Unreliable, Good-Faith Success Advice
I just listened to an interview of Tyler Cowen. I usually love listening to Tyler, and this was no exception. His self-teaching hunger usually means he has some orthogonal views on most things. Unlike your typical NYTimes or Washington Post columnist, there’s some new information from him at a much higher rate. For a human, Tyler has high entropy. However, his view on finding what interests you is frustrating as all hell. He’s probably right. It’s not his fault the advice is frustrating. He’s not the only person saying Average is Over.
Sure. Find out what interests you, as he says. Find out what you can like enough to become above average at it. Look for what you alone can do far above average. Average is over. I agree with his assessment. However, what do you do when you have bills and no income while you are searching? What do you do when you have bills and no income after you have found your passion but you aren’t good enough at it yet to get paid?
This is a problem with advice in extremistan.
You’re in vast, foggy plane of grass. It stretches off to the horizon in all directions. You can eat the grass, and it can sort of sustain you. But it sucks to eat grass all the time. The ground is rolling but doesn’t change elevation much. However, massive tall towers dot the landscape. Some have been found in the fog, blazing with fires and food and prestige at the top. Many more, you assume, are out there that you just can’t see yet.
The ladders to get up the towers are weak and break after a few make the climb. All the towers that are lit are not an option for anyone except the first few. The ladders broke after they climbed up. You’re walking around, and you’re still hungry. There are megaphones on the towers, full of everyone trying valiantly to give all the people down in the grass advice on how to find their own tower. They are really trying to help you! But mostly what they did was wander around on the grass, like you are, until they found a ladder with a tower that worked. Those on top have a great view from where they are. They see towers off in the distance and try and point you over there. It’s hard to describe exactly how to find them.
Maybe you find your “passion” and climb a new tower, and society richly rewards you. Maybe you never find one and you’re stuck eating grass. On average, that’s what we’ll usually end up doing.
I don’t mean to pick on Tyler. Tyler, to his credit, self-deprecatingly admits that he got to his very unique position out in the career wilderness by just following what he found interesting and worthwhile, and worked his butt off. But he succeeded . I want to hear the stories from people who worked just as hard at something and failed. And hear them tell me to go find what I’m interested in and keep working at it. Everything else is too close to survivorship bias to necessarily be trustworthy. The advice is often in good-faith, but that doesn’t make it reliable.
And you know what? I don’t have any better advice. You won’t have a good career in anything being average or unchanging. And the average outcome for trying to find what you are above average in is, by definition, crap.
“Find your passion” is like being told to search in the dark across a vast landscape of power-law distributions. You’ll almost always end up finding the flatlands, under water.
Find your passion? Yes, but also know this is, on average , a rough trade. We are living in extremistan, but so much of society’s infrastructure is not built for it. The hedged version of “find your passion” is “get paid to learn something you would learn on your own anyway.” That can be much harder to find.