I Know I’m Supposed To Follow My Passion. But What If I Don’t Have A Passion?
Oops. Non-photo post here.
So, in some of my more recent posts, I’ve been enumerating on the plight of the 21st century middle class white male human: having seemingly unlimited number of things I could do or commit my life to, but with little inclination towards one direction. I think about waiting for a few years to make a decision, but I think part of that is just waiting for my options to decrease a bit so the process of elimination is easier. ACCKK!
Enter economist Tyler Cowen. His blog post titled “Max wants to know what to do,” was in response to a question from a similar* person in a similar position in life. It was later picked up by NPR’s Planet Money. NPR recorded economists asking Max economist-like questions to determine his choices: How much are you willing to suffer in the short run to get a better future? How important will it be to spend X number of hours with your kids? How well do you understand your own defects? What does 50-year-old Max want?
(Missing were the always unpopular questions “How many people do you want to suffer because of the decisions you make every day? Would you like to profit from purposefully misleading others? Do you care if the atmosphere exists in its current breathable condition in 50 years?” Oh, economists.)
At the end of the original blog post, Cowen asks his readers to give their suggestions. I’ve read them over and copied the ones I thought were interesting, and put them together as one long post.
*Forewarning: this kid is an ivy-league grad, so many of the responses are “get a job managing piles of money,” something I might not initially be qualified for with a BFA from RIT.
I think he should mess about and not commit. If you haven’t discovered what you really, really want, then it’s best to try a lot of things. Your 20s are a good time to work this stuff out. Of course, it helps to have a great passion from the start – then you can really fly – but if you don’t have it, then committing too early can lead you to a lot of stress as you back out from mistaken choices.
…But the real rock stars (when it comes to money) don’t seem to become “Analysts” and “Associates” right out of college. Sure earning six figures immediately or whatever is cool. Except when you realize that everyone around you earns more. It’s also kind of like the prestige of Teach for America. Emphasis on the kind of.
So my advice to Max would be: develop those general skills, stay interested in the world, and when you are touched by a problem that needs solving, maybe that will form the kernel of a new passion – for the time being at least.
Don’t think of a long term career: there is a good chance that any skill you have currently is going to be obsolete very soon. Think, instead, of short term projects that may or may not lead to long-term careers or interests (but increase differentiation at any given point in time, relative to your cohort). There is a certain path-dependency here, and possible local minima traps, but you can’t have it all. Curiously, the economy today, with the increase in demand for part-time labor, encourages experimentation of this sort. I am no romantic, but maybe there’s a case for work leading to passion rather than the other way around?
Passion is overrated, and it’s possible to develop it by picking a direction and committing yourself to it for long enough that you develop skills and insight.
Startups are an excellent way to expose yourself to a whole lot of things, gain diverse skills fast, and put yourself in the sort of crucible where you learn things about yourself.
Spend as much time as possible with interesting, passionate people. Observe and reflect: what makes them tick?
Interesting or meaningful work are more important than social status, not least because they are more interesting and/or meaningful, but also because if you do interesting or meaningful things within a defined social context (e.g. a profession) and make it at all apparent to others, you will eventually have status (within that context), but having status does not necessarily get you doing interesting or meaningful things.
Pick something, do it accelerator-to-the-floor for a few years, and see what your outlook is afterward. It may be the wrong thing (it almost certainly will be) but that’s okay; if you do it intensely you’ll have gained a lot of skills and a lot of self-knowledge and interesting friends, and it will have moved you closer to knowing the right thing.
(But be careful of picking things that generally expect everyone to work 80-hour weeks, as they are likely to come with their own set of strong values and cultural assumptions that will be hard to deprogram yourself out of, and that will cloud your understanding of yourself. *You* might throw in the 80 hours, but if everyone does all the time as a matter of course, it’s eating your soul.)
I would suggest looking for a startup to join. Startups allow for generalists to excel as while they need a few specialists, the organization size along with the hope that the company is solving a new problem leads to generalists succeeding.
Startups also provide two other great things for generalists: constant new problems to solve and a shorter time span so you can try other things.
Startups tend toward younger people as the initial pay is generally lower than many older can afford which is also a benefit to Max.
Finally a practical way to find a startup job? Start with angel.co and Hacker News Job boards. Look for the companies that are hiring, no matter who they are hiring and try to pitch yourself to them. (After researching the company of course. ) Also since Max is an Ivy grad, check with the university alumni, business, and computer science departments.
“Matching your job to a preexisting passion does not matter, he reveals. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
FIRST you get really good at something, it doesn’t even really matter what that is. Get a job, and whatever difficult task needs doing there, follow that path if you’re even modestly good at it. Once you’re REALLY good at it, the passion will follow.
I have tried to ‘change careers’ over the years, thinking my passion for what I’ve always done (and gotten fairly good at) was burnt out. That was the wrong move. Instead, I’ve further specialized and done the hard work to become VERY good at some specialties in that field. Now the passion flows. So does the money.
