Cal Newport points out that “follow your passion” is a catchphrase that has only gotten going in the last 20 years, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, a tool that shows how prominently a given phrase appears in English print over any period of time. The same Ngram viewer shows that the phrase “a secure career” has gone out of style, just as the phrase “a fulfilling career” has gotten hot.
Images follow. Click the link to see them.
While the article is kind of ambivalent about what this statistic means, many of the comments regard the idea that fulfillment be valued over security with a significant amount of derision. Yeah, I know, never read the bottom half of the Internet, but why is the idea that seeking fulfillment in your livelihood is somehow bad (or at least to be valued less than security) so prevalent?
This is interesting to me now, because reading that article came at a time when my life is at a confluence. To wit:
I have two jobs–software engineer and graduate student. Engineer pays pretty well, grad student pays marginally above the poverty line. However, combining those, I’m living pretty high, easily within the top quarter for income-earners in the United States. In terms of actual work content, my engineering work I can take or leave, though I try to do the best I can at it. It’s just often not particularly exciting and sometimes very frustrating. My doctoral research, on the other hand, gets the blood flowing like nothing else besides writing (which, not coincidentally, is a large part of a Ph.D. program). Engineering is a secure career–people are always going to need halfway-literate code monkeys, and will be willing to pay them well. Research is a fulfilling career–I get to meet people who are excited to learn about the work I’m doing, have opportunities for great collaborations, and can end up adding something concrete to a growing and exciting field.
This can’t last.
Within the next couple of years, I’m going to have to choose between the two—do I stick with the steady paycheck and the work I don’t particularly care about or do I cut back to complete my degree sooner in the hope of a better paying and more intellectually satisfying job after I finish?
Being that computational linguistics is a new and quickly growing field, this is actually a viable option for me, unlike for many others, so I’m not all that worried. But I wonder what a similar choice is for other people whose passions aren’t likely to be so well rewarded monetarily. I’m lucky in that computational linguistics has great growth opportunities and as such I’m taken seriously when I say that that’s the field I’ve chosen to study. Meanwhile, a philosophy major, an English major, and a film major walk into a bar, and all are ridiculed for pursuing something they love.
Presumably, if you’re willing to go into massive amounts of debt in order to get a degree in something that doesn’t provide a guarantee of a high-paying career, you must be passionate about it, and willing to work hard toward that passion. As a society, we encourage hard work as a measure of personal dignity. Basically from birth, children in this country are told that hard work and integrity are all you need to be very successful in life. Yet if we look at the people who are (monetarily, as that’s the only quantifiable value system we have as a state) “very successful,” we find not the laborers, but the investors. Not to say that investing isn’t work, but it is hardly the exemplar (that is, when the average person thinks of “work,” the image that comes to mind is not one of traders sitting at a desk). We tell our kids that labor makes you successful under our system, but we assign greater value to investment than to labor (and I say this as a guy with investments). If you’re not one of those super-powered investors, in most cases the best you can hope for is to work consistently and build enough savings to raise you kids and give them the tools they need to work and build enough savings to raise their kids and give them the tools they need to so on and so on.
This conundrum isn’t limited to those who have a college education, either. If you choose not to go to college, the expectation is that you simply enter the working world in whatever position is available. Whether the position you find is one suited to your interests and temperament is a secondary consideration, if it’s considered at all. If all you do is work, the message goes, you should be happy that you have anything at all.
Why the high reward for investment as opposed to labor? Because investment is a risk. However investment comes with a built-in security: labor. You’re not expected to invest every last dime in the market, and if the market crashes, you can always go back to wage-earning. If you do invest all your money in something, it’s probably an entrepreneurial thing, and therein lies the paradox. While we exalt the so-called “entrepreneurial spirit,” we hammer home the notion that security is more valuable than fulfillment and that you should temper your expectations because life is hard. Yeah, life is hard, which is why it rewards those risks that succeed. Why don’t we encourage the passion that makes good risk-takers? And why don’t we encourage risk by making sure that there’ll be something to catch you when you inevitably fall? That way you can get back up and have the opportunity to take another risk. Without the risk, you’d better be happy with the work cycle, because it’s probably all you’re going to get.
As we examine this cyclical process, we find that it’s a differently-veneered version of the lifecycle of the average person in the Middle Ages. You work in order to prepare your children for a life of work to prepare their children for a life of work ad nauseum. And I’m sorry, but if your excuse for the state of the world is “it was good enough for the Middle Ages,” you’ve already lost your argument.
We live in a time where technology is growing faster than ever before, and while we have this idea in our heads that technology is supposed to make life easier, we continue to find ways to use it to keep ourselves on the treadmill of working and consuming. Effectively the only way to break out of that cycle is to take a huge risk and try something new, and if you’re going to do that, it may as well be something you’re passionate about.
I realize this makes me sound like some kind of fuzzy-headed utopian, which would be an odd charge to level at someone who doesn’t actually believe in utopia. Not for no reason does “utopia” mean “nowhere” (Greek ou – “not” + topos – “place”). A society without faults does not and probably will never exist. Any legal, social, and political system is going to leave someone burned, because it’s run by flawed human beings each one of whom possesses a unique and different set of strengths and of weaknesses. We will always have things like jealousy and envy and inequality, however slight. It becomes incumbent upon us, then, to build such a system in which those flaws are minimized as far as possible. In other words, we need to consciously work for a world that we know we will never achieve.
Now here’s a funny turn: I dawdled a whole lot writing this. During that time, my company announced a round of layoffs due to the recent government shutdown and the fact that congressional Republicans can’t grab their asses with both or more hands. Now that disaster’s been averted for now, I don’t know if that’s still happening, and all the projects I work on are supposed to have funding, so I’m not panicking about losing my job, but if I do, I’ll still have grad school and its marginally-above-poverty line wages. It would be a choice made for me a little sooner than expected, an opportunity to pursue full-time something that I really am passionate about, and perhaps a chance to gather some experimental evidence on the thesis I just ranted about for over 1000 words.