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: 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.


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."

5 comments on “Singular Competence = Passion = Happiness
  • Love the Wehr line at the end. Basically, it’s the same list of things for which a baby might be crying. Which suggests that we might add “affection” to the list, and I do think its lack is sometimes the cause of people’s foul moods.

    On the whole I agree with the analysis as a contributing factor, but I think it should be put into the context of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs. This is an analysis of self-actualization, but if we do not have prior needs met then the self-actualization will be hollow.

  • This notion is really a reworking of self-determination theory (SDT), which draws on 30 years of research to emphasize the importance of “competence” (the ability to create something of recognized value), “autonomy” (the endorsement of what you’re doing at the highest layers of your value system), and “relatedness” (the sense that you’re connected to other people’s lives).

    And of course, hard focus to get “so good they can’t ignore you” is almost always the foundation of these traits.

    The interesting question (in my opinion), is the importance of what you choose to pursue. The quote you included in your post emphasized the importance of liking what you do so you can tolerate the required hard work. The research picture, however, is a little more fuzzy, and seems to emphasize that feeling your choice of career was autonomous (i,e., you weren’t pressured into it by parents, societal expectations, etc.), is more important than your exact feelings about the work.

    And certainly, the search for a pre-existing feeling of passion about work before you have those SDT traits, is a fools errand!

  • Riffing on “perceived earned success”:

    This is why lottery winners are unhappy; while they have the trappings of success, they know they didn’t earn it.

    This is why overnight sensations struggle to stay on top, whereas those who struggled through a longer ascent often remain successful.

    This is why our culture of eliminating failure and doling out praise to everyone regardless of performance is so pernicious.

    Failure and feeling inadequate may be painful, but pain has a purpose. It tells you to try something else. Eliminating pain eliminates the prod to progress.

    (I later turned this comment into a blog post–as often seems to happen with your posts, Ben!)

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