Friday, September 18, 2015

"Just do what you love" and other tips to make you miserable



Raise your hand if you've never loved anything so much that you'd want to do it for 8 hours a day for the rest of your life. Excluding video games.

Is your hand raised?

Honestly, what is wrong with you? Are you seriously telling me that you don't have a single passion that gives direction to your life, and that will finally allow you to be happy once you've managed to make a career out of it?

Yeah, me neither. By the way, I really ought to get into motivational speaking. That was fun just now.

If we're taught anything from childhood, it's that the most important thing we'll ever do is to pick a thing and then go be that thing forever. Preferably, we'll know what this thing is in our early teens, so we can from then on adjust our course accordingly, lest we get hopelessly lost on trajectories that are not meant to be ours and will not lead us to greatness. This thing will then go on to define who we are and how other people see us, because the first thing anyone wants to know when they meet a new person is not what they worry about on alienating Sunday-afternoons or what they think about culinary fusion, but how they acquire the means to pay a living. Somehow it has become deeply ingrained that who we are = what we "do".

This is a great way to mess with your sense of self-worth, because the great majority of us never ends up doing anything all that inspiring in order to make rent. To the contrary: there is a vast array of jobs in this world that make it increasingly difficult to figure out what their practitioners actually do, let alone what the point is (these are the inhabitants of Golgafrincham notoriously sent away on Ark B in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). A baker bakes and a fireman (or woman) puts out fires. What the hell does a global market relations manager do?1

There isn't a child in the world who dreams about going into customer service when they grow up, yet a dizzying amount of people (including yours truly) eventually ends up there. And it's not an altogether awful place to be. I appreciate being indoors, and I like that it allows (=forces) me to move my body around all day and lift lots of heavy things. If I had a sitting job, I'd probably be twice the size I am now, and a lot less healthy. I also kind of like copy machines for some reason. Basically, I feel the same way about my job Louis C. K. feels about this blue rug: it doesn't make me come, but it isn't a portal to a nether place either.2 And that's just fine, as long as you don't let your job define who you are as a person.


I was talking to one of our student workers this summer who told me that she gets a kick out of the statistical analysis of medical data, which is awesome, because that happened to be her field of study, and also something you can do as a job. More power to her. The trouble starts if we can't just be happy for bright kids like her without drawing the reverse conclusion that those of us who don't get turned on by spreadsheets3 have somehow failed at life.

Somewhere during the past century, we have all decided that this thing we do to acquire money (not to forget greatness), apart from comprising our identity, should also be the main deliverer of the meaning we so desperately crave. It should make us happy. It's no longer enough to just do the work and take the money (like it was in, say, the 1950's). Our job should be something we are passionate about, and the best way to achieve this, is to conquer that holy grail of labor in the Western world: to turn your passion into a job.

Supposing there really is a thing that you love doing so much that your idea of an ideal life is to mainly do that thing for 80% of the time, and get paid for it. Wouldn't that just be the best thing ever?

Sadly, no. Because human brains are notoriously bad interpreters of any given situation, the absolute best way to ensure that you will no longer enjoy that thing you once loved so much is to somehow get paid to do it. This is a well documented psychological phenomenon called the overjustification effect, and it was discovered by Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, three psychological researchers in the 1970's who successfully managed to rob a bunch of preschoolers of their love of art by offering them rewards to make drawings. What happens is that when you receive an extrinsic (or external) reward for doing something, your brain gets tricked into believing that this is the real reason why you are doing it, which effectively diminishes your intrinsic (or internal) motivation. But this is just one of the things that are at play. The other thing that we can intuitively grasp is that when you start doing something fun (like drawing) on a level of intensity which would actually warrant getting paid for it, the reality of what you're doing often turns into something that's no fun at all.

As a result of this, rock stars, the ultimate champions of turning their passion into a career, are among the most miserable people on earth. You could offer that there is a very real chance that their mental issues were what drove them to become musicians in the first place, but imagine sitting in your teenage bedroom clutching a guitar and fantasizing about spending 30 hours a week inside airports or crammed onto a bus, leaving everyone you love behind for 18 straight months, and having every hour of every day planned out for you months in advance, with every synced up step you miss costing everyone around you thousands of dollars. Suddenly that dream doesn't seem quite so alluring after all.
You know who, as a group, are the happiest in their jobs? Hairdressers. Sadly, they, too, didn't escape the great Golgafrincham expulsion.

The other problem with putting all your eggs in one basket is that it turns you into an incredibly boring person. Most people who are extremely successful don't have very much going on in their lives apart from that one thing they are good at. That's how they became successful at it in the first place. The advent of specialization effectively turned us from beings who needed a very diverse skill set just to survive in nature, to a bunch of idiot savants, some of whom earn salaries equivalent to the GDP of a small nation by being very good at kicking a ball around. The best way to achieve success is to narrow down your skill set as much as possible.

I was told as much in plenty awkward career counseling sessions, each time I was asked to list my interests:
- "Let's see... obviously writing, philosophy, dinosaurs... I like fixing things, but only if it involves power tools. Sewing always makes me incredibly angry for some reason. I went to film school for a while. I also get a huge kick out of anything to do with the human brain, and from building computers and stuff, you know, machines."

- (Perking up): "Did you study computer science?"

- "Oh, no. I basically just youtube how to do stuff. Did you know you can pretty much youtube how to do anything these days? I went through a furniture building phase for a while, but I'm over that now. Sanding stuff down is boring. I just got back into playing guitar, though. Ooh, and I drove a forklift one summer; that was cool."

- (Sad now)

- "I'm also kind of weirdly into ants."

For the record, I'm well aware this makes me a huge flake, but it's fun getting all into something for a while just for the hell of it. That is where those juicy intrinsic rewards are. In fact, it might be a lot smarter to actively prevent the things you do for their own sake from getting tainted by extrinsic rewards. The reason this sounds crazy is that we live in a society that has a hard time seeing the value in anything it can't put a funny S or E on. As a result, the most loving and precious occupations slip right through the net, while it effectively sucks some of the value back out of whatever it manages to catch. You might be the most awesome parent, creator or volunteer, but none of those will ever earn you any prestige as long as they don't involve the exchange of money. But that's ok, because prestige is stupid. As Paul Graham points out in this essay: "If it didn't suck, they wouldn't have had to make it prestigious."

The reason so many of us feel inadequate (aside from the fact that at 33, we still haven't founded a startup company) is because despite our desperate searching, most of us have failed to find that one special calling that will translate into a prestigious and lucrative career, and because we are told we need that to be happy. But we don't. On the other hand, we dismiss the entire plethora of interests, activities and passions that actually do keep us hungry to exist, to the undervalued realm of 'hobbies', while they should by rights provide the real answer to that tiresome question of what we "do". We sell ourselves so incredibly short this way.
Instead of realizing that success is a rare and elusive thing that probably wouldn't make us happy anyway, we conclude that it's us who are faulty. Meanwhile, we remain fooled by that great collective mirage telling us that somewhere, out there, is the career that will, once and for all, lift us up to a place where we'll finally be able to prove our worth.

Personally, I kind of gave up on that when the last time I took one of those career aptitude tests it told me I should become a taxidermist.


1 In trying to think of a pointless job title to go here I stumbled upon this awesome Bullshit Job Title Generator. I am sure I've met some of the people who hold these jobs.
2 That I know of.
3 This is a bad example, because I actually do get a little turned on by spreadsheets.

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