Pursuing Happiness or Meaning in a Career

Radhanath-Swami-on-ocean-of-Happiness1

The things that make you happy (friends! good health! sex!) are not the same things that make your life seem meaningful (sacrifice, service, goals.). I think about the difference by comparing the effect that staying at a luxury hotel has on you (happy) vs. the effect of training really hard for a marathon and then completing it has on you (meaning).

Robin Hanson has a round up of the distinction. Consider a few excerpts from him, drawn from the research.

What a happy life is:

People who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry … [and] is associated with selfish behavior.

What a meaningful life is:

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. … Having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. … They also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life, … but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents. …

Just the other day, Adam Alter wondered in this recent online New Yorker piece about whether the poor have more meaningful lives than the rich:

Happiness, after all, doesn’t explain the popularity of ultramarathons, mountaineering, and Tough Mudder events—or the sacrifices parents must make to raise children. Some of the most rewarding life experiences are popular because they favor meaningful hardship over simple pleasure.

When contemplating this happiness/meaning distinction in the context of career strategy, I have a few reactions.

First, entrepreneurship tends to increase meaning but not necessarily happiness. The day-to-day of an entrepreneurial journey — or any long-term project — can be crazy stressful. Most entrepreneurs I know who are striving for big world-changing outcomes are not actually happy most days. But the long term change they believe they’re enacting, and the personal legacy that it will create, adds a sense of meaning. That makes the journey worth doing from their perspective.

Second, I wonder if there’s a viable career strategy that emphasizes either concept at different times in life. For example, there are stages in life when you consciously focus on meaning and stages when you focus on happiness. Early on in your life perhaps you seek meaning with audacious career goals and sacrifice; later in life you optimize for day-to-day happiness with a low-stress job.

Third, if you had to pick just one path, my advice would be: choose a career that’s meaningful, but weave in happiness habits as much as possible. By “happiness habits” I mean the small tactical things — like keeping a gratitude journal — that are the subject of most of commentary on the happiness topic.

Being Behind, Effort, and Comparing Yourself

NCAA basketball teams that are behind by one point at halftime are more likely to win than teams that are one point ahead.

That’s the intruiging finding of two professors who studied more than 6,000 games. The results are the same even when taking into account homecourt advantage, the team winning percentages, and which team got the ball to start the second half. The article says:

So what may be driving this pattern? The reason is motivation. Being behind by a little leads to victory because it increases effort. Not only do teams down by a point at the break score more than their opponents in the second half, they do so in a particular way. They come out of the locker room fired up and make up for most of the point deficit in the first few minutes of the second half.

In sports and politics, you have a clear competitor and where you stand relative to that competitor is transparently displayed on the scoreboard or in the polls. How about in business? The authors of the study say, “Companies competing to win contracts or research prizes would be wise to focus employees on ways their competitors are a little ahead. Similarly, strategically taking breaks…when one is slightly behind should increase effort.”

Perhaps. An underdiscussed dilemma for leaders in the world of business is the extent to which they should clearly define / highlight competitors to employees, and if so, how to frame the competitors’ progress vis-a-vis you — i.e., should a competitor be portrayed as slightly ahead of you (the equiavalent of one point ahead at halftime) so as to maintain the troops’ sense of urgency? Or is this letting you be defined by the enemy and motivated by extrinsic causes? And when does the “underdog hunger” of being just behind first place turn into demoralized hopelessness?

Finally, there’s a related question at the level of individual career. Should you think of the start-up of you as slightly trailing someone else’s career in terms of achievement to keep you maximimally motivated? There will always be someone who’s done more, and keeping your eye on that person — directly comparing yourself to that person — will keep you pushing. Then again, this approach can generate the kind of envy that consumes high achievers. An alternative to is create an entrepreneurial life so unique to you that it destroys reasonable comparisons. Unlike a lawyer who has a million direct peers with whom to compare himself, walk alone on your own path. If you do, envy goes down, genuine happiness for others’ achievements goes up, and success and progress becomes more about achieving individually defined and intrinsically motivated goals. But, realistically, you probably won’t exert your maximum effort, either. We’re social animals. Competition fuels us to be all we can be.

Bottom Line: In basketball, it seems that being behind by a little at half-time yields the greatest possible second-half effort. In business and life, the extent to which you compare yourself to the competition — and how such comparison drives underlying motivation and ultimate effort — is trickier.

