The Mindset of the Ambitious Educational Elite

James Kwak on Peter Orszag's decision to join Citibank:

This is the mindset of the ambitious educational elite: You go to Harvard (or Stanford), maybe to Oxford (or Cambridge) for a Rhodes (or Marshall), then to Goldman (or McKinsey, or TFA), then to Harvard Business School (or Yale Law School), then back to Goldman (or Google), and on and on. You keep doing the thing that is more prestigious, opens more doors, has more (supposed) impact on the world, and eventually will make you more and more famous and powerful. Money is something that happens along the way, but it’s not your primary motivation. Then you get to Peter Orszag’s position, where you can do anything, and you want to go work for Citigroup? Why do our society and culture shape high-achieving people so they want to be executives at big, big companies that are decades past their prime? Why is that the thing people aspire to? Orszag wanting to work at a megabank — instead of starting a new company, or joining a foundation, or joining an NGO, or becoming an executive at a struggling manufacturing company that makes things, or even being a consultant to countries with sovereign debt problems — is the same as an engineer from a top school going to Goldman instead of a real company. It’s not his fault, but it’s a symptom of something that’s bad for our country.

Tyler Cowen, in his long, informative piece on inequality, mentioned something similar:

…in so-called normal times, the finance sector attracts a big chunk of the smartest, most hard-working and most talented individuals. That represents a huge human capital opportunity cost to society and the economy at large.

How to Draw An Owl

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One interpretation of the image and caption is that it reinforces how some folks perceive the progression from novice to expert:

Stage 1: You suck.
Stage 2: You're an expert.

In fact, mastering a skill involves hundreds of stages of incremental improvement over a very long period of time.

I believe a key reason so many people on the road to mastery call it quits is not because drawing a beautiful owl in pencil is superhumanly hard. It's because they thought it would be easy.

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Another interpretation of the image is that it's showing that step one is always "start," and step two is always "keep going and going and going until you've nailed it."

(image hat tip to Alexia Tsotsis)

What’s Remained Constant?

From a 1997 interview between Dan Pink and Richard Bolles of What Color Is Your Parachute? fame:

Pink: Despite all the things we've discussed so far, you're not totally sold on the idea that the world of work is awash in change, are you?

Bolles: No, I'm not. There is a basic truth about what a human needs in order to survive; our culture seems unable to understand that. Human nature survives and has survived through the ages by being able to hold on tenaciously to two concepts: What is there about my life or world that has remained constant? and What is there about my life or world that has changed or is changing? I have always argued that change becomes stressful or overwhelming only when you've lost any sense of the constancy in your life. You need firm ground to stand on. From there, you can deal with that change. Observing the constants in your life gives you that firm ground. The thing about the great faiths is that they talk about what's constant in the world: God, grace, prayer. But our culture, in general — and the profession of career counseling, in particular — gets absorbed with a single question: What's changing? Nobody remembers to ask the other question, What's remained constant?

How to Get Hired

Derek Sivers, who started CD Baby and sold it to eBay, generally writes great stuff. However, I think he misfires in his recent post How to Get Hired. His advice for landing a job is:

1. Focus on one company

2. Tell them how much you want to work for them

3. Be persistent (though succinct)

4. Do this until hired

There's more detail under each step over at his post. I agree with the general principle that instead of blasting your resume out to a hundred firms you should be more strategic and proactive and very persistent in your follow-up.

The gaping hole in the advice is simple: How do you know which company to focus on and relentlessly pitch? Under Step 1, he writes: "Do some soul-searching to decide what you really want to do." Those are 12 words of a 432 word post. Yet it's the hardest thing to do.

Calling it "soul searching" is problematic. Had he said, "Figure out which company you want to work for," it would have left open the possibility to arrive at the answer in various ways. But by saying one needs to search one's soul, it furthers two myths that I see.

