers.
The payoff for career 1 is much higher. If you are in career 2, it makes sense to shift to career 1.
And some people do shift careers, not necessarily for the material payoff.
Electrons tend to stay in the same orbit unless they absorb energy to jump to a higher level.
We do the same.
We follow the principle of energy conservation. To move to a higher level, you must necessarily do more (or something different) than you currently do to jump to a higher orbit.
This is true for jumps at every orbit.
Jumping orbits is always hard
It is as scary, risky and hard for a daily wage worker to jump to the Big Tech engineer orbit, as it is for a Big Tech engineer to jump on the centimilionaire arc. They are both jumping from different starting orbits, but the perceived fear, risk, effort they have to deal with internally to get to eevn higher orbits may be similar.
This is because changing behavior is challenging.
Add to that external constraints like lack of free time, inadequate skills, lack of ability, overbearing responsibilities, etc.
If you've been in a particular orbit for a while, it will likely be relatively stable. It seems that the natural inclination of humans (like electrons) is also to remain in their steady state. The longer you’ve been in one orbit, the more inertia you have to overcome.
As Newton said
An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force.
Changing skills or careers takes work. It requires sustained effort and confronting the possibility of starting from zero in a new field.
It can also mean giving up the safe, stable orbit you're on in favor of a new, unexplored one with an unclear payoff.
Take the example of Jeff Bezos, who famously quit his prestigious, well-paying job as a senior VP at a hedge fund to start Amazon.
Consider his potential payoff curves. If he had not left, he would likely still have been fabulously wealthy, but would he have become the richest man in the world?
Starting a new business meant he would have to spend all his time and energy on the company, likely operating at a higher energy level than his previous job and dealing with a much lower payoff at the start.
Of course, the reason he decided to start Amazon was not just the monetary payoff.
Two people can start in the same company at the same time and yet achieve wildly different outcomes.
It depends on who jumps to higher orbits faster.
To jump orbits, take risks, do more, and aim high
Electrons jump orbits when they absorb energy from outside through photons.
You jump career orbits in a similar way.
Someone may inspire you, maybe you're pushed into a situation that requires you to go all out, or maybe a new opportunity opens up.
To jump from a lower orbit to a higher one requires us to do something extra, something more impactful than the demands of the existing orbit.
Unless you change what you're doing, you will not change orbits (outside of the planned jumps based on career experience)
Whether you jump orbits depends partly on you and partly on many other factors outside your control, but it's best to take responsibility for everything related to your career.
The three best ways I've found to jump to higher levels come from Nassim Taleb, Naval Ravikant, and Elon Musk
Use new forms of leverage
If you are already in a stable, higher orbit (i.e., a well-paying prestigious job), you have more to lose than gain by taking more risks compared to someone in a lower orbit. You can steadily climb ever higher over a decade or more and become wealthy. Letting that go to start your own business is risky.
It might have more potential upside but also far more downside if you fail.
But to jump to a completely different higher orbit, you have to take risks and take more accountability in some way, shape, or form. That can be in a new venture or a new role in your existing job.
Taking risks, by definition, means doing things that don't have certainty.
It includes backing new things, new ideas, and new approaches where outcomes are uncertain. They may or may not work.
If they work, you may reap the rewards that catapult you to a new orbit.
But to enjoy the rewards, you have to take the risk of failure and humiliation by taking accountability for the wins and, more importantly, the losses. As Taleb says, you need Skin in the Game.
Usually, the more uncertain the path and the probability of a desired outcome, the higher the rewards (though not always).
Taking risks does not have to be harmful, though.
If you've built in a margin of safety, like savings or unique skillsets, you're much better placed to recover from most career outcomes where things don't go your way.
Taking career risks also has different levels.
The most risky is starting without a plan.
The least risky is starting something on the side on nights and weekends while keeping your job.
But taking a career risk does not necessarily mean leaving your existing job.
It does mean taking more accountability for your work. It means taking on the hard projects. It means taking on the responsibility of launching a new team, product, or division.
If you're successful, you can leapfrog to higher orbits; if not, that's fine.
You can always try again.
How much risk should you take? A bit above your current risk tolerance.
2. Use new forms of leverage
The other lever to shift orbits uses the new forms of leverage. The best description comes from Naval's famous tweetstorm - How to get rich without getting lucky.
Use the new forms of permissionless leverage - code & media to build and share ideas and influence your desired outcomes.
The primary benefit of code & media is
It only requires your creativity and consistency to build something meaningful - No one has to give you anything - you can start today by going on YouTube, learning to code, or creating videos and sharing them with the world.
It opens up opportunities you would otherwise not have access to.
Distribution is (almost) free. The downside is there is intense competition.
Don’t let that deter you. Share your work and your ideas online. Over time you will find your tribe. Attention is valuable.
- Paying Attention, Karthik Srinivasan
Sharing your ideas with others helps you spread your work, increasing your luck surface area. It increases the probability that your work reaches the right people who can help you along your path.
If you don't want to post online, you can share your ideas at work. Read Shaan Puri's ingenious thread about the value of starting a newsletter at work and how to go about it.
Code and Social Media level the playing field. They give everyone an opportunity.
3. Aim high
My grandfather used to say
Not failure, but low aim is a sin
Always aim high.
Elon Musk personifies this. His aims are literally out of this world. He backs it up with an unmatched work ethic, and there are few people in the history of the world who have had a more significant positive impact on the world than him (with the companies he founded)
You need to aim high to generate the urgency to take massive action to iterate fast enough to get the desired results.
You don't need to reach there tomorrow, but having something big to aim for is essential to focus your time and energy only on the things that matter.
The Internet makes it easier to jump into higher orbits
You might have heard of Ali Abdaal, who was studying to become a doctor. In 2017, he started posting YouTube videos on the side. Ali now has 5M subscribers on his Youtube channel and makes more than $4.5 million a year with his content business.
Stories like these are not uncommon in today's world.
If you’re skilled and you can build something and sell it, the internet allows you to find your customers.
Take the example ofwho quit his high-paying job at Amazon to make more than $1M online, or Bhanu Teja, a young indie developer, who quit his software engineering job and is now on track to make over $150k this year through his SaaS products, or Sharan Hegde, a consultant, who started posting finance edutainment videos on Instagram in 2021, and now has more than 2.4M followers.
There are plenty of such examples on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and more.
In all of these cases, people took the risk of putting themselves in the public eye and they used social media to reach millions of people.
Everyone now has the opportunity to do the same.
Questions is: will you?