(Photo: Flickr)

Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Cal Newport’s latest book launches today and is titled So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Having read most of the major career books in the field when writing The Start-up of You, I say with confidence that Cal’s is one of the best yet written. Here are the Four Rules of the book, in Cal’s voice:

  1. Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion. Here I make my argument that “follow your passion” is bad advice. You’ve heard me talk about this on Study Hacks, but in this chapter, I lay out my full-throated, comprehensive, detailed argument against this common advice.
  2. Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Here I detail the philosophy that works better than following your passion. This philosophy, which I call career capital theory, says that you first build up rare and valuable skills and then use these skills as leverage to shape you career into something you love. During this chapter I spend time with a professional guitar player, television writer, and venture capitalist, among others, in my quest to understand how people get really good at what they do. You’ll also encounter a detailed discussion of deliberate practice and how to apply it in your working life.
  3. Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion. Here I argue that control is one of the most important things you can bargain for with your rare and valuable skills. I discuss the difficulties people face in trying to move toward more autonomy in their working lives and describe strategies that can help you sidestep these pitfalls. During this chapter, I spend time with a hotshot database developer, an entrepreneurial medical resident, an Ivy League-trained organic farmer, and Derek Sivers, among others, in my attempts to decode control.
  4. Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big. In this final rule, I explore how people end up with career-defining missions — often a source of great passion. I argue that you need rare and valuable skills before you can identify a powerful mission. I then spend time with a star Harvard professor, a television host, and a Ruby on Rails guru, all in an effort to identify best practices for cultivating this trait.

Longtime readers may be familiar with links to Cal’s blog. For years, he’s been writing about the world of work with an unusual level of imagination. I relied heavily on his insight when working on The Start-Up of You. And over the past several years, he’s become a good friend and trusted ally to me on all fronts.

If you’re a thinking person who knows you can’t rely on easy (and wrong) answers about what will make your career go; if you’re instead ready to confront the necessity of deliberate practice and real skill development — then buy this outstanding book. If you order the book this week, you’re eligible to win one-on-one time with Cal.

People Don’t Want to Be Blamed for Giving Bad Advice

Sometimes, when facing a hard decision in our career or in a relationship, we just want someone to tell us what to do. Or, if not tell us exactly what to do, at least to proactively assert ideas for what we may want to do.

But you’ll find that thoughtful advice-givers are sometimes reticent to proactively assert very much. Rather, they ask, “What do you want to do? What are you passionate about?” Then, once you express a preference, they figure out how they can help you realize your goal. Based on your existing inclinations, they’ll amplify what they see are the important things to keep in mind.

Why is this? One perhaps a non-obvious reason: People don’t want to be blamed if something goes wrong. If a person gets you thinking that the right move in life is to backpack around Asia for two months, or accept job XYZ, or go to grad school, and it doesn’t work out — you may (if unconsciously) blame them.

So if you ask for blue sky feedback — open ended advice on what you should do in your life  — be aware of risk aversion on the part of the advice giver, and perhaps make it easier for them by saying something like  “Don’t worry, I’m going to own this decision, be completely honest and throw out any idea that comes you.”

But, really, even with this qualifier, the open ended advice conversations like this only work if you know the other person really well and vice versa. In a majority of cases, proposing specific ideas and asking for specific reactions works best…

#

David Cohen recently posted about asking for introductions, and encouraged people to not ask him blue sky questions like, “Know any good investors for our company” but rather to request introductions to specific people. When you request an intro to a specific person, David can…

explain to [the person he’s introducing you to] that YOU thought of HIM for a specific reason, and are requesting that I introduce you to him. In this case, I’m merely facilitating an introduction that you requested. Socially, it’s pretty much expected of me that I would do this, and doing it as a double-opt in literally has no “cost” in terms of social currency associated with it.

In other words, there’s less downside risk to David if the meeting goes poorly. You asked for it; he just facilitated. Had HE been the one to suggest meeting a certain person, and the meeting goes poorly, he takes some of the blame. He’d quite understandably rather you request and he enable, instead of dreaming up who would be the best person to meet. Same principle as I discussed above.

But, it can be helpful when someone proactively recommends meeting someone you didn’t previously know about it. I’m sure David does this for close allies. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know…and you don’t know who you don’t know!

The Upside of Taking a Chance

Will Wilkinson has spent more time than most digging through happiness research in an analytical way. In his post announcing a major career move — he says he’s going to do less political punditry in order to get an MFA and start writing novels — he reflects:

I think the most important thing I took away from all that time with my nose in happiness research and behavioral econ is that we overestimate the value of what we already have and so underestimate the upside of taking a chance, leaving something behind, and making a big change. Most of us end up where we are through a sort of drift. Sometimes that works out splendidly. And drift hasn’t not worked out for me. I really like what I do. But, alas, I don’t really love it. I never wanted to be a pundit or a “public intellectual.” I always wanted to be an artist of some sort and I still want that. I want to make awesome shit people love. It’s my new motto: make awesome shit people love. So here we go!

