26 March 2013

Passion, Fascination, and Aspiration


Getting ahead, moving up the corporate ladder, building a career, etc. these are all legitimate, valid, and even admirable desires, if pursued for the right reasons. But where does that corporate ladder lead to? I still recall being warned by one professor, in the context of research some eleven years ago, to be careful of which totem pole to climb. Thinking on that warning some more, don't we find that all totem poles lead nowhere except to some arbitrarily higher elevation of some arbitrary spot in the ground?

And as for getting ahead: ahead of whom? And to what end? It's cliché to say that life is not a race, but if life were a race, then the end of the race would be called old age, and the prize would be death. So why would anyone want to hurtle down the race track towards that?

These questions doesn't imply that people should lead stagnant lives without goals, or without improving themselves. In fact, a person can become better by simply trying to become better all the time. What seems to become problematic is when we look for destinations, careers, and other people's lives, to not just aspire to, but to plan to achieve as a goal. I mean it seems problematic to crystallize a part of someone else's life, a life that that someone is still living, and then make it a goal to attain it.

To see what I mean by crystallization, here's two people who have careers that I'd love to have:

1) I look at someone like Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, and I think, "wow, I wish I could be like that. I want to be Director of Research! That must be such an awesome job — even he says it's 'the best job in the world at the best company in the world'!" Look at his resume — Division Chief at NASA, Sr. Scientist at Sun Microsystems, researcher at UC Berkeley, and was a Prof. at U of Southern California. I wonder how anyone, and especially how I, could build such a career!

2) Take a look at Chris Bishop, Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft and a Professor at the University of Edinburgh. "Wouldn't I want to be that 'when I grow up'!" He used to do research in theoretical physics too! Plus look at all the honours he's got, like being elected VP of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. How can I be successful like him?

Notice that out of these two people's lives, I've taken a very select aspect of it to crystallize into a portrait — in particular the titles, honours, and a minuscule portion of what they might be doing daily. Then I wonder how I can become that portrait.

The portraits are seductive — prestige and money! — but practically unattainable. They're like the "photoshopped" images of super models that are practically impossible for anyone to be in real life.

You could probably come up with several examples that apply more forcefully to your own life too. Any particular sports figure with fame and fortune you wish you could attain? Fancy the career of Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, and wish for a career that leads you to where he's at now? Want to travel the globe and be a famous travel writer like Paul Theroux? Want to be a rock star?


Those careers and achievements are practically unattainable because, for example, the chances of anyone landing the exact sequence of jobs that Norvig had is nearly zero. For that matter, if you randomly choose someone and ask what's the likelihood that that particular person will become the CEO of Goldman Sachs, the answer would be nearly zero.

Since you are not a random person to yourself, however, it may seem like the odds may not be that bad, but of course, "the odds are always against you" (Osborne). More substantively though, consider whether you really want to aim for a job that may no longer even exist by the time you are at a stage in your career where you are ready to land the job that looks good now. It's not just that you have to skate to where the puck will be by the time you get there, but there's a chance that puck may no longer exist when you get there; worse yet, the puck you want to handle when you get there may not even exist right now!

Just ask Norvig if he grew up thinking he wanted to be the Director of Research at Google when he was young. But Google didn't even exist when he was already through with working at UC Berkeley! And when Microsoft was still a very young company, Bishop was working in theoretical physics, probably dreaming of making big contributions in that area, instead of "ending up" doing machine learning research at Microsoft.

How foolish it might have been for them if they had, instead, set their eyes on goals that were apparent when they were young, follow through and attain those goals at any cost, and then therefore end up not working at Google or Microsoft now.

That's one of the dangers of setting big, life-long goals; of planning your career 10 or 20 years out; and of idolizing a crystallized portion of a life that's still being lived: When you achieve those goals, they may no longer be desirable, and instead, you may then wish your goals were different to begin with. It's a recipe for regret.