The first is that we all have one or two things we are destined to do. In fact, I think you can become good (and thus) really interested in a range of things. The second is that the way to find what you "really want to do" is through inspection and reflection. In fact, introspection seems never to bear the fruit you're promised; personal discoveries and self-knowledge seem sooner found via experiments and activity.

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Here's Derek's great post on how to hire a programmer to make your idea happen. Here's his thoughtful post titled A real person, a lot like you, about how the web can sometimes make us forget that a real person is behind the other computer you're interacting with.

Singular Competence = Passion = Happiness

Eric Falkenstein channels Arthur Brooks' new book to discuss the connection between happiness and finding your comparative advantage at work:

He states that the key factor in one's happiness–not experiential happiness, but 'remembered happiness' that is more correlated with 'life satisfaction', see Kahneman on the difference–is 'perceived earned success'. This is the willingness and ability to create value in your life or the life of others. He states that if you ask someone if they feel like they are creating such value, they are happy, regardless of how much they make. Giving people money, via welfare or inheritance, does not make people happy, because this if anything discourages the effort needed to find and develop such a niche. …

Finding alpha is about finding your comparative advantage in your work. As David Ricardo noted about comparative advantage, it exists regardless of one's absolute advantage, it's what one is relatively best at, basically, one's most productive activity. When you find it, you are literally being all you can be.

Invariably, one finds one is good at what they like and vice versa, because you can only get good at something via a lot of effort, and if the task is perceived as onerous or boring you won't put in enough effort; if you are good at it, you'll find you like the appreciation you receive from others that is greater than in any other activity. Thus, finding your alpha is like Brook's 'perceived earned success'. If you find what you would do for nothing and get so good people pay you for it, you will probably be happy.

One important refinement of this idea is that there's a difference between current and permanent value: Pets.com vs. Google, the works of John Kenneth Galbraith vs. Ludwig von Mises. They might, at one time, have generated the same appreciation, but one faded, the other proved highly prescient. One's sense of whether one is creating permanent value, irrespective of current rewards, is important as well, because its rather ghastly to think one's lifework will be seen like past experts in quack homeopathy, irrelevant if not a joke.

There's more, then this conclusion:

The key is doing the best with what you can, the self-awareness and motivation to develop one's strengths so that your hard work generates a maximum payoff going forward. As Muhammad Ali once said, "You can be the best garbage man or you can be the best model–it doesn't matter as long as you're the best." 'The best' is mathematically improbable, 'really good' generates the same result. If you are really good at your job your day is filled with sincere gratitude by colleagues and customers, and hopefully you can also have a family that appreciates you as well (but for vary different reasons).

The Cal Newport shorthand would probably be something like: Singular Competence = "Passion" About Work = Personal Happiness.

I thank Cardiff Garcia for the pointer. Here's Cardiff's post on scalable careers which draws on the same Taleb chapter I blogged about last year.

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Justin Wehr's sound advice: "When in a sour mood, stop everything and ask if you are in need of food, sleep, a potty break, fresh air, or exercise."

Career Lessons from Elena Kagan vs. Richard Posner

Consider the career paths and attitudes of two of the most prominent legal scholars in America.

Kaganhead Elena Kagan, recently nominated to the Supreme Court, according to profiles has been carefully plotting a career since, well, forever. Her youthful dream was to be a Supreme Court justice. At 17 she posed for her high school yearbook in a judge’s robe with a gavel and a quotation from Felix Frankfurter. She relentlessly worked toward this goal in her adult life, knowing what she would have to do to get there. "She was one of the most strategic people I’ve ever met, and that’s true across lots of aspects of her life. She is very effective at playing her cards in every setting I’ve seen," said John Palfrey, a law professor at Harvard. She published rarely; she did not speak out on controversial issues; she has been "extraordinarily — almost artistically — careful. I don’t know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade." Thus: she stands a good chance at enduring Senate confirmation hearings because she has given her opposition little ammunition. David Brooks called this willingness to suppress her mind for her career "kind of disturbing." Andrew Sullivan called her pure careerism "depressing."

