Thursday, January 15, 2015

Doing what you love

Should you find a job that you love, or should you just find a job that pays and do what you love on the side?  There is no ultimate answer to this question, only personal preferences and conventional wisdom.

The sense I get from US cultural history is that the conventional wisdom shifts from generation to generation, often tracing economic trends.  The clearest example I can think of is the idea of the "yuppies" in the 80s.  Yuppies were (supposedly) sellouts, people who chose corporate jobs over continuing the revolutions of culture in the 60s and 70s, or so the narrative goes.  In other words, Yuppies chose jobs that paid, rather than doing what they loved.

I am part of the millenial generation.  I feel it is impossible to ascribe motivations to a generation, as if it were a single individual, but I am a rather stereotypical millenial in many regards.  I am overeducated.  I am pessimistic about career, and about the economy.  I don't expect or want much in the way of material goods.  I do not drive.  And I don't love my job.

Unlike the stereotypical millenial, I don't have student debt.  In absence of debt, and in absence of any expensive hobbies, I would be happy with a shorter work week.  Really, we should all have shorter work weeks; it might help reduce unemployment.

I know lots of grad students.  My lack of enthusiasm is common.  But for some reason the cultural expectation is that scientists do what they do for the pure joy of discovery.  Non-scientists view science through the lens of popular science, where everything is cool and exciting.  I can fit my own research into this narrative too.  Liquid helium, ultra-high vacuum, class 4 lasers!  But science isn't all exciting ideas and fascinating discoveries.  It is, first and foremost, a job.  It's work.  I wouldn't do it if I didn't get paid for it.

On second thought, perhaps that's not true.  One of my volunteer projects is analyzing community survey data.  I'm basically doing social science purely because I want to do so.  But considering how little time I put into that project, I think it only serves to show: liking what I do can only get me so far.

But even when "doing what you love" seems unattainable, it sounds like a nice ideal.  It would be great if different kinds of labor could be allocated to exactly the people who like them.  Who could oppose such potential for human happiness?

I don't oppose the ideal.  Rather, I oppose what people are expressing through the ideal:  You are not allowed to like things, unless by liking them you contribute materially to society.  You can't like art unless you're an artist or critic.  You can't like games unless you're a designer or competitor.  You can't like music unless you're a performer.  As for whatever job you might have, you must work really hard at it, because you love to do so.  Forget the 40-hour work week, why would you want to constrain yourself?  And while you may not have much remaining free time to enjoy the income you earn, you can always spend the extra income on status goods.  Giant houses, and lots of things to put in the houses!  That's what comfort is, what luxury is.

To me, comfort doesn't mean having more status and wealth than other people.  It means having more time to do the things I actually want to do.


miller said...

I oppose what people are expressing through the ideal ...

I don't understand the connection between the ideal of doing what you love and the conclusions you're drawing from that ideal.

"If you like designing games, then you should become a professional game designer," does not seem to imply that if you do not become a professional game designer, you cannot (or should not) like games. Are you drawing this inference yourself, or are you reporting others' positions? If the former, can you explain in more detail? If the latter, who?

miller said...

This has been sitting in my drafts bin since about Thanksgiving, largely inspired by irritating things my relatives say. (also see this rant)

The issue with "doing what you love" is that it expresses (without logically entailing) the value of work over leisure. So if you spend time on games, and it's not your job, then it is a distraction.

miller said...

I've never found this to be a useful question, because the things I want to do are things nobody wants to pay for. I'd love to be paid to play video games all day, but there's no market for this. I think a few people make a living making Let's Play videos, but I don't think I would enjoy making Let's Play videos that are designed to go as viral as possible.

miller said...

But work does have value, does it not? The value seems both intrinsic and moral: we feel better when we're working, and because we consume what others produce, we should produce what others consume.

And what is the opposite value? Should we do whatever work pays the best, regardless of how we feel about it?

I worked as a computer programmer for 30 years, and I loved computer programming. It was still work, though. My ex-wife hated her job as a corporate lawyer, quit, and opened a cat cafe (which is doing very well). But it's still work.

miller said...

