The Great Career
Laura loves what she does. To many people, myself included (I’ve known her for the past five years), she represents the Platonic ideal of a great career.
Laura is a database whiz. Companies hire her to wrangle their most gnarly data into streamlined structures. If you’re lucky enough to engage Laura, she’ll assemble a handpicked team of programmers and descend on your office for up to six months. She’ll then take your generous check back to her charming Jamaica Plain bungalow and set about finding novel ways to spend it.
She allows months to pass between projects — the paydays being ample enough to buy her as much downtime as she wants. She has used this time, among other pursuits, to earn a pilots license, learn to scuba dive, and travel through Asia.
In several earlier posts, I argued that mastering a rare and valuable skill is the key to generating a remarkable life — much more important than following your “passions” or matching your career (or academic major) to your personality. It occurred to me, however, that to continue this discussion, we need to better understand our goal; that is, we need to figure out what exactly makes a remarkable life remarkable.
In this post, I’m going to tackle this question, using Laura as our running example of someone who has achieved the end result we have in mind…
The Introspection Principle
If you want to quickly assess how Americans think about the search for the “right” job, spend a few minutes browsing the career guide bestseller list at Amazon.com. For example, when I last checked…
- The number two bestselling guide was a book titled Career Fitness Program. The first step of its three step program was a “personal assessment.”
- The number three bestselling guide was Nicholas Lore’s Pathfinder, which “leads readers though the process of deciding exactly what they want to do for a living and finding a way to make it happen.”
- The book in the number five slot, Career Match, notes in its description that those “whose careers fit their passions and personalities” find them to be a “source of great satisfaction and success.”
Sense a pattern?
These bestsellers are founded on the belief that matching your work to personality traits and interests is the key to finding a job you love. I call this the introspection principle because it elevates the act of self-reflection to be the important for making big life decisions.
This principle extends beyond career issues. It’s also at the core of popular advice for new college students. For example:
- The description for Patrick Combs’ ubiquitous Major in Success (he’s sold over 120,000 copies) emphasizes that students should choose a major that “suits their interests.”
- The cover of Lind Andrew’s canonical How to Choose a College Major instructs students to “use your own interests and talents to find the perfect major.”
The introspection principle is so ingrained that we forget to think of it as a hypothesis that needs to be tested. If you’ll indulge my heretical-side, however, I think it’s worth taking this idea out for a spin.
My question is simple: when we study people like Laura who love what they do, is an introspection-driven match between their work and their personality the explanation for their happiness? And if it’s not, what is?
To answer this question, we can turn to 30 years of cutting-edge scientific research…
The Surprising Science of Human Motivation
As Dan Pink recounts in the introduction to Drive, his new book about workplace motivation, our understanding of what compels people to action was upended in the late 1940s. Before this point, conventional wisdom said that we’re motivated by rewards (think B.F. Skinner and his rats). The more we are rewarded, the more fired up we get about our work.
Then Harry Harlow, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, began giving puzzles to the rhesus monkeys in his primate laboratory. He noticed a curious effect: when he rewarded the monkeys for solving the puzzle, they became slower at the task.
Twenty years later, Edward Deci, then a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, tested this effect in humans, and found a similar result: the presence of cash made them worse at solving creative puzzles.
This kicked off three decades of intense research into the sources of human motivation.
Eventually, Deci, working with his longtime collaborator Richard Ryan, corralled the diversity of (sometimes contradictory) research on the topic into a single, over-arching model called Self-Determination Theory (SDT). This model has been extensively validated and summarizes, to the best of our current understanding, what can make someone love what they do. (See this 2000 paper by Ryan and Deci, from the journal Psychological Inquiry, for a good overview).
At a high level, SDT makes a simple claim:
To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
In more detail…
- Autonomy refers to control over how you fill your time. As Deci puts it, if you have a high degree of autonomy, then “you endorse [your] actions at the highest level of reflection.”
- Competence refers to mastering unambiguously useful things. As the psychologist Robert White opines, in the wonderfully formal speak of the 1950s academic, humans have a “propensity to have an effect on the environment as well as to attain valued outcomes within it.”
- Relatedness refers to a feeling of connection to others. As Deci pithily summarizes: “to love and care, and to be loved and cared for.”
SDT explains why Laura’s career resonates with us. She clearly has autonomy (she handpicks projects and runs them on her own schedule) and competence (she’s highly regarded and compensated for her expert ability). She also has relatedness, both from her close-knit teams and her ability to build a schedule that dedicates extended amounts of time to friends and family.
Falsifying the Introspection Principle
SDT answers our original question: Is the introspection principle correct? They key feature of the three SDT need are their universality — they span both differing career fields and cultures. Put another way: three decades of research has shown that the traits that make us happy with our work have little to do with our personality or so-called “passions.”
Similar conclusions apply to related decisions, such as choosing your college major. Forget trying to divine some perfect match, and instead choose a major for your own reasons — not pressure from your parents or a misguided view on what’s “practical” — and then strive to become excellent at it. As I argued before, your love of the subject will grow with your sense of autonomy and competence.
For those who sweat this style of decision, this research should provide relief. There’s no reason to lose sleep over whether you’re “passionate” about your major, or if your job is what you really want to be doing with your life. Working right trumps finding the right work.
It’s to this new goal, “working right,” that we turn our attention next…
Research reveals that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are the key to loving what you do. So how do you get them? There are different answers to this question, but the strategy that I keep emphasizing on Study Hacks has two clear steps:
- Master a skill that is rare and valuable.
- Cash in the career capital this generates for the right rewards.
The world doesn’t owe you happiness. Your boss has no reason to let you choose your own projects, or spend one week out of every four writing a novel at your beach house. These rewards are valuable. To earn them, you must accumulate your own career capital by mastering a skill that’s equally rare and valuable.
It’s important, however, that you cash in this capital, once accumulated, for the right rewards. The word “right,” in this context, is defined by the traits of SDT. In other words, once you have something valuable to offer, use it to gain as much autonomy, competence, and relatedness as you can possibly cram into your life.
This explains, for example, why there are so many CEOs in the world who are excellent at what they do, but also stressed, anxious, and unhappy. They generated career capital by becoming excellent at management, but instead of cashing it in to satisfy the needs that we know would make them happy, they instead bartered for increased prestige and income. The strict demands of the job sap their felling of autonomy, while their sense of relatedness dissipates with the late night work binges.
When we return to Laura, we see that she’s a perfect example of the Study Hacks system in action. In the 1990s, she started working for a major technology company. She noticed that the giant databases at the core of the company’s business were increasingly crucial to its success. She focused on mastering these systems. As the technology boom continued, her skill became increasingly rare and valuable. Instead of cashing in the capital this generated to become an overworked VP, she instead exchanged it for her freelance venture — an approach designed to maximize the autonomy, competence, and relatedness in her life.
Back to the Grandmasters
Now that we’ve established how a rare and valuable skill can be used to generate a remarkable life, we can return, in the next articles in this series, to the topic promised at the end of my recent post on deliberate practice: the details of building this mastery.
(Photo by dio5)