Posnerhead Richard Posner, an appellate judge and Univ of Chicago law professor, may have been similarly ambitious when young (I'm not sure), but based on how he's lived his adult life it's clear that he values the pursuit of truth over a carefully cultivated resume. Posner is someone people agree is bright enough to be a Supreme Court justice but too eccentric so as to never pass a confirmation hearing. With jaw-dropping productivity he's shared his thoughts on nearly every topic under the sun. He applies his considerable intellectual heft to timely public debates. He's come out in support of legalizing marijuana, gay marriage, and other rational (if unpopular) ideas. In addition to his court opinions, where are the most cited in the land, he churns out a book a year and a blog post a week. With all this output, he inevitably gets some stuff wrong (sometimes a lot of stuff wrong), offends everyone at least once, and makes himself impossible to pin down. But what an inspiring mind and life!

The career results for each: Kagan will likely assume the top judicial position in the land. Posner will stay put at a close-to-the-top judicial position. The pure careerist achieves her goal. But at what cost?

I'd rather be close to the top and be able to live honestly and with the freedom to take risks than live a neutered life for 35 years in order to rise to the very top. I'd rather be myself than be a shallow, approval-seeking imitation of what is supposedly required to advance to the next level.

Bottom Line: In many professions it seems the sacrifices to go from A- to A+, from 2nd place to 1st place, are just not worth it.

Who Are the Masters in Your Field and How Do You Learn from Them?

When contemplating your own field, ask yourself: are you the wannabe screenwriter reading how-to guides on the subway, or are you, like Thomas, throwing yourself among the masters, and proclaiming: I know nothing, but you do, and I’m not going anywhere until I do too?

That's Cal Newport in his latest entry on building a remarkable life. He rightly emphasizes that if you want to get good at something you should immerse yourself in an environment where people are good, deconstruct their keys to success, and learn from them. Modern craftsmanship: "Learning crafts takes not only time, but exposure to master craftsman." Perhaps another question you could then ask of someone is, "Who are the masters in your field and how do you learn from them?"

The other day Slate did a summary of the new theories of success which focus on the importance of hard work.

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Excellent Stratfor analysis of the crisis in Europe and European identity.  Self-identified progressives do not understand economics. Mickey Kaus op/ed about the outdated union system.

DaveJ comments on yesterday's post about mood and creativity: "You are talking about mere mood variation, and it makes sense that mood cycles enhance creativity, because they shift context and stimulate novel patterns of activity in your brain. I suspect that it is not the middle of the emotional continuum that produces creativity but the variation itself."

Quote of the Day

"I do stuff. I respond to stuff. That's not a career — it's a life!"

        — Steve Jobs

Do stuff. Respond to stuff.

Sonia Sotomayor Has Pursued Her Calling

Last year David Brooks wrote a column about Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor's life and career, pointing out the personal sacrifices that accompanied her amazing professional journey. It's good follow-up to my post last night:

As a young woman, she earned a reputation as a fanatically driven worker, who lived on caffeine and cigarettes….

Her marriage broke up after two years. She was quoted as saying, “I cannot attribute that divorce to work, but certainly the fact that I was leaving my home at 7 and getting back at 10 o’clock was not of assistance in recognizing the problems developing in my marriage.”

Later, during a swearing-in ceremony in 1998, she referred to her then-fiancé, “The professional success I had achieved before Peter did nothing to bring me genuine personal happiness.” She addressed him, saying that he had filled “voids of emptiness that existed before you. … You have altered my life so profoundly that many of my closest friends forget just how emotionally withdrawn I was before I met you.”

That relationship ended after eight years, and her biographers paint a picture of a life now that is frantically busy, fulfilling and often aloof. “You make play dates with her months and months in advance because of her schedule,” a friend of hers told The Times….

