Careers that create value

Does what you do add prosperity to society as a whole?

We want our careers to be fulfilling, sustainable and enriching in a number of ways. Beyond obtaining desirable compensation, other paths involve intrinsic satisfaction, an important one being a belief we are contributing to making the world a better place. When reflecting on how effectively our careers are performing toward achieving such a lofty but worthwhile goal, it may be beneficial to determine if value is being created as a result of all of the hard work we do.

A way to begin this career assessment is by asking if our professional pursuit adds prosperity to society as a whole or detracts from doing so. Simply put, we are either creating wealth or we are just transferring it from one party to another.

By wealth, I am not restricting myself to capital alone, but refer broadly to include wide-ranging functional and emotional, life-improving gains. Creating value powerfully addresses the needs of many consumers, and by extension the greater society, whereas orchestrated wealth shifts benefit a relatively small segment of individuals alone.

Economists identify rent-seeking as a concept pertaining to the practice of acquiring shares of wealth created by others. Imagine the ubiquitous economic pie. Value creators are best at growing the pie’s size. Rent-seekers, in contrast, are adept at figuring out ways to grab more slices. Rent-seeking is expressed in various forms — for example, corporate monopolization, opaque government subsidies, reduction of competitiveness and exclusive resource ownership. In short, ask yourself, “Does my career serve the greater population by expanding the pie or is it designed to assist relatively few, generally wealthy people by shifting more slices their way?”

Diving more deeply into defining value creation, we can look at the elements that comprise value.

A few years ago, Harvard Business School published a piece written by several marketing strategists from Bain & Company, the management consultancy, in which they comprehensively recognized four kinds of consumer needs that can be met with combinations of 30 different “elements of value.” Their rationale is that by appealing to the right amount and configuration of consumer needs, business will grow and customers will be retained. They also cite analysis supporting this claim.

I suggest applying the same model to our careers. If we can assert that our work enhances people’s lives by producing value elements, we should be able to feel confident we are creating value.

To summarize this model, visualize Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, which you may have run across in one college class or another. The pyramid is structured to display progressively arranged psychological needs, ranging from base requirements, such as food, water and warmth, to an optimal state of self-actualization.

The Elements of Value Pyramid, on the other hand, presents four fundamental clusters of consumer needs: functional, emotional, life changing and social impact. Within each category are corresponding elements that describe the nuanced values of products and services as perceived by the consumer.

For example, functional needs include value elements such as reduces effort, saves time, organizes and reduces cost; emotional needs include items like anxiety reduction, therapeutic value, attractiveness and fun; life-changing needs contain motivation, providing hope and affiliation; with social impact being solely comprised by self-transcendence, by which is meant a paradigm shift in vastly improved personal growth.

We don’t have to match in scale the impact realized by power value creators such as Steve Jobs or Kia Silverbrook, inventor of high-speed color printing technology, or Sally Fox, who developed a means of mitigating pollution found to be inherent in the bleaching and dying of cotton. Rather, we can distinguish those discrete and profound ways we make lives better every day by adding beneficial features to people’s lives like enhanced speed, quality, convenience, customer service, etc. Careers that create value are what make this a better world.

Bill Ryan, who writes about career, employment and economic topics from his home in North Sutton, can be reached at

Categories: Business Advice