Oprah and Charlie Rose Are in Permanent Beta

Oprah Winfrey recently left network television (where she was dominant) to launch her own cable network, OWN.

Charlie Rose recently joined the set of CBS This Morning, a very different show (at a very different hour!) than his main evening program that he continues to do with great success.

Both are enormously successful media brands who, late in life, have taken career risks. Oprah could have retired into philanthropy or just kept on dominating network television with one show. Charlie could have just kept with his show, or retired into a lucrative speaking career.

Instead, they pursue new opportunities in adjacent industry niches to keep growing, to keep pushing the boundaries of their medium, to keep testing the limits of where they can have influence. If it doesn’t work out, both are putting themselves at risk for being called one-trick ponies, or past their prime, or something along those lines.

How many titans of industry in their 60’s and 70’s could honestly say they’re actively trying new things?

Regardless of how their experiments play out, I respect Oprah and Charlie Rose greatly for pushing the envelope during a stage of their career when most expect them to ride quietly into the sunset…

Have Heroes Outside Your Industry

Teller, of the Penn & Teller magician duo, responds to an email from a fan asking for career advice. He talks about their incredible hustle that got them to where they are. And he says this:

Have heroes outside of magic.  Mine are Hitchcock, Poe, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Bach.  You’re welcome to borrow them, but you must learn to love them yourself for your own reasons.  Then they’ll push you in the right direction…

Love something besides magic, in the arts.  Get inspired by a particular poet, film-maker, sculptor, composer.  You will never be the first Brian Allen Brushwood of magic if you want to be Penn & Teller.  But if you want to be, say, the Salvador Dali of magic, we’ll THERE’S an opening.

(hat tip to Kevin Burke)

#

Here’s my older post on my icons.

The Jammed Career Escalator: Old Premises, New Realities

Centuries of immigrants risked everything to come to America with the belief that if they worked hard, they would enjoy a better life than their parents had. Since the country’s birth, each generation of Americans has generally made more money, been better educated, and enjoyed a higher standard of living than the generation that came before it. This expectation of lockstep increases in prosperity had become part of the American Dream.

For the last sixty or so years, the job market for educated workers worked like an escalator. After graduating from college, you landed an entry-level job at the bottom of the escalator at an IBM or a GE or a Goldman Sachs. There you were groomed and mentored, receiving training and professional development from your employer. As you gained experience, you were whisked up the organizational hierarchy, clearing room for the ambitious young graduates who followed to fill the same entry-level positions. So long as you played nice, you moved steadily up the escalator, and each step brought with it more power, income, and job security. Eventually, around age sixty-five, you stepped off the escalator, allowing those middle-ranked employees to fill the same senior positions you just vacated. You, meanwhile, coasted into a comfortable retirement financed by a company pension and government-funded Social Security.

People didn’t assume all of this necessarily happened automatically. But there was a sense that if you were basically competent, put forth a good effort, and weren’t unlucky, the strong winds at your back would eventually shoot you to the top. For the most part this was a justified expectation.

But now that escalator is jammed at every level. Many young people, even the most highly educated, are stuck at the bottom, underemployed, or jobless, as Ronald Brownstein noted in the Atlantic. At the same time, men and women in their sixties and seventies, with empty pensions and a government safety net that looks like Swiss cheese, are staying in or rejoining the workforce in record numbers. At best, this keeps middle-aged workers stuck in promotionless limbo; at worst, it squeezes them out in order to make room for more senior talent. Today, it’s hard for the young to get on the escalator, it’s hard for the middle-aged to ascend, and it’s hard for anyone over sixty to get off. “Rather than advancing in smooth procession, everyone is stepping on everybody else,” Brownstein says. (I’ll address why it got jammed in a future post.)

What’s replaced the career escalator? There’s no single metaphor that universally describes the 21st century career journey. For those who lack globally competitive skills (and yet who are simultaneously overqualified for low-skill labor), the current environment feels like slogging through a tar pit. For people with the relevant skills, the journey is like a vast ocean voyage: unpredictable waves, multiple routes to arrive at a destination, the need to keep investing in your vessel lest it capsize, the allies who form an armada around you to cross perilous straits. A recent Fast Company cover story called the winners of the post-escalator job market “Generation Flux,” a reference to their ability to acquire new skills, adapt to change, and reinvent themselves.

