What you should do

It actually doesn’t happen that infrequently that students seek me out for advice on this very question – what should they do with their life?

Do things that you both enjoy and are good at.

I’m usually happy to oblige, but there is now sufficient data (including long term feedback), allowing me to draw some more general conclusions about the emergent commonality structure.

The result is quite intriguing – a combination between an objective carrier structure which seems to apply pretty much universally and subjective instantiations of this structure that allow for considerable idiosyncrasies.

Of course it is ultimately up to you what you do with your life, but for the purpose of this post, we’ll pretend that you asked me for my advice on this question, so here we go.

The solution is actually quite simple. Do something that you enjoy, but something that you are also good at at the same time (ideally something that is valued by society).

That’s it.

Properly implemented, this places enough constraints on the space of possibilities to allow for a happy life.

Of course, it is much more complicated than that in real life. Not that I can claim any personal experience with this, but there are usually implicit or explicit, more or less subtle pressures and expectations from parents, grandparents and the always present aggressive and cocky friends. Just because they feel quite strongly about what you should be doing doesn’t mean that you should actually go ahead and do that. It simply means that you have to reexamine the relationship that you have with these people. If you don’t have this problem: Consider yourself blessed. It is important to keep in mind that it is ultimately your life to live. You – and you alone – are responsible. In the end, no one else cares as much as you (should).

Naturally, there are also material needs and pressures. But don’t sweat it. Above a certain – surprisingly low – income threshold, the correlation between subjective well-being and income is zero, if not negative. This makes good sense. How many cars can you drive? Also, with great wealth comes great responsibility (and usually a dearth of time). Last but not least, the variance in happiness that is accounted for by income is minuscule. So unless you are destitute or on the path to being destitute: Don’t sweat it. Ultimately, money is simply a token that allows you to buy the time of other people. There is no final reward for accumulating a frivolous amount of these tokens. Doing so appears as a serious misallocation of quite finite resources, lifetime chiefly among them.

Finally – and this is perhaps the biggest obstacle – we are facing the paradox of choice. In olden times, you by and large simply ended up doing what your gender-matching parent did. That’s it. Today, with the – at least theoretical – possibility of doing absolutely anything, you have to figure this one out yourself. We know this to be the source of considerable anguish.

That’s where the need for learning comes in. At the beginning of life, both what you are good at and what you enjoy are unknown, perhaps known only insofar as you are similar to other people (the preferences and skills of whom are known). Frankly, you don’t know what you will enjoy (and what not), and maybe even less what you are good at, to say nothing of having the actual skills. We learn that by trying many different things and getting feedback about what we enjoy (from our reward system) and what we are good at (from others). This approach virtually guarantees that most of the things we try in this exploration stage will fail. Thus, one better be accepting of failure. Failure needs to be ok, as it is necessary and healthy during this phase. It establishes the boundaries between the sets. Information which is very hard to come by in any other way.

Of course, these parameters are not independent. You tend to get good at that which you practice. And you tend to practice that which you enjoy. In addition, the concepts are linked due to the need for effort. Without enjoying what you are doing, it is unlikely that you will have the energy to do it every day, all day, for a prolonged period of time. We all have limits and can only force ourselves to do so much. Thus, over time, there will be a strong convergence between what you are good at and what you enjoy. That is a very good thing, but it comes later.

Illustrating the need for effort. Amazingly, in this image sign and signified are truly identical on a meta-level. Note that this is NOT SHOPPED.

Thus, my advice for the truly young: Have the boldness to use college to explore as broadly as you possibly can. This is not easy. In addition to audacity, one needs the awareness that this is the state of affairs as well as the humility to accept it. College is about growing – and shaping – the set of things that you do and do not enjoy. Be not concerned about the go-getters. While their behavior can induce all kinds of fear and loathing, they usually are just on a fast track to a miserable job (aptly called the “race to nowhere”). In the end, they will get what they deserve, either being stuck in a job that they do not enjoy or quickly crash and burn in Icarus-like fashion. These things work themselves out. They always do.

The situation at the beginning of college. You don't know what you will enjoy, and not only are you not good at anything, you also don't know what you are good at.

