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The Career Three Body Problem

by kirupa   |   filed under Product Development FTW!

The (career) three body problem is an impossible to solve puzzle where we try to find balance between competing objectives in our professional lives.

Many of you may have heard about the three body problem. It is a long standing problem in physics and astronomy, and it has seen a lot of popularity recently thanks in part to the excellent book and Netflix tv series of the same name:

Now, what is the three body problem? Imagine three objects in space, like three planets. The three-body problem is trying to predict exactly how they'll move over time. It's tricky because each body isn't fully in control of its path. As each object moves, they are influenced by each others' gravity. This makes their paths hard to precisely predict, as highlighted by the following animated visualization:

Notice that the path of three objects influenced by gravity devolves into something chaotic. As you can imagine, there have been no generalized solutions for solving this. There are some solutions that work in certain constrained scenarios, but...you remove those constraints, the problem is nearly impossible to solve, at least today.

What makes this problem easily solvable is if you have fewer bodies. If you have just two bodies, the problem becomes much easier. If you have just one body, well - there is no problem at all. It is trivial to solve. Now, I am not here to talk about physics.

The Three Body Problem and Modern Careers

Let us shift what we just saw about the three body problem over to the modern career, especially for those of us in the technology industry. Our version of the three body problem is an impossible to solve puzzle where we try to balance the following three objectives in our professional lives:

  1. Fulfillment/happiness 😀
  2. Making an impact 🚀
  3. Career growth 💼

The perfect solution is in finding a role that gives you all three.

Just like in astronomy, finding all three in a job is elusive. It is difficult. If you are that rare individual that has a career that satisfies all three objectives, consider yourself very fortunate. What most people do is pick a subset that they are OK with. What two objectives are the most important for you? Is it finding fulfillment? Is it making an impact? Is it having career growth?

Or, to put differently, which objective (or objectives) are you willing to sacrifice. This is tough. Your answers here will vary greatly based on your personal circumstances. This answer will also change over time. What combination makes sense for you at one particular stage in your life will no longer apply at a different stage.

In some cases, especially when we are in a difficult situation or the economy is shaky, we may be forced to settle for just one objective…or maybe even settle for a job that meets none of these objectives:

Many of you who are watching this are probably above average in capabilities and ambition. If anybody can find a job that meets all three, it is possibly going to be you. So what are some things you can do to try to hit all three objectives? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Start your own company. Be your own boss. This is high risk. This is also high reward. You have a lot of freedom where your actions directly influence how you solve for achieving your three objectives. You have agency. You are not passively floating and being pushed and pulled by an environment that you don’t control.
  2. Join a team (or work for someone) who you have high regard for from past experiences. They can give you a much clearer answer on whether you have a chance at meeting these three objectives.
  3. Find a career-aligned hobby or side project that fills in the missing gaps that your “day job” is unable to provide

Now, let’s take a step back. What makes all of this tricky (just like in astronomy) is that the context you are evaluating these three objectives is constantly changing. Very quickly, your circumstances can change - either for the good or for the bad. Your company is going through some tough times. Your manager who you like greatly decides to retire and you are now going to be reporting to someone you don’t care much for. The product you are working on becomes a hit and now you have a lot more resources at your disposal. Situations are rarely static for long.

You have to always be on your toes and constantly ensure that what you want and what you are getting are aligned. If there is a mismatch, knowing that there is a mismatch is the first and often the most difficult step. Everything else can be dealt with afterwards.


The three body problem in astronomy may remain unsolved. When it comes to our professional life, there are reachable solutions. Hopefully the content here helped you to better put into context what you may be looking for in your professional life and how to find balance. What I've shared here lives in a bunch of places beyond YouTube. You can interact with this content on Twitter / X, LinkedIn, or TikTok if you want to share it with your networks there...which I would totally appreciate!

Just a final word before we wrap up. If you have a question and/or want to be part of a friendly, collaborative community of over 220k other developers like yourself, post on the forums for a quick response!

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