Whatever you call the current climate, the point is that the old premises of the career escalator have given way to new realities, and with new realities come new rules. The new rules are ones entrepreneurs have mastered for years and they are the inspiration behind The Start-Up of You.

Old Premises, New Realities

Old: Ready, Aim, Fire…Retire
New: Almost-Ready, Aim, Fire, Aim, Fire, Aim, Fire

Classic career strategy is Ready, Aim, Fire. Ready is mental, introspective (e.g. pondering “what am I passionate about?”). Aim refers to crafting a long-term career plan. Fire means executing on the plan. Ready-aim-fire (and then retire) no longer works. You can’t plan your life or career like you used to. These days, the better approach is almost ready-aim-fire-aim-fire-aim-fire. Entrepreneurial career strategy involves learning while going, executing while planning, finishing while starting, aiming while firing. There are no clear start and finish points; no designated “ready” or “set” phase followed by a “go” phase. Still, despite the need for constant recalibration, you can be disciplined about how where you choose to direct your energies and how you choose to adapt to unpredictable changes.

Old: Be Loyal to Your Employer and They’ll Be Loyal to You
New: The Employer-Employee Pact is Over; Extend Loyalty to Your Network

LeBron James grew up in Ohio. He married his high school sweetheart from Akron. The Cleveland Cavaliers picked him first in the 2003 NBA draft. A couple years later, LeBron James was widely viewed as the greatest basketball player alive. In Ohio, he was God. (A giant billboard in Cleveland with his photo was headlined, “We Are All Witnesses.”) Yet even as he racked up accolades, the one thing he wanted more than any other–an NBA Championship–eluded him. In mid-2010 LeBron James announced that he was leaving Ohio. He said he was taking his talents to the Miami Heat, a team with a stronger supporting cast, because he wanted to “win now and in the future.” Ohio fans felt betrayed. Sure, he was technically a free agent. But what about loyalty? What about roots? To LeBron, a better career opportunity meant more than his loyalty to Cleveland. While this was a case of a superstar athlete abandoning his team and city, teams have initiated break-ups just as often. The New York Knicks traded away NBA-great Patrick Ewing, even though he had played a record 1,039 games in a Knick uniform.

Today, every young, talented professional is like LeBron. There used to be a long-term economic and psychological pact between the employee and employer–the mutual expectation that a job within the “family” culture of corporations like Ford or IBM guaranteed lifetime employment (and generous benefits once you retired). It’s been replaced by a performance-based, one-day contract that’s perpetually up for renewal by both employee and employer. If you want to keep working at a company, you have to prove your worth–or else they’ll show you to the door. These are competitive times. An organization can’t afford deadweight, regardless of a person’s seniority, loyalty, or prior competency. By the same token, if you are valuable and a company wants to keep you as an employee, it has to earn your loyalty: it has to offer a competitive salary, engaging opportunities, meaningful work–or else you’ll head to the door.

Old: Network Your Way to the Top
New: Build a Network of Allies and Looser Connections

Because loyalty is no longer flowing vertically from you to your employer and vice versa, direct your loyalty horizontally, as Dan Pink suggests, to your professional network–to friends, current and former colleagues, and allies who may work in different companies or industries. Those are the people with whom you want to maintain authentic lifelong connections even as you move from company to company.

We’re all now cynical about “networking.” Yet, despite our cynicism about networking in a self-serving, “what can you do for my career” sense, online social networks are huge. And one’s professional network still matters more than almost anything else. Building a valuable network of allies and weak ties is a different project than classic networking.

Old: It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know
New: The What-You-Know Comes From the Who-You-Know

When knowledge and information were scarce, you could distinguish yourself on the “what you know”–the knowledge and information you had in your head. When knowledge and information became abundant and free, business gurus re-emphasized the “who you know.” Anybody can Google information, they said, yet not everybody can have a vibrant network of relationships. In reality, both information and relationships matter, and they work in tandem. That’s because some important knowledge and information resides not on the internet but in the heads of the people you know. For example an experienced business veteran who knows the company you work for may be the best person to offer subjective insight on a financial dilemma (e.g. “How should I respond to the latest bid?”). Or a colleague at work may be the only person who could advise you on negotiating with your boss over a disputed point. People are frequently better founts of career intelligence than objective, static information sources.

Old: Search for Jobs When You’re Unemployed
New: Continually Search for and Generate Breakout Opportunities

Career strategy used to be a topic you discussed when you were looking for a job. But entrepreneurial professionals know they must always be investing in themselves. Instead of “job hunting” when they’re out of work, they’re continually on the look-out for “opportunities.”

