My TFSA Update September 2017 - Musings On Starting A Career

Last update on Oct. 30, 2017.

Image Credit: Tashatuvango /


In this series, I (Jin Choi) talk about my goal of reaching $1 million in my TFSA account by 2033. If you want to know what a TFSA is, I recommend you read my free book. In this article, I’ll also talk about some things I wish I had done earlier in my career.


September Results: Up 7.0%

At the end of September, I had $49,101 in my TFSA account, which was up by 7.0% during the month. By comparison, the Canadian stock market went up by 2.9% while the U.S. stock market went up by 2.0% in Canadian dollar terms. Therefore, my portfolio outperformed in September.

The majority of my portfolio still consists of oil and gas stocks. In September, oil prices climbed from $47.26/bbl to $51.67/bbl, which explains why I had a good month.

Oil’s supply and demand picture continues to point to higher prices. Demand has grown quite rapidly so far this year, thanks to a healthy global economy. On the other hand, supply growth has been disappointing, particularly in the US. Demand has thus exceeded supply for several months running, which has led oil inventories to draw down across the world.

Several months ago, I “threw in the towel” on my bet that oil prices would rise above $60/bbl for the long term. But recent events are making me think that perhaps my original thesis is correct. I’ll talk more about this next month.

For the rest of this article, I’ll take a break from talking about investments, and share some thoughts on starting a career. As you may know, I’ve just posted a job opening for a junior software developer, so I feel the timing is right. Specifically, I’ll talk about the things I wish I had done earlier in my own career.


Career Insights From Business

Throughout my career, I’ve developed the insight that managing a career is much like running a business. The only major difference I see is that whereas a business sells products and services, a career is about selling your time and energy. I believe businesses and careers are so similar in this respect that we can learn about career mistakes by examining business mistakes.

Perhaps the most common mistake that new entrepreneurs make is in believing that “if we build it, they will come”. In other words, new entrepreneurs believe that if they build a product that fits with their vision, they won’t have to market it very much because users will instantly recognize how great the product is and tell it to their friends. This will generate the “hockey stick” growth that big companies like Facebook and Google experienced in their early years. I myself fell into this trap in my early days of running MoneyGeek.

Unfortunately, the hockey stick growth almost never materializes for two reasons: (A) The product may not actually be what customers want, and (B) it’s very difficult to get customers to talk about your product even if it’s good. To underscore point B, think about how many startups and products there are in the world, and think about how many products you’ve recommended to others in the past month. I bet the first number overwhelms the second.

Many young professionals make the same mistake. They only concentrate on getting the right education and training (i.e. the product), believing that employers will easily recognize their value and hire them. But that’s not how the real world works.

For most employers, education and training are just part of what they’re looking for in a worker. They usually also value other characteristics like passion and the willingness to work hard (point A, as mentioned previously). Also, it’s difficult to get noticed by an employer based solely on your education and training, since many other applicants have similar qualifications (point B).

In an ideal world, each employer would thoroughly test whether each applicant has other desired characteristics, such as passion and a strong work ethic. Unfortunately, it takes a long time for employers to determine whether a potential employee has those characteristics, so they use short cuts. They either limit candidates to people they know through their contacts (since they’re pre-vetted), or they nitpick on resumes.

Thus, if you and the employer don’t know the same people, there’s a big chance your job application will get looked over unfairly. You may think that such employers should change their hiring practices to give everyone a fair chance, but that’s not how the real world works. Employers are people, and people are very slow to change, so it’s up to you to adapt if you really want the job.

To overcome similar challenges in the business domain, successful entrepreneurs usually put a lot of resources into marketing. Through marketing initiatives, the entrepreneur comes in contact with customers to gain insight into what customers want, and to advertise that he/she offers those things. I believe that individuals should take the same approach with their careers. In other words, I think they should spend some time marketing their skills, not just honing them.

One effective way I know of marketing skills is to have side projects, and to run a blog that features them. Doing this allows you to come in contact with people who might want to hire you, and it communicates to them that you’re passionate about your work. Another effective way of marketing your skills is to join or create a meetup, and to present your side projects there.

However, creating side projects and running a blog/meetup takes a lot of time. I personally think it’s undesirable, if not nearly impossible, to keep doing this for a long time if you don’t feel passionately about it… which brings me to the topic of passion.


Passion and Side Projects

Warren Buffett once said that, “Without passion, you don't have energy. Without energy, you have nothing.” I think this quote is so true, but especially for creative jobs. It is said that with process-oriented jobs like factory labour, the best worker can only hope to produce twice the output of the average worker. But with creative jobs, the best worker can produce ten times the average worker’s output.

As more and more companies recognize this reality about creative work, they have been increasing their pay for their best workers. This is one reason why we’re seeing income disparities growing. So if you want to find financial success, you have to try your best to become one of the best in your field.

The only way to become the best in your field is through more practice, but it’s impossible to put in more practice if you’re not interested in the work. Also, it’s impossible to know whether you like a field or not without having tried it, which brings me back to the topic of side projects.

I spent a lot of my 20s (I’m 35 now) trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my career. I took career aptitude tests, read books like “What Colour is My Parachute”, and sought guidance from others. Unfortunately, none of that helped (though in hindsight, career books have offered me clues).

Instead, what I should have done is this: I should have tried to create side projects in many different fields in order to see if I liked any of them. I should have tried a creative writing project, a graphic design project, and I of course should have completed a programming project. Then, if I liked spending time doing a particular project, I should have started a blog or joined a meetup earlier.

Doing such things would have put me onto my career track earlier. I would be a better worker today because I would have had more practice. I would have also enjoyed my early career more.

Still, I eventually found what I’m passionate about, and found ways to apply myself to it so that I am able to pay the bills. I therefore consider myself to be one of the fortunate ones. If you’re a creative worker like myself, I hope that what I’ve shared in this article is helpful.

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