Thursday, March 27, 2008

Follow your dream! Unless it's the one where you're at work in your underwear during a fire drill

I wrote a comment on the ARCHN blog, and decided I like it so much I'm going expand on it a little and post it here. Yes I know I am lame like that. I guess it's even kind of overkill since most of my readers come from ARCHN anyway. But anyway here ya go:

It's about
people (not just Objectivists) who think that it's a great idea to "follow your dreams", at any cost, and regardless of if it matches your natural abilities. Objectivism bears a significant similarity to Communism in their attitudes concerning work. It has been said that one reason why Communism failed is because it put so much emphasis on the importance of work as a enjoyable and virtuous activity, and most people don't enjoy work at all, and would rather slack off and be lazy. Come on, admit it...I do. Objectivism is similar in this respect.

The reason why work is called WORK is because people generally don't enjoy doing it, and therefore must get paid in order to do it. Most people don't particularly enjoy their jobs, and most jobs are not particularly enjoyable. In fact many of the most important jobs to society are extremely unenjoyable, such as garbage collectors, construction workers, line cooks.
Contrary to the Randian notion of the noble businessman being the most crucial and productive member of society, a farmer probably contributes more to production and is more indispensable to society than a CEO.

It's easy for Steve Jobs to make his "Stay young, stay foolish" speech, when he has earned millions doing it. But for the vast majority of us, that is awful advice.

When asked how she managed to have such staying power in the fickle entertainment industry, Jennifer Lopez said that she thought of her music as primarily as a job and only second as something she loves. Scott Adams also said that he saw his "Dilbert" cartoons as his work, and that it was "never a joy".

There will always be days when you won't love or feel like going to work, no matter how much you might initially love your art. Success requires diligence and commitment even during the times when you don't enjoy it.

Even in my work (I'm a biology grad student), I've seen countless bitter, disenchanted techs, postdocs and grad students who went into science because they "loved" or were "passionate" about it. 90% of experiments fail, and it can be very frustrating and disappointing. When you realize that 6 months of hard work and experiments has pretty much been for nothing, no amount of love or passion is going to make up for it. So if you go into science thinking that you love it and you're going to make great discoveries, you're setting yourself up for a rude shock, because when that doesn't happen (and most of the time it doesn't) you're going to be bitterly disappointed. The way I see it is that my research is ultimately a job that I do to support myself, so I am committed to doing my best, and I probably enjoy it better than other alternatives, and if I find enjoyment and groundbreaking discoveries on top of that, it's icing. (Of course that is not what I said in my interview, but then again, who would...)

I would even go as far as to say these people are being misleading and disingenuous to say that they are doing what they "love" and encourage people to follow their passions at any cost. Sure, if I could get suckers to give me millions of dollars, I'd love whatever it was I was doing too.

Maybe some people get lucky making lots of money doing what they love, but the vast majority of the time, one would do much better to be realistic about your own abilities and qualifications and choose your line of work thusly. There is perhaps another reason why advice urging people to be realistic doesn't get that much airtime or glory, especially with the high school or college age crowd. (I saw that "Stay young, stay foolish" on so many of my friends' blogs and stuff I want to puke") It doesn't sound as exciting or romantic. And people don't like being reminded of their limitations. But in the long run, I think it would pay off.


Also, I thought about what I said yesterday about people being rude to me on my blog. Maybe by having a blog like this, I am kind of opening myself up to whatever shit people might want to say. I still don't like it though, and would appreciate it if people were not rude to me on my own blog that they are reading on their own volition. That being said, whatever, if you still want to be mean to me, go ahead, take your best shot!


JayCross said...

It's about people (not just Objectivists) who think that it's a great idea to "follow your dreams", at any cost, and regardless of if it matches your natural abilities.

I didn't say people should do that, just to clarify. Though many people do hold that opinion.

JayCross said...

Also, it was stay hungry, stay foolish.

Why does "being realistic" have to have such a defeated, negative connotation? I quote from the "How to Choose a Career" article I linked to at ARCHN.

"In an ideal career, you face and overcome great challenges, maximize your creative capacities, and progress from achievement to greater achievement--all while doing the work you love most."

Now, Greg was right about one thing: many people do not seem to enjoy work. Furthermore, many people use romantic relationships and friendships to try and fill a void that only your own, chosen purpose can actually fill. They would still be better off trying to find a job that they like.

"Your past experiences are the best place to start introspecting. Take stock of all your past classes, jobs, internships, extracurricular activities, and memorable childhood experiences. Think of the activities you did and the emotions you felt. Note when you felt happy, purposeful, efficacious, excited. Maybe in computer science class you loved the process of breaking down a complex problem and creating an efficient algorithm to solve it. Maybe at a marketing internship at a business you felt you were using your mind to its fullest capacity while developing a marketing strategy for the company's new product. Maybe you have been playing the piano since you were 7 and you find no greater joy in life than flawlessly performing a beautiful piece of music. Or maybe when you were five you loved designing and building things with Legos, and ever since you have been obsessed with architecture.

While monitoring your emotional responses to different activities, it is important to keep a high standard in mind. Your career may well span 50 years, so you are looking for an activity that you are absolutely passionate about--it is not enough to find one that merely interests you."

What, specifically, stops someone from thinking this way? It's true that we all face different circumstances and obstacles, but virtually everyone is capable of deciding "I want something a little better for myself." There is just something disturbing about a society that says oh well, whatever, work is work because it sucks so we'd might as well just deal with it. Especially when so many (but comparatively few) do find work that they like.

Red Grant said...

Scientist Meg,

Why did you choose biology research as your career?