Success begins with opportunities. Opportunities are like the snap to the quarterback in football. You still have to move the ball down the field; you still have to execute. But without a snap to the quarterback, there’s no touchdown. For a young lawyer, an opportunity could mean being assigned to work with the smartest partner in the firm. For an artist, it could be a last-minute offer (perhaps due to a cancellation) to exhibit at a prominent museum. For a student, it could mean being awarded a rare scholarship to travel and research.

Remarkable careers are punctuated by breakout opportunities. If you ask people of note to reflect on their career, you do not hear about a sequence of equally important jobs. Instead, they highlight specific breakout opportunities that led to unusual career growth. These killer opportunities didn’t fall into their lap; they knew how to spot and create them through a series of specific behaviors.

Old: Risk is Bad, Minimize Risk
New: Risk is Unavoidable; Proactively Take Intelligent Risk

Risk wasn’t a relevant concept in the days of the career escalator. The idea was to avoid risk, and avoid “high risk” career moves like freelancing. This is exactly opposite of how winners think today. Every opportunity contains downside risk. To effectively exploit opportunities, you have to be take on the right kind of risk, and manage it prudently. In so doing, you build resilience to the seismic industry and competitive changes that destroy professionals on a more brittle “low risk” path.

There is an entrepreneurial approach to intelligent risk taking, and you may be surprised at how different it is from the stereotyped bet-the-farm, throw caution to the wind approach that people tend to think of when they think of entrepreneurs.

#

Don’t forget to pre-order the Start-Up of You before February 14th for free special offers!

Chris Rock on Job vs. Career

Chris Rock, in his unique blend of wisdom, riffs on the difference between having a job and having a career:

He seems to define a job as something you hate and a career as something you love. I'm not sure that's the most useful distinction and definition. But, I love Rock's point that loving what you do causes you to always think there's not enough hours in the day. And his story about dropping out of the tenth grade and how he should have just dropped out of the second grade, while exaggerated, is perversely true. 

(hat tip: Marci Alboher)

Top Performers Maniacally Prepare for Job Interviews

Ramit is killing it over at his blog. In his recent post How to ace the world's toughest interviews, he says top performers maniacally prepare and hustle in order to land jobs at competitive companies. Below is a story he recounts.


A few months ago, I met a college student at a conference. He was telling me about his job search. “I have a few companies I want to go after,” he said excitedly. “I’m pretty sure I can get a job offer from all of them. Then I'll have to pick! I just have to start working on my interviews. What do you suggest?”

I asked him if he’d researched the interview process. Had he done any practice interviews with friends? What about reaching out to older friends who worked there? He shook his head no impatiently. Then he told me he’d get to all that, but did I have any “tips” to share with him?

I didn’t know what to tell him. He had no idea what he was getting into.

The companies he named were some of the most competitive in the Bay Area. He had little experience (which is fine for college students) and a competitive GPA. But his communication skills were terrible. As we talked — with him talking at me instead of with me — I compared him to a group of friends I had in college.

During interview season, this group of friends and I sat around the dining halls and shared our best interview techniques on a regular basis. We shared the craziest questions we got, the best answers we’d given, and the strategies that alumni — the hiring managers — had let us in on. My friends from this group went on to get jobs at McKinsey, BCG, Google, Goldman, and other extraordinary companies.

This isn’t meant to brag. But let me share what was happening in these dining-hall meetings. Each of us was relentlessly focused on becoming the world’s best interviewees. We studied interview techniques — for hours every week. We tested our best material with interviewers. (Many students would schedule interviews with companies they have no interest in to use as “practice interviews.” Like it or not, it works.) Then we brought it back to the group, compared notes, practiced our cadence, rhythm, and tone, tore each other’s answers apart, and systematically improved our interview skills. Over and over.

So when this random guy at a conference was telling me his interview strategy, there was a game going on around him that he didn’t even realize. Serious applicants to companies like McKinsey were practicing their case-interview techniques for MONTHS before they ever stepped foot in the interview room. These same applicants that had talked to alumni/friends currently at their target companies to get the inside scoop on what really mattered in the interviews. They’d read books and Vault Guides and had attended info sessions. By the time they got to the interview, they were absolutely ready.

And, as with virtually any other complex transaction, 85% of the work was done before these serious candidates ever stepped foot into the interview room.

And the scary thing is, this is what most top performers do.

What does this mean for you?

Am I saying that you need connections and dozens of hours of interview prep to get a job with these companies?

Of course not.

But it sure stacks the odds in your favor.