Don't follow your dreams

The best career advice you’ll never hear in a graduation speech

April 18, 2013
April 18, 2013

“Follow your passion” is the stupidest career advice I’ve ever heard. Why? Because my passion in life is for singing bad karaoke. My friend Dodgy Dave’s passion is for dealing crack cocaine. Some of my friends have many passions. Most of my friends have none.

“Do what you’re good at” is better, but still stupid. It gets things the wrong way around. For almost all activities, being “good at” something is the result of thousands of hours of practice and learning (pdf). In choosing a career, you’re almost always making the decision about what to become good at, not the other way around.

How, then, should you find a job you’ll love?

Here’s my slogan: “Do something valuable.”

Let the problems in the world dictate what you do, rather than forcing a preconceived checklist labeled “success,” to be your motivation. Do something that genuinely helps others and makes the world a better place in a major way. That’s the way to have a happy, fulfilled life.

When I tell people this, half think it’s crazy and half think it’s trivial. I think it’s neither. So here’s a three-part explanation.

First, here’s the intuition. Think about yourself at 85, sitting on your rocking chair, looking back on your life. You, Version 1, think: “I made a ton of cash, own three beach houses and a yacht. But what was the point of it all?” Compare with You, Version 2: “I made a lot of money. I also dewormed the entire childhood population of Burundi. But what was the point of it all?” We find it pretty easy to imagine You, Version 1; but the thought of You, Version 2 being dissatisfied is jarring. If you want lasting job satisfaction, you should do something you find meaningful. And the best way to do something you find meaningful is to do something that actually is meaningful.

Second, here’s the science:

Acting altruistically makes you healthier and happier. This study found that people who volunteer for good causes report higher levels of happiness and health than those who don’t volunteer. The authors suggest that volunteering gives you a sense of perspective—so that when you judge how well your life is going, you’re aware of people who are less privileged than you as well as people who are better off than you.

Giving money makes you happierAnother study gave participants $20: half were told to spend the sum on themselves; the other half were told to spend it on others. It was the charitable half that reported greater happiness after spending their windfall, even though participants believed that spending on themselves would make them happier. Similarly, in a representative study of American citizens, those who donated a greater proportion of their income were happier, as were workers who donated a larger proportion of their bonuses.

And it’s been found (pdf) that one of the most important factors in job satisfaction is how much your work affects the well-being of others. Feeling that you’re making a difference makes it easier to get into the state of flow, or complete immersion in an activity. And, the greater significance you attribute to your work, the higher your job performance (pdf).

Finally, I can speak from personal experience. I used to work because I wanted to be The World’s Best Philosopher—something like Wittgenstein 2.0. Now I work because I want to help others. This has improved my life in many ways. I now have a deeper sense of meaning and completeness in my life. I know I’m living up to my own values, rather than following the crowd. And I feel a tremendous clarity and resolution of purpose. There’s no messing around trying to find the “true me”—it doesn’t exist. In contrast, the problems in the world are real, and concrete. So I never doubt my aims now: altruism is the one thing you can do that you know you won’t regret.

When it comes to self-interest, everyone is competing for the same things: money, fame, power, status. So if you want anything, you’ve got to fight everyone else for it. But when it comes to altruism, there’s no competition—everyone wants the same thing, namely to make people better off. So it’s much easier to be wildly successful as an altruist—you’ll find other people supporting you at every step.

So does that mean you should drop everything and work for Oxfam? As I’ve previously argued: not necessarily! What it does mean is that you should start finding out what’s valuable, and get help working out the ways in which your career can make for a better world.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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