Follow Your Bliss—Sort Of

Since Steve Jobs died, his famous 2005 commencement speech has been tweeted, blogged, and written about extensively.  It is, to be sure, a very inspiring speech.  But Robin Hanson points out that the most prominently featured advice isn't actually very practical:

Now try to imagine a world where everyone actually tried to follow this advice. And notice that we have an awful lot of things that need doing which are unlikely to be anyone's dream job. So a few folks would be really happy, but most everyone else wouldn't stay long on any job, and most stuff would get done pretty badly. Not a pretty scenario.

OK, now imagine that only graduates from colleges like Stanford or better followed this advice. Since such folks have more fulfilling job options, a larger fraction of them would end up really happy. But we'd still have too much job turnover among our elites, with too much stuff done badly.

Now notice: doing what you love, and never settling until you find it, is a costly signal of your career prospects. Since following this advice tends to go better for really capable people, they pay a smaller price for following it. So endorsing this strategy in a way that makes you more likely to follow it is a way to signal your status.

I'm not sure that this captures what I found unsettling about the speech--and I did find it unsettling.  I'm not sure that Jobs was trying to signal anything as much as he was offering very good advice . . . for Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs', um, job, is to tell graduates how they could be Steve Jobs. And if they are to have any chance, they do indeed need to follow their bliss and take risks rather than settling down to a degree in accounting.

But not everyone has the potential to be Steve Jobs.  Not just because most people are rather more ordinary, but because there are a limited number of jobs that are really fun, greatly admired, and fairly well remunerated, which is what most people want.

The problem is, the people who give these sorts of speeches are the outliers: the folks who have made a name for themselves in some very challenging, competitive, and high-status field.  No one ever brings in the regional sales manager for a medical supplies firm to say, "Yeah, I didn't get to be CEO.  But I wake up happy most mornings, my kids are great, and my golf game gets better every year."

That's most people.  But what does Steve Jobs have to tell them?  I doubt he can imagine what that's like, much less empathize, or come up with solid advice on finding a great hobby. So he tells them how to be Steve Jobs.  Which sounds great, and is of very limited practical value, even to Stanford grads.

I struggle with this problem when I speak to aspiring young journalists.  I have an extremely awesome job, one that is just about as close as one can get to a dream job in this vale of tears. (For me, anyway--I realize that "I write about economics for a living" sounds to many people like their own personal version of hell.)  While it's certainly not compensated at Steve Jobs level, and I wouldn't exactly object if my salary were doubled, we have a very solid income that allows us to do anything we have a right to want.

And I have this job because in 2002 I did something that was objectively rather stupid; I decided to use my MBA to pursue a job in journalism.  I decided to do this in part because the MBA job market was kind of thin, and in part because I really, really loved writing about economics.  But it was incredibly risky, as my parents pointed out . . . over and over and over.  Even when I landed a job at The Economist, my crushing loan burden made this a very long and difficult financial haul for many years.

Still, I was lucky--unbelievably, unrepeatably lucky.  To be sure, some other new grads will luck out too.  But most won't.  

So what do I tell them?  

I try to be pretty frank with them about careers in journalism: there are a lot of people who want to be journalists, and a shrinking number of well-paid steady jobs.  Usually, what I tell them next is that it's not a tragedy if they don't do what they thought they wanted to do at 22; that they have more time than they think to figure out "what they want to do with the rest of their lives"; and that the world outside of school and words is more interesting than they probably suspect.  That they should be prepared to take the risks involved in pursuing this career, but also to cut their losses.

This goes over surprisingly well--I think a lot of grads are so frightened right now that they're reassured just to have an adult telling them that no matter what happens, their life will not be over at 24.  But I doubt it would ever get much play on YouTube.