A long-time mentor of mine, Chris Phillips, taught me the Merit Badge mental model. This mental model has given me clarity and peace of mind over the years when navigating big career decisions.
What’s the Merit Badge mental model for measuring success?
The concept of a Merit Badge comes from the Boy Scouts. The idea being a scout can only earn a particular merit badge (actually a patch that gets sewn onto a vest) by demonstrating mastery of the skill or ability defined by the badge. For example, a scout would only receive the “Firemanship” badge by clearly demonstrating, repeatedly, the ability to start fires without matches.
(the Boy Scout Firemanship Merit Badge)
Merit Badges can come in all sizes. You can earn a small Merit Badge for something like “Touch typist.” You can earn a big Merit Badge by demonstrating you “Can repeatedly lead startups to successful exits as a CEO.”
I’ve collected a bunch of Merit Badges throughout my professional career. They range from “Can learn any technology” to “Expert at ideating and launching V1 products.” Other examples of my Merit Badges are “Quickly hire senior talent”, “Can fumble through using git”, and “confidently presents to 1000+ people audiences.”
My landing a role at Amazon in 2013 was sort of accidental. I left Microsoft in 2011 because I couldn’t identify any big Merit Badges I wanted to earn there. All the big ones seemed to be outside Microsoft, like “can bootstrap a tech startup.” So I went after that one and while the startup I bootstrapped is still cranking I don’t claim I’ve earned that Merit Badge (Freebusy.io is run by my former co-founder Stefan). I can’t claim the Merit Badge because doing something only once does not prove you can do it repeatedly. No demonstrated ability to do it repeatedly, no Merit Badge! No soup for you!
As I was trying to do the startup thing, I discovered people were willing to pay me to consult for them. I had no idea how to ‘do consulting’ so I set in my mind the goal of earning the “excellent at management consulting” Merit Badge. I said, “If I can land three consulting gigs, and deliver the results promised, I get the badge.” I read books, I asked others how they did it (thanks to Marc and Fabrice!), and I dove in. This was how I kept cash-flow coming in while trying to do startups. I did five consulting engagements in those two years and my customers were happy with the results. Badge earned.
The last of those consulting gig was with Amazon. I won’t bore you with the details here, but the gist was a very smart lady at Amazon realized if she could get me to see the ‘inside’ of Amazon, I’d probably love it and want to work there. She broke all of Amazon’s rules of paying ‘consultants’ and gave me a contract. She was right and after completing the consulting project, I started full-time at Amazon on April 1, 2013.
At the time, I had not finished earning the “can bootstrap a tech startup” badge. To go to Amazon I had to give it up. Maybe someday I’ll get back to it. Or not. The point is, this mental model gave me clarity of thought in making a career decision. It was super clear to me what I was giving up.
I was clear on what was next too. I saw a large number of potential Merit Badges I could earn at Amazon. A primary one I choose (and wrote down in my post describing the Job Decision Matrix) was “Succeed at > 1 Big Company.”
This is what motivated me to write this post: I clearly (in my own mind, which is what matters) was successful at Microsoft. I shipped some really great stuff for customers and had a blast doing it. Now that I’ve survived Amazon for 5 years, and absolutely loved the work I’ve done to help make Echo and Alexa so loved by customers, I look in the mirror and am able to say to myself “yep, I’m successful at Amazon.”
Yay for me! One more big Merit Badge I can sew onto my vest! This gives me personal satisfaction and confidence. I was pretty scared of Amazon when I joined. What the eff did I know about anything EXCEPT how Microsoft worked? The inventory of the Merit Badges I had earned at MS gave me the confidence I needed to get started.
Are Merit Badges useful outside of work?
Merit Badges don’t have to apply only to your professional career. For example, it gives me great joy that I’ve earned the merit badge of “engine builder.” I had no idea how to build a car engine when my son & I decided to build a new engine for my classic BMW. But I did it and the damn thing worked (and is still running flawlessly after 25k miles). But one engine build does not prove mastery. Two does (in my opinion). So recently I completed my second motor for a different car. This one works too (knock on wood). I’ll probably never build another engine (I can, thankfully, afford to pay others to if I have a project that requires one) because, for me, all that really matters is I’ve proven to myself that I could.
How do you know you’ve earned a Merit Badge?
I use a couple of tests. There are probably others.
- When setting out to earn a Merit Badge, if I can, I’ll write down objective criteria. For example, I told myself I’d only get the “Succeed at > 1 Big Tech Company” badge if I was at the big company for more than 3 years.
- I ask myself “would I add this to my resume, knowing an interviewer might ask me for examples and details?” (Advice from someone who has hired a lot of people: Putting something on your resume you don’t really know how to do is just about the stupidest thing you can do. It’s almost as bad as misspelling your own name; which I’ve actually seen!)
- I ask myself “can I look myself in the mirror and say ‘Yeah, I effing earned it’?” Of course, if you are delusional this may not be enough. But if you are delusional, you probably don’t realize you are delusional, so it doesn’t matter anyway.
What else have you written on managing careers?
I wrote a post long ago about how most people think about their careers in the wrong way (You are Thinking of Your Career Trajectory Wrong). The Merit Badge mental model is very complimentary to the idea presented in that post. It’s complimentary because Merit Badges give you a way of measuring your success in your own terms versus things like ‘how many people work for you’, money, or title.
I’ve also found that Merit Badges are aligned with using another tool I’ve written about, the Job Decision Matrix, that helps drive clarity on what’s really important to you (and what’s not) as you make career decisions.
This link will show you all of my career-related posts: Other career-related posts.
The name “Merit Badge” and the concept resonates with me because I’m wired such that my self-worth is centered around my talents, the effort I put in, and what I’ve achieved. It also works for me because, for some reason, I’m absolutely addicted to finding things I’m clueless about and then trying to master them. Not everyone views the world as I do so this mental model may not fit everyone. Try it and see. As usual, feel free to let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter.
Excellent. Thank you for sharing CEK!
Great read, thanks Charlie! Congrats on the 5 years and for the fantastic work on Alexa!
Love this, Charlie. What a great perspective. Congrats on 5-years at Amazon. Here’s to many more!
Thanks for sharing Charlie, this resonates with me.
The Self-determination theory identifies three things that make a person happy: feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Your story is a testament to that model. Please note that economic profit is absent from that theory. There is also a new economic model based on the SDT idea, called “Merit economy”.
I had never heard “SDT” was a thing. I guess this means I’m a self-determinater. Is that a thing?
Keeping the financial/economical aspects separate is key to clear thinking via this mental model. I am, admittedly, biased (blessed) that long ago my financial situation took deep concerns about money out of the equation.
Regarding merit-based economy: I have as much confidence in my ability to engage in coherent discussion on something like that as I do in my ability to birth a child. I have no desire to earn a merit badge for either.