These profiles give an authentic glimpse of a style of life that hasn’t yet been captured by a novel or a movie — the subtle blend of high-achiever successes, trade-offs and deep commitments to others. In the profiles, you see the intoxicating lure of work, which provides an organizing purpose and identity. You see the web of mentor-mentee relationships — the courtship between the young and the middle-aged, and then the tensions as the mentees break off on their own…. You see the way people not only choose a profession, it chooses them. It changes them in a way they probably didn’t anticipate at first.

… Sotomayor’s life also overlaps with a broader class of high achievers. You don’t succeed at that level without developing a single-minded focus, and struggling against its consequences.

(thanks to JP Adams for the pointer)

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Soon I'm giving speeches in Milwaukee, WI; outer Baltimore; Reno, NV; Riverside, CA; outer Philadelphia; and Jakarta and Surabaya, Indonesia. If you live nearby and want to come, email me for info. Same goes if you would like to invite me to speak at your organization, university, or conference.

Do You Want a Family or a Calling?

From the "Personal Life" section of Ralph Nader's Wikipedia page:

Nader has never married. Karen Croft, a writer who worked for Nader in the late 1970s at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, once asked him if he had ever considered getting married. "He said that at a certain point he had to decide whether to have a family or to have a career, that he couldn't have both," Croft recalled. "That's the kind of person he is. He couldn't have a wife — he's up all night reading the Congressional Record.

I would say the choice is between a family and a calling.

First, let's review Michael Lewis's distinction between a "career" and a "calling":

A job will never satisfy you all by itself, but it will afford you security and the chance to pursue an exciting and fulfilling life outside of your work. A calling is an activity you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it — often to the detriment of your life outside of it.

If you have a job / career you have plenty of time and energy for your own family, but it's maybe harder to change the world with your professional work. If you want a calling, you don't have time for a family.

To me "family" means kids. If you are parenting children, it's virtually impossible to have a professional calling as Lewis defines it. "Family" can also mean having a spouse who's pursuing his or her professional calling — then, even without kids, it's impossible for you to do the same. (Power couples rarely work out.)

People who start a company and work obsessively to make it go are usual suspects for following a "calling." And how many of them have children or a spouse who's also doing something equally immersive? Few.

I believe the unvarnished reality about work-life-balance is this: the only people who successfully follow an all-consuming, high-impact professional calling are: a) either single or married to a someone who has a "career" (or less) and not a "calling" and, b) do not have kids.

The most effective men and women of this variety tend to be married to a comparatively passive partner (this does not mean objectively passive) because marriage boosts happiness, and do not have kids.

Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, but that's what they are: exceptions. Yes, Lewis's distinction is too rigid, but it's to make a point.

Many men, including some of Silicon Valley's most famous, do their "calling" early in life and then "career" later in life with kids. Men have the luck of being able to organize their lives in a way that this can work. Women, not so much. Damn biological clock.

Of course, what do I know? I don't have kids, and I don't have much experience with either career or calling, and I'm not backing these claims with data. I could tick off examples of people I know or have observed, but I don't want to publicly characterize their family or spousal arrangements. So for now I offer only Ralph Nader's candor and my intuitions based on observing people in the world.

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A male reader of Andrew Sullivan's blog writes:

When I came to LA, I left behind a wonderful relationship with a woman who was much too good for me. In the intervening four years, I've gotten on a path towards a high-earning career. However, I have also felt more emotional pain than in the rest of my life combined.  I've hardly even had a date since working 70-80 hours a week. I recently tried crawling back to my old girlfriend, but she wanted nothing to do with me.

I don't want to address any specific person whose email you printed, because maybe some of them have encountered legitimate sexism – which does exist. But, while women have a lot of avenues to address potential earnings gaps, men like me have no means to seek recompense for the emotional toll taken out on us by the expected focus on our careers.

The general point of the email is that the emotional needs of men are mostly ignored. Especially around this business of careers and family.