A troubling example of this is with young people who want to become lawyers. Especially within some cultural traditions and families, becoming a lawyer is a very highly regarded goal. It's seductive, what with multiple TV shows and movies devoted to law and order, for instance. Some lawyers gain fame and notoriety in defending or prosecuting people with celebrity. Many lawyers that you or I have heard of make reasonable, if not big, money. This combination of prestige and money can be quite intoxicating (in fact, prestige and money is intoxicating for most people in any proportion).

Yet "the legal-job market in America remains dire" (Trouble with the law). The chatter about legal-jobs in Canada isn't especially good either (when I compare it to the chatter about software engineering jobs, especially). And this internet chatter is backed up by the real experience and comments from some of my friends who are becoming or have become lawyers (one of whom went back and did a Computing Science degree, and is now happily working in I.T. instead).

So you could imagine the distress an unemployed lawyer would feel, fresh out of law school, who had, as a young teenager in high school, set out a goal to become a lawyer when he grows up. Sure, he could go find other jobs, being smart and capable, but that's not the point here. I doubt few people would feel no distress after having grown up wanting so bad to be a lawyer, having gone through all that schooling to get a law degree, then only to have to turn around and go do something else.

(Some medical doctors seem to be entering the same boat as well these days.)

The point is that the distress is self-induced by holding so feverishly to a career goal with a time horizon on the order of ten years. It's self-induced because the adult now "has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid" (Graham). I doubt it gets any better with having an X year old decide how an X+10 year old gets to live their life.

Which is exactly what many educators and parents apparently want high school kids to do to themselves. Kids are bombarded with questions about what they want to do when they grow up, what university they want to go to, what they want to major in, etc, as if children has the wherewithal to make an informed decision about what is best for themselves five or ten years out. Many high schools even have career counsellors to counsel the children into making such choices, as if the counsellor could rationally forecast what's best five or ten years out for himself.

We're not talking about figuring out what's best for a fifteen year old when he's only five (that's relatively easy: stay in school, stay alive). We're talking about forecasting what's best for a twenty-five year old when she's fifteen. It's like asking Kasparov not whether some move is best when looking ten moves ahead in a chess game, but whether some move is best considering ten games ahead.

So what's the alternative? Maybe we should be encouraged to seek out our passion and work in it for a living. Don't like lawyering but feel passionate about surfing and surf boards? Open a surf shop!

The problem with passion is that it is a feeling, and feelings are fleeting. They're there one moment and gone another. Ignoring the transient nature of a powerful feeling like passion is dangerous, and more dangerous still if you believe that passions "exist a priori of any serious engagement with a pursuit; [that] they’re some mysterious Platonic form waiting for you to discover" (Newport). This is because such a belief can cause you to jump from one pursuit to another, never discovering your untapped potential in that pursuit, and instead cause you to do possibly silly things like quitting a perfectly good job in software engineering and running away to Brazil to open a surf shop, even though it is not something that has fascinated you previously.

Fascination can be a tricky thing to gauge, but it is not a feeling (whereas passion is). The obsolete definitions of "fascination" actually serve as pretty good synonyms that shows how fascination is not a feeling, but rather is an enchantment or a bewitchment by something. To be fascinated is to be compelled to act without the power to resist. Whatever it is that fascinates you quite "literally" fastens you to it, and so in a sense, to be fascinated by something is to be fastened to it.

This means that if you're fascinated by surfing and surf boards, you would've already been spending time and energy surfing, teaching surfing, or building surf boards, etc. If you're fascinated by law, you would've already been reading case law, learning from Black's Law Dictionary, sitting in on court cases, and arguing legal points with complete strangers online in forums. If you're fascinated by software programming, you would've already been programming in your spare time, learned half a dozen languages, and read at least some of the most influential books on it.

Basically, if you're fascinated by something, you'd already be doing it, and if you haven't, that's because you're not fascinated by it. It doesn't mean you couldn't become fascinated later on, but it does mean you're not currently fascinated by that something.

So passion is a feeling, but fascination is behaviour. Specifically, it's a history of behaviour. All you have to do is look into your past, see what you've done, and you'll see what you're fascinated with. Since "the best predictor of your future action is your past action" (Sethi), even though you may not feel passionate about what you're fascinated with, there's simply no escaping your own behaviour.

