Staying Put

“The first rule of compounding is to never interrupt it unnecessarily.” - Munger

A lot of good ideas are ignored because they’re only occasionally useful. No one wants to bring them up because there are so many counterexamples of times they were wrong.

One I thought about recently after watching a few friends manage their careers is the value of staying put.

Don’t switch fields, don’t look for a new job, don’t move on.

There’s a decent chance your motivation for leaving is driven by two things: The grass-is-greener fallacy of wrongly assuming the alternative is better, or denying the fact that great opportunities occasionally require annoyance and sacrifice.

Of course it’s not universal advice. Some careers and jobs are dreadful, and the economy only works when people are willing and able to find better opportunities. Stay put is good advice maybe a third of the time when you’re young and perhaps half the time when you’re older.

But when it’s good advice, it can be staggeringly good advice.

What’s easy to overlook is that networks and trust compound like any other asset, and every time you switch jobs or careers you reset the clock to some degree.

Robert Weinberg – a cancer researcher who’s worked at MIT for more than half a century – said recently:

People say to me sometimes, “How could you stay in one place for so long?”

We all know the lives of academic gypsies who spend three years here, 14 years there, five years there. And each time, each place they settle down they make friends and colleagues, and after a period of time they and their families are uprooted and moved to some other place.

There is never any constancy in their lives. Never any robust social network. Never any lifelong friends whom one can associate with.

So I have no regret about being a stick in the mud, having never moved very far, and working now only a couple hundred yards from where I was an undergraduate.

If I were still doing the same things that I had done as a student I would be a little regretful. But in fact this is a very dynamic place.

Academia is different from other careers. But this nails a few points.

One is how long it takes for social networks to compound. Most people would never consider marrying a partner until they’ve dated for at least a year, maybe five, because it takes that long to grasp what a person is or isn’t capable of beyond their surface-level resume. But those same people expect their employers and coworkers to give them full respect, autonomy, and confidence from the start. It rarely happens. Trust has to be earned, and it’s mostly earned through firsthand observation over time, when people watch you under a variety of circumstances. Even when you have a track record at other companies, trust is doled out in small doses when you’re a new face.

The key is that you’ll probably do your best work when your’ve earned your colleagues’ trust, which is the hidden value of staying put. This is especially true if your job involves making good decisions vs. doing something physical with your body. Good decisions require lots of quiet time alone in your head, maybe sitting on the couch thinking or going for a walk. It rarely looks like work, which means your coworkers have to trust you when you’re doing it.

Then there’s the skill side.

Most of the time you see someone do something incredible, with what seems like little effort, and you ask “How did you do that?”, the honest answer is, “I’ve been doing this every day for 10+ years.” Noticing patterns and connecting the subtle dots is something that’s hard to teach in a classroom but becomes obvious when you’ve lived and breathed a field for decades.

All of that breaks down when you move to a new field or a new company. The shiny allure of new overrides the quiet power of compounding in a way that’s easy to overlook.

In investing, selling after a bad stretch feels like the right thing to do. You learned your lesson and seek greener pastures. But everything we know about investing shows it’s the wrong action: the big money comes from compounding uninterrupted over years and decades, when what you’ve done is not as important as how long you’ve been doing it for.

Nassim Taleb says if you’re going to panic in investing, panic early. Same goes for your career – if you’re going to quit, quit early so whatever’s next has a shot at compounding.