Spend two years in ‘Teach for America.’ It’s a good way to give something back to society while figuring out what to do with the rest of your life. Both of my daughters spent the first two years post-college doing something similar prior to making such decisions. The older one got a Master degree in Special Education and has been teaching now for the past six years; the younger one is finishing her Masters in Music Therapy and is interning this year at one of the preeminent children’s hospitals in the US. Both find their work incredibly rewarding
Find something he’s curious about and that doesn’t suck. Get a job doing it. When he gets bored, move on to the next thing. Hone the writing skills (you’d be surprised how many executives can’t write, tell a story, even spell properly … it’s a highly valuable skill and should always be in demand).
Also – and this is key – get plenty of exercise and sleep.
Anyone who spends time abroad during school at an Ivy League school, now studying his navel at this stage about “what to do”, needs a course in real world living.
Volunteer to work in an unemployment office, helping the unemployed find a job. That’ll wake you up and help you decide about his concerns: “passion”, “meaningful work”, and “achieving status”.
I am currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Policy while still working full-time – this is much less expensive then going to graduate school while not working, and the degree tends to be less expensive per-credit than, say, a law degree, but it gives you a lot of good background in statistics, econometrics, economics, cost-benefit analysis, program evaluation, good knowledge of public systems. There are a lot of different ways you can “go” with the degree, public, private, or non-profit, and many different roles, and many of them interesting. I specifically chose the degree to maximize the combined “interesting work/increased salary/increased options” frontier while minimizing the debt incurred.
In the 1980s we were told that a reasonably solid undergrad liberal arts foundation would put us in good stead, which turns out to’ve been the case for me (a mere English major, I now style myself a “communications generalist”, having worked successively in public school teaching, book publishing, desktop publishing, and television news production: now a more-or-less full-time writer of fiction and non-fiction). Apart from having eyes open to opportunity (I also had an early stint as a property-and-casualty underwriter in a family-run insurance company and have since learned a little about business management), native intelligence and educational attainment gave me the versatility to build the career I am pleased to have had and which overall I have found rewarding.
Get married. Build a family. Have those needs drive your other decisions. I can guarantee that your live for your spouse and family will generate energy and motivation for your career.
Max should try to find an entry-level job in a large company. Just as with Ivy league schools, the difficult part is getting in. The easy part is staying there. Once in a large company, it is fairly easy to move between departments if you have proven yourself and have made lots of (and more importantly key) contacts. Some companies have ‘young associate’ programs wherein a small group of selected new hires are fast-tracked to management positions.
“A record of primarily reading/writing-intensive courses, as well as basic to intermediate economics, calculus, statistics, a proofs course.” [this is the summary of Max’s skills from the original blog post] There might be (although it is possible that I exaggerate just a little) three journalists in the entire country that have these skills. Everyone else did English then a Masters in journalism. Even a quick skimming of the day’s newspapers will show that almost no one understands statistics for example. There are good gigs out there for people that do.
stop over-thinking things and get a job.
Join the military. Spend three years learning skills that will benefit you for the rest of your life.
I served two years as a Peace Corps volunteer right out of college. It helped me discover my passion while doing something worthwhile and led to a job doing similar things domestically. That experience helped me figure out to enroll in an epidemiology grad program that my employer paid for, which never would have happened if I had rather arbitrarily chosen a graduate school or career out of college.
I had an almost identical experience to Max by the time I was 24. I graduated from a great university with a great general education and great grades but lacked passion. I wanted to do something interesting and as a result I went into consulting, which, in my experience was a complete mismatch. It was partially the company and partially the job, but in the end, I found consulting neither interesting nor satisfying. I did that for two years, and then spent two years working in a cognitive psychology lab because I thought I might want to get a doctorate, but that turned out to be a terrible fit as well. After doing some soul searching, I ended up doing something that I never thought I would do: I decided to take over the family business. I now manage a small factory manufacturing custom metal widgets in Japan. The strange thing is that I’ve been doing it for two years and I absolutely love it. I never would have predicted it, but my passion has become manufacturing technology and processes which is certainly a far cry from Economics which I studied (and enjoyed very much) in college. I’ve become obsessed with it.
Whatever you do, do NOT go into supply chain management.
Elephant in the Room … Who here a gives a sh*t about Max?
*Whew* I thought the majority of the internet commenters were really helpful, save for those who suggested killing more brown people by joining the military, or starting a family for the sake of starting a family. Who the hell writes those things on a economics blog? Because if there’s one thing that the world needs, *sarcasm alert* it’s more dead brown people and MORE AMERICANS.
Now to re-read what I just posted. Also, some links that people mentioned in comments: http://www.calnewport.com/books/sogood.html, http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/feb/23/change-life-helsinki-bus-station-theory, http://80000hours.org/.