Choosing what to work on by doing what you're fascinated with sure sounds like a recipe for choosing work by inertia or the status quo though. Except that's not what I'm recommending at all. Yes, it's important to not put all your eggs in the one basket that you're not fascinated with — that's an extreme case to avoid. Rather, I think it's important to do what you're fascinated with, and then to supplement that with doing other work that you might find intriguing, interesting, or otherwise passionate about.

Imagine you're an ant looking for the highest hill top. You can't see very far, so it's important that each day you end up on slightly higher elevation, but it's also important that you take random excursions to discover more of the terrain. Fascination gives you the definitive direction for ending up on higher ground at the end of the day, while intrigue and passion in various other things lets you discover if there's a better direction to travel in to avoid the local maxima, ie, the top of small hills.

Which brings us back to goals and aspirations. Setting goals and achieving them is what will bring you from where you are now to where you want to be within the line of work you're fascinated with. Aspirations is what guides you in your exploration, and helps you discover unforeseen better directions.

Note that when I think of goals, I have the Manager Tools' concept of "MT Goals" in mind (see 1, 2, 3, and especially their examples). Basically, goals have to be measurable and time-bound. "I will improve my sales by 5% by May 1st," for example. Clear outcomes that, in principle, is publicly (ie, objectively) assessable on some predetermined date. A teacher might want to "improve mean-average test scores by 5% by May 1st," as another example. Those are goals.

Aspirations are vague results that you have a strong longing or ambition for. Maybe it's "I will have improved rock climbing skills in a few years." Or perhaps "I'll have an e-learning start-up company next year." It's easy to argue about whether the result has been achieved or not, and the time line for the achievement is equally arguable and flexible.

The problem with exploring the possibilities for fulfilling and fascinating work, without having aspirations, and merely by jumping after what intrigues or interests you is that intrigue, interest, and passion are fleeting feelings. One week you read a book on management, find it interesting, and suddenly you want to be a management consultant. Next week you read a biography on someone selling sports nutrition supplements and suddenly you think you can be an entrepreneur working only four hours a week. What's next after that?

Without committing some reasonable time and resources onto the exploratory paths you take, you'll find it difficult to find something you'll become fascinated with (besides whatever you're already doing as your day job — talk about choosing fascinating work by inertial!). On the other hand, aspirations are kinds of results, ie, states of affairs of the world that you wish to bring about — they're not feelings, although you may have positive feelings toward them.

By committing to several aspirations (but not too many!), and committing to work towards them, you can cultivate several possible lines of work that may end up becoming fascinating to you. Some of those aspirations will not work out for you ("What!? The job market for lawyers stink? Forget about that one!"), but you can move on to other aspirations. Since you've made a commitment to your aspirations though, you can't just dump one when the going gets tough for a while, meaning you can't hop around from one intrigue to another on a whim. That's a good thing, as it means you'll give yourself a chance to cultivate something that may end up being a fascination for you. So I suggest having aspirations to guide your exploration of what you might end up becoming fascinated with.

Of course, you may end up having multiple fascinations. Even fascinations that are orthogonal to each other. So how does one go about choosing which one to commit to as the "day job," or as the one to devote maximal time and energies toward? Now that's a tough question, since you'll have to try to maximize your happiness, fulfilment, etc, over all the possibilities and risks involved. This question of maximization deserves an entire essay on its own, but there's some general things we can say about it still, because not all fascinations are made equal.

Some fascinations are not ones a rational person would willingly commit to, as in the case of simple additions, like some "recreational" drugs, and the associated highs — being fascinated with the highs gives rise to some socially unproductive behaviours (what counts as addictive recreational drugs used for the sake of the associated high is a tough question, which I will not be going into here). Worse than that, though, simple additions that produces only the feelings of a high do not satisfy other important human desires, including the desire to produce, to better ourselves and the world, and to take risks while so doing.