I really like the idea of a shorter work week for all, not only to reduce unemployment, but also to reduce stress in people's lives, to encourage more meaningful volunteer activities, more civic engagement, and even as a way to encourage spending.

I love my 32 hour per week job, although it is still work: there are fun parts, but as with any job, there's also a certain amount of drudgery.

I don't think anyone espousing the ideal of "do what you love" would want to suggest that you shouldn't have things you love to do that you don't get paid for. It's more to say that, if you have the luxury of choosing (and most people have more choices than they think they have), choose a job that you enjoy over one that pays better. Don't count on receiving all your life's fulfillment and pleasure only during those hours that you aren't working.

The growth of the Tiny House movement is another reflection of this ideal. Even if one doesn't go to the extreme of living in a house the size of a walk-in closet, I love the way this kind of idea can help people better recognize the choices that they take for granted.

miller said...

@DrRansom: Try this exercise: make a list of all the specific aspects of playing video games makes them so enjoyable for you. To add more clarity, note the differences between the games you like and the ones you don't like. Think about whether you prefer puzzles or action, strategy or role-play, individual or group, competition or teamwork, etc. Do this kind of detailed analysis for any and all things you enjoy: movies, sports, books, tv, blogs, whatever. In other words, use your interests to help you better "know thyself".

At the same time, continually ask people probing questions about their jobs, what the job is like on a day-to-day basis, and what kinds of skills are involved, how they got into that line of work. Seek out people who seem to enjoy their work, especially if they share your interests and hobbies. Go beyond your comfort zone, and challenge yourself to consider careers that you might otherwise have dismissed out of hand, challenge yourself to consider careers that you may not yet have all the skills necessary to succeed in. In other words, explore the possibilities.

miller said...

You can consider the value of work along (at least) three axes: enjoyment of the work, money earned, and enjoyment of leisure. There's no universal law which says you can't get all three.

However, presumably we pick a job which is pareto-optimal, meaning that you can't switch jobs without trading away value on at least one axis. So in practice, it's a tradeoff. Relative to the values of eg my relatives, I would prefer to tradeoff enjoyment of my labor for enjoyment of my leisure time.

miller said...

We can do better than Pareto optimality. Actually, choosing an occupation is not even game theoretical; it's constrained optimization, and the utility function usually has a maximum, since all of the variables usually have decreasing marginal utility (which I think is a sufficient condition for having a maximum, but I might be wrong).

As best I can estimate it introspectively, my personal utility function for work as placing a rather high utility for particular subjects (formerly computer programming, presently political economy), and a low utility on other subjects (law, medicine, anything to do with children); my the general work environment also has pretty steeply declining marginal utility.

miller said...

Yeah, of course you'd combine all the axes into a single utility function. But different people might assign different weights to the different axes. Pareto-optimality may not have been the correct concept to convey what I meant.

To use a concrete example, video game design sounds like fun to most people. Unfortunately, that makes the industry very competitive, and notorious for long hours and poor labor practices.

In my field, the most highly desired position is being a research professor. As a result, professorship is extremely competitive, involves like 80 hours of work per week, and pays relatively less compared to alternative careers for physicists (although it's still a lot). But people do it because they love choosing their own research agenda. I too am expected to find something I love so much that I will just work that hard at it.

miller said... game design...

Well, yeah. It is indeed a trade off.

...expected to find...

I dunno, tk. I'm perhaps fortunate that when I was growing up, I wasn't expected to do anything, other than be a morally good person. I would have been equally supported had I decided to be a corporate lawyer for the money or an artist or musician for the love of it. So I don't really have a good internal handle on the power of expectations.

But I suspect there used to be a lot of social pressure to make as much money as possible, regardless of any other consideration; it was ridiculous and blameworthy to even think about the content of the work. "Plastics, my boy..."

Even today, my econ professors tell students about nothing but money: "Go into finance and you'll make $500K per year"; never mind that you have to become an emotionally stunted, eat-or-be-eaten, rabid weasel (with good math skillz) to make it in finance. Perhaps they know, or perhaps they don't care to look, but all they talk about are the Benjamins.

I think paying due attention to the content of the work in addition to the monetary reward, is not a bad idea to start socializing.