Meg's Marginalia said...

Hi Jay,
I don't know how best to say this, but I think part of your attitude is due to the fact that you are young. I'm young too, but not quite as young as you. I, and most people I know undergo a realization that there are many things in life that we wish we could do, or go, or become. It's nice to dream, but realistically it will probably not happen and to get used to that realization.

There's the big fish in a small pond phenomenon, where in high school, or even college, you might have excelled and compared favorably to your peers, but once you get into a bigger pool you realize there are people equally or even more talented, or having more resources at their disposal, than you, and that a realistic appraisal will show that you'll probably never be as good. The vast majority of people would come to this conclusion. That is reality, which no one wants to admit, Objectivist or not, but part of accepting reality is accepting this fact.

Ok that was kind of depressing even for me, but maximizing your potential also involves being realistic in setting goals for yourself taking into account your limitations. As Voltaire said "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

Your quote reminds me of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where Tom convinces his friend to do his chores for him and pay him for the priviledge to do so. When one is doing something for leisure, it is fun, and enjoyable. Playing piano, playing with legos, programming, are all enjoyable hobbies when you do them for a few hours a day as a diversion from your work, but if you had to do it every single day for 50 years (as the quote said), you would probably tire of it.

Also, as Greg and I both said, if you find a career that really thrills you, good for you! No one is saying that is bad or that you shouldn't do that. Just that it is not such a viable option for many people, because of the reasons we also mentioned before:
- Many people don't greatly enjoy any productive activities
- Desirable careers directly involved in production eg artists, musicians, pro sports have far greater supply of labor than demand
- Many people do not have the sufficient innate ability to make a successful career out of their passion
That's all I can think of for now but maybe there are more.

I also don't mean to encourage a bad work ethic. That is one of my pet peeves, to see workers hating what they do and making it evident to everyone, especially if you are in a job that you have to interact with other people. It really ruins the atmosphere. What I'm trying to say is that passion or love for your career is not a particularly good "fuel" (to use one of Rand's catch phrases) for a good work ethic or successful career. I think you should be grateful that you have a job, and feel an obligation to have a good attitude and do your best, regardless of whether or not you particularly enjoy it. Even if for the only reason that you need the job in order to live and support yourself. You shouldn't bite the hand that feeds.

The other important thing to note in this whole debate is that most people depend on their jobs for income in order to support themselves. This puts a practical and economic constraint on job and career choice. It is often not feasible to be able to make a sufficient and stable supply of income from your passion or hobby.

Meg's Marginalia said...

Hi Red,
I am not really a scientist yet, just a grad student now. It is kind of a long story how I got into science.

I come from a medical family, so I had a lot of exposure to biology when I was young. I also really liked bugs and insects, and always begged my parents to not kill spiders, roaches, and other bugs that came into my room. I also really liked biology lab dissections in high school, although maybe trying to be hardcore and goth contributed to the love for cutting things up.

My family moved around a lot and there was not much stability in my life or education, and I didn't really apply myself much until the end of high school, when I realized that if I wasn't going to be responsible for my life and success, no one else would be, and needed to get my act together.

After I graduated I wanted to move out of my parents house and move away and I needed money for that, and I got a scholarship to study biology. That was probably the main factor. I was interested and did well in other subjects too, especially Economics, and Chemistry was my favorite subject, but I was only offered a scholarship in biology, and I decided to take it.

After my 1st year in university when it came time to declare majors I had to pick something, and I didn't know much about any of the biology or medicine majors so I just picked one at random and stuck with it. I didn't want to drift around too much. It's always easier to stay in something you're already in than trying to change the course of your life and try to get into something else. Even if you have other interests it is best to finish one thing before moving on to the next, which was why I stuck with my major instead of changing it, opting to take electives in other programs that were relevant.

After I graduated I worked at a "real job" for a while and really didn't like it, so I quit and applied to grad school. I chose to stick with this because it seemed like the next step in the natural progression from my undergraduate degree. I always had in mind during my undergrad that I was training to be a scientist. So, I guess this brings us to the present. I'm not a scientist yet, but hopefully someday I will be.

JayCross said...

Even if for the only reason that you need the job in order to live and support yourself. You shouldn't bite the hand that feeds.

You will find no disagreement from me here. I had the same fast food/retail jobs in my teens that most kids do and I did them well. I didn't love them, but I was there, so I figured why not do the best that I can? It's very irritating when you encounter a surly, obnoxious employee.

However, I wasn't saying that people should shun all work that isn't what they love. Almost everyone needs to start somewhere they don't love to gain experience or capital, or both. As a matter of simple pride in yourself, you should do these jobs well because it's your job. My sole point was that, within those economic constraints you mentioned, you should be striving someday do what you enjoy most. Maybe that means working somewhere you don't really love for 5-10 years while you moonlight at what you do love. Eventually, maybe you can transition into that.

I also agree completely with your last post on ARCHN. Beyond a certain point, pursuing money stops you from enjoying what really matters in life: health, family, friends, etc. The goal should be a balanced life.

Red Grant said...


...,when I realized that if I wasn't going to be responsible for my life and success, no one else would be,... - meg

That's the spirit.

Howard Roark would be proud.


I was interested and did well in other subjects too, especially in Economics, .... - meg

Should have gone for Economics, scholarship or no, if you get real good at application of Economics, you would be far wealthier than any biology researcher with more freedom to boot.

P.S. I put my all time favorite painting, "Higher and Ever Higher!" in my blog, there's something both Randian and "Babelian" about that painting.

Also, check out the new homepage, time for capitalist excess for a change!