Simple addictions that produces only the feelings of a high are some of the least risky behaviour a person could engage in for the purpose of producing those feelings (in addition to them being unproductive). Recreational drugs are recreational precisely because they are, more or less, guaranteed to produce a high of some sort. There is vanishingly little risk of not achieving a high given sufficient quantities of the drug. In contrast, for example, mountaineers risk life and limb for the mere chance of a summit and the associated high. It's easy to see who's taking the risk-free choice. (That's not to say that recreational drug use is categorically morally reprehensible. Things aren't that simple. But that's better dealt with in another essay.)

The same, said of mountaineers, could be said of entrepreneurs, except successful entrepreneurs have a greater chance at creating real and lasting economic and social value; to create something that can improve the lives of real people in real ways. Mountaineers, of course, also create value in different ways, eg, by creating a more close knit community of mountaineers and friends. One may try to extend that argument to simple additions too, but the difference is in the level of risk involved — people simply intrinsically value risk-taking, for various reasons (reasons that are best left for a different essay on evolution, risk, and freedom) — and in the amount and quality of the value created (not much, and not great, in this case).

The amount and quality of value created by a fascination is an important criteria to consider when deciding on which one to commit maximal time and energies toward, that is, to commit to as a "day job." After all, most people can't help but "want to create something, [and] to help things going" (reportedly from The Death Ship). By value, however, I'm obviously not referring merely to money, although money is a consideration.

For too many, unfortunately, money is overly prized as a means or indication of wealth, and then the pursuit of wealth leads to the pursuit of goals that do not create a sense of fulfilment or happiness. If we decouple our feelings regarding money from feelings regarding wealth, we might find that there are other ways of finding fulfilment and happiness that do not require the blind pursuit of more money.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the pursuit of money, of course, but it is just one of many ways to achieving happiness and wealth. As an example, living an ascetic or minimalist life makes it easy to satisfy all of one's desires, and in so doing one becomes wealthy, for all of one's wants are then easily satisfied. What is wrong with the pursuit of money is how perniciously seductive it is, and how it leads people into careers they wouldn't otherwise choose for themselves only because that career promises money (and the same can be said of prestige).

Unfortunately, the reason certain careers promises so much money is because so few people would actually want those jobs otherwise! Except for the threat of physical violence, "all we can do is encourage people to do unpleasant work, with money and prestige" (Graham). It's a recipe for unhappiness, but it's just your basic supply and demand at work. If a line of work is so pleasurable that many people would want to do that work, then there would be greater supply of labour, forcing the price of labour to go down. On the other hand, if the line of work is unpleasant, fewer people would willingly commit to it, reducing the supply of labour and forcing the price of labour to go up (ceteris paribus, of course).

As obvious as the market forces governing the pricing of pleasurable versus unpleasurable jobs are, people still willingly commit to a life of displeasure through work many find unpleasant, like being a telemarketer or call centre operator. People do that to themselves because of many reasons, including that inertial and the status quo are comforting. Also, a lifetime of schooling has taught many that work should be painful, and "if you think something's supposed to hurt, you're less likely to notice if you're doing it wrong" (Graham). Lastly, although I'm certain there are other reasons as well, often times the value created by a job is vague and unclear, and it becomes difficult to gauge whether the work is really something one would willingly engage in otherwise. If the amount and quality of value created by a fascination is an important consideration, we better be clear what the value being created in a job is in the first place, or risk doing a job we wouldn't otherwise willingly perform.

Interestingly, this may tell us something about people who willingly commit, over a long period of time, to performing work many find unpleasant. It tells us they are likely comforted by the inertial and the status quo, they likely enjoy the trajectory their life is on, and they likely either don't aspire for much, or they don't commit to bringing about their aspirations regardless of what protestations they may have regarding the unpleasantness of their job, or what plans they may have of leaving it and doing something they think is better. That is, they may say they don't like that job, but they in fact secretly do they may not even recognize consciously that they do, but they likely do. After all, if it was really that unpleasant, they'd have done something about it; the fact that nothing has been done shows it really isn't that unpleasant for them.


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