Monday, June 26, 2017

The importance of Cultural Capital when changing careers

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This blog has in the past discussed two forms of capital. Financial Capital represents whatever wealth you have in your personal balance sheet and represents what most of us are comfortable with. Human capital is the net present value of our unearned income. We are less familiar with this concept because it corresponds to what professions we have chosen  and it can also increase in value with more investment into lifelong learning.

While financial and human capital are two sides of the same coin. Cultural capital comes from a different coin entirely. The idea of cultural capital came from a sociologist called as Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu defines cultural capital as one that is derived from skills, tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings and credentials. For example, fans of high-end audio can use their financial capital to get the latest and greatest audio devices from Adelphi plaza, but it take cultural capital to develop an interest and speak convincingly about Classical music and know the difference between Debussy and Bach.

As I'm in the middle of a massive career shift myself, I have on recently started to understand how powerful cultural capital can be and this is often ignored by the readers of this blog who probable spends a lot more time working on their other forms of capital, it may be wise to occasionally try to understand the "feel for the game" as you net worth goes higher. Beyond a particular point, your wealth will not be able to grant you access to certain pockets of power but beyond a certain point, you may find it easier to proceed with Cultural capital.

In modern society, there are many situations where either you get it or you don't. Bourdieu coins this term habitus or "feel for the game". Transitioning from IT to the Law, you notice pretty dramatic changes in the "feel for the game".

Previously in IT, there was a hollowing out of engineering talent to the field of banking and whoever is left normally came from polytechnics and private universities, to have a "feel for the game", you need to practical and problem oriented to earn the respect of operational staff, hence the best IT managers start at the bottom, or at the data centers. At the entry level, you need to be resilient, a little rough on the edge and speak Singlish as it facilitates quick problem solving  and intimate working relationships which are built on trust.

This worked at the bottom tier of IT support where problems are solved on a daily basis but can fail at the upper tiers where problems normally involve contract law and some financial mathematics. The "feel of the game" and mannerisms change as you go up the IT ladder.

As you climb up the ladder, you have to start developing some proper IT project management skills which means talking to business people. At the mid-level IT investments must be aligned with business objectives and skill-sets typically become more finance-like with an emphasis on budgetary controls and internal rate of return calculations.

At this stage the "feel of the game" changes. Your mannerism become more formal. Language patterns become based on simple plain English. At the stage some IT Project managers also change their appearance because they start to wear more expensive watches to try to match their business counterparts. At this stage, if you are stuck at the NCC Diploma level, taking project management training only gives you the skills to do the work but not the mannerisms required to get a "feel of the game", which is why project management remains predominantly a game for University degree holders.

( But do not be dismayed, as cultural capital can be earned over time )

As I transition into a legal career, the "feel of the game" changes even further. While SMU has equipped me with the skills of being lawyer, I have to develop new forms of cultural capital to navigate this Brave New World which Law School has not prepared me for.

Hanging around in family court, perhaps I am a little over sensitive when I noticed a subtle war going on between different counsel. The women are trying to outdo each other with their handbags. For the men, perhaps the weapons of war are their watches, which is the only politically correct jewellery that men are allowed to wear.

Even more fascinating is the use of language. I doubt you can taken seriously even if you employ the simple English taught in schools. I observe some occasional Shakespeare thrown in to written documents (But always in a subtle manner). The manner of speech in legal work is elegant and rich with metaphors. It's no accident as lawyers typically from the Arts stream in Junior College and many have Drama and Debating experience.

While most engineers would not even have the time to build up the cultural capital to enter a new industry sector, I was fortunate in that I spent 3 decades of my life playing  Dungeons & Dragons which never allowed us to create artificial barriers between the Arts and the Sciences. You need to understand the the statistical properties of a fireball spell but you also need to have a firm grasp of how matriarchal society like the Drow would function in Menzoberranzan to have a great gaming session.

A few weeks ago, a very senior old lawyer used the word "Amanuensis" in an email, it was hilariously intimidating. This would drive most of us, including lawyers, to look it up in a dictionary. I was exposed to the word because Amanuensis in D&D was a Wizard spell to summon a disembodied scribe to copy a scroll or spellbook into another document. So I was able to guess that the word meant some kind of scribe.

Sadly, cultural capital cannot be earned overnight. There is no cryptocurrency which can speculate to up your stash for Bourdieu-coins.

But if you wanna mine for Cultural Capital, playing D&D might help.


  1. Chris,

    For a troll, you've won my respect for your refreshing honesty ;)

    I must attest to what you've shared.

    I learned this word "Palindrome" from playing Might and Magic games.

    Its pretty much useless knowledge for decades until now ;)

    There! Finally can use this word in real life!


  2. Hi both,

    I understand your sentiments. I guess that it is better to take it easy and enjoy the progress.

    Have regular thoughts on the ongoing progression and I believe that improvement and sense of appreciation will envolve gradually. Life is full of experience. Enjoy the moments!


  3. Hi Chris - sometimes some form of cultural capital might seem appealing at first sight, but it actually creates a rot within that festers if not addressed.

    The tone of this post seems a lil "infatuated", but well as Ben mentioned, take it in your stride, but please don't lose yourself in the accumulation of cultural capital.

    It's all so easy to slide into that when all you have is that worldview (working more than 12 hours a day surrounded by the same bunch of folks with similar ambitions and the overarching "culture" enveloping the newly minted Associates does accelerate that process).

    Perhaps you can write about your pupilage experience at the appropriate time. Cheers.

  4. Retireby35.SgStyle,

    Thank you for the really thoughtful comments. Yes, there is certainty that temptation of losing one's identity in the pursuit of cultural capital.

    But the odds of that happening to me is small lah because I doubt I have the time to accumulate it when transitioning at such a late stage in my career. The other reason is that I value my financial capital too much to sacrifice it to gain cultural capital.

    However, studying the legal culture as an outsider, observing the practice of law as an amateur-anthropologist and blogging about my experiences here is well within my reach.