Are you Passionate or Flailing Aimlessly?

Cal Newport is a 31 year old assistant professor at Georgetown University.  His Study Hacks blog is an ongoing project very similar to this blog, a personal inquiry into how people live successful lives.  In a speech at the World Domination Summit 2012, Cal argues that the clichéd career advice “follow your passion” is wrong.  Research suggests that this advice has led modern young working adults (20-30 year olds) to have the lowest job satisfaction of any generation data has been gathered on.

Flailing to Have a Great Career

In his talk why you will fail to have a great career, Professor Larry Smith claims that people in modern society have to choose between great careers or miserable careers, because good careers don’t exist anymore:

Those trying to have good careers are going to fail because good jobs are now disappearing. There are great jobs, and great careers, and then there are the high workload, high stress, bloodsucking, soul destroying kinds of jobs, and practically nothing in between.  So the people looking for good jobs are going to fail.

Naturally, passionate speeches like this scare young people.  The last thing any ambitious young person wants to do is sign up for the life of Milton from Office Space.  Unfortunately, following passion or emotional instincts early in their working careers can cause young people to change jobs too frequently.  One can spend years flailing around desperately trying to find satisfaction and meaning in their work, but never staying in a single place long enough to develop real skills. This process can leave young working adults unhappy, and feeling useless or unaccomplished.

Success in Mediocristan and Extremistan

In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb also observes that good careers are disappearing.  He describes two worlds that he calls Mediocristan and Extremistan. “In Extremistan, inequalities are such that one single observation can disproportionately impact the aggregate or total.”  The modern world is increasingly transitioning from Mediocristan to Extremistan, which makes achieving success far more a matter of luck than hard work.

In Mediocristan, achievement and effort are closely related.  A dentist can be successful by consistent effort over a long time.  If he works longer hours and sees more patients, he is paid more accordingly.  Thirty years of patiently drilling teeth will leave a legacy of healthy patients, and a happy, accomplished dentist.  Furthermore, almost every dentist that does this will achieve a similar level of success.  The achievement gap between the world’s most successful dentist, and the least successful (but still competent) dentist is small.

In Extremistan, although effort is required for success, luck plays a central role in achievement.  Excellent musicians and authors are often never published, while a relative handful of giants dominate those industries.  Consider the author J.K. Rowling who wrote the world famous Harry Potter series.  She has sold hundreds of millions of books, while thousands of other authors struggle to sell a million books collectively.  With modern recording devices, long dead artists can continue to dominate markets and displace the work of equally good living artists.  With so many people and so much information, it is harder to get noticed now than ever before.  If you’re lucky enough to get noticed, the world’s spotlight lands on you in big way.

Interests Are the Starting Point

Cal suggests that passion is not a preexisting condition for job satisfaction, but passion is actually developed by acquiring expertise in an area of interest.  If you have many interests, any of them could develop into a passion if you work at it long enough to develop enough skill in it.  Cal suggests a simple strategy for career success:

  1. Get good at something rare and valuable
  2. After developing skill for years, use it as leverage to get the traits in life that you value most

Instead of following emotions, young people should use their early years to patiently build their own skills through deliberate practice in one of their areas of interest.  Over time, while your friends are searching for their passion by switching jobs nine times because they don’t like their work in the first week, you will be getting good at skills that make you valuable to society.  Most of your competition will be flailing about aimlessly, and not focusing their energy on a specific skill set.  Cal even goes so far as to say that Malcolm Gladwell’s rule of 10,000 hours of practice is only a requirement to excel in fields with a lot of competition, such as sports, music, or chess.  In less competitive fields such as database programming, you can achieve mastery faster (relative to your peers) because the competition is weak!

In my first post about education, I advised prospective university students to simply pick their faculty, and any degree within will do.  Over my undergraduate degree, I came to the conclusion that all you need to get started is a suitable general direction.  It doesn’t really matter what you do in the end. What matters is how you go about doing it.  Be practical. Consider the cost, risk, and payoff of what you do with your time and resources. Immerse yourself in an area of interest with a culture you feel will benefit you.  Cal seems to agree with me:

If something is interesting to you, and looks like it will give you interesting options if you start to do well in it and start to become valuable, that’s good enough. That’s all you need for that particular job, that field, or that major to be the foundation of a remarkable life. For a lot of people there are lots of things that match these criteria. That’s okay, flip a coin.

About Zeno

Zeno is an engineering graduate, currently working as software developer in Canada. The alias was adopted in honour of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy in ancient Greece.
This entry was posted in All, Happiness / Passion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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