Graduate school is about getting good at those things that you enjoy. That’s why in reality, the things you are good at is usually a subset of the things you enjoy.

And that’s it. The things you are good and that you enjoy at the end of graduate school, that’s what you make your career. Quite simple, huh?

Now, it is up to you to do the actual exploring (step 1) and improving (step 2). No one can do that work for you. There is considerable diversity in both interests and abilities, and that is quite alright, as there is also a matching diversity of tasks. But no one knows a priori – including yourself – where you are located in the ability/interest space.

Of course, I can be accused of simplifying things, and I am. This analysis presumes a rational actor that is interested in optimizing their long term happiness and effectiveness. If you tend to neurotic self-sabotage, you will have to address these psychological issues as well. Moreover, it is easy to get too comfortable in a local extremum, effectively getting trapped in a particular, sub-optimal corner of this space. This happens to quite a few people and that is why it is important to continuously push yourself to optimize and also to keep exploring. There are a bunch of qualifiers like this, but in a nutshell, this is it.

A final word of caution: Unfortunately, you do have to commit to something, if you do want to do truly good work. Unless you cheat, it takes about 10,000 hours (roughly 10 years) of deliberate practice to achieve a somewhat competitive levels of skill.

This is what the ability/interest space of a mature individual should look like. Clearly delineated boundaries, but deciding to do only a subset of the enjoyable things. Those that one is good at/are valued.

Life is serious business and easy to screw up. Many people do just that. I think that is a terrible waste and completely needless, if understandable given the inherent complexities of this issue.

The good news is that if you follow this advice, you can do something that you are good at and that you also enjoy while being able to maintain your moral integrity because you don’t have to cheat. Everything else will fall into place. What more could you possibly want?

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4 Responses to What you should do

  1. Phil Goetz says:

    “Naturally, there are also material needs and pressures. But don’t sweat it. Above a certain – surprisingly low – income threshold, the correlation between subjective well-being and income is zero, if not negative.”

    For academics, I disagree with this part of the advice. People starting academic careers always base their expectations on the academics they see, who are the tiny minority who have successful careers. Most people who get PhDs (it varies by the field, but this is true for computer science and biology) give years of hard study and accumulate a lot of debt, only to get trapped into a never-ending series of subordinate positions in someone else’s lab, or take “R&D” positions in industry. In either case, they only implement other peoples’ ideas and never get to do their own thinking. Even the successful academic seldom gets to work on what they are most interested in – they must get a grant. Interesting work is uncertain and risky; and uncertain and risky work doesn’t get grants. I couldn’t tell you how many grant rejections I’ve seen that said “This work should not be funded because the PI cannot be certain of achieving positive results.”

    It may be a better strategy for people interested in almost academic field to go into finance, law, medicine, or some other high-paying field that they have no interest in, in which they can save more money in 10 years than they would have saved over their entire life in academia. Then they can retire young, and do the work they really want to do on their own. The exceptions are fields where research is very expensive, like high-energy physics.

    • Lascap says:

      I actually agree. I was thinking of putting in a paragraph on “outside constraints”. In other words, you can only do things if the system at large does value it, which is not the case for academics. But the thing was already getting too long as it is, and I thought that the point is fairly obvious. Plus, the individual can’t do anything about these outside conditions. In the spirit of being proactive, I restrained myself and deleted the portion on systemic conditions. But you are right – it is worth pointing out.
      Regarding academia and an overproduction of PhDs: It is funny that you mention it, but I am working on a post of on that in itself. Check back in a week or so.

  2. Just another guy says:

    Note that the school sign uses correct spelling, but being in Chicago the “windy city” it is very easy to see how the lettering was moved.

    Plenty of other examples of irony on signs.

  3. Lauren s says:

    Things you should do, be cautious. In being a good and successful student, amny other students that appear to be friendly may not be. Watch carefully because not only could they be putting their college career but yours as well. Protect your work and at all time put your name on it, sometimes even in pen so the teachers will recognize your handwriting and be able to tell wether or not someone changed your name and put their own. What you work hard for is yours, and you need to claim it, so you can get the A that is deserved.

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