Max wants to know what to do

by on April 13, 2013 at 5:54 am in Education, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

Max has me stumped.  I promised him an answer months ago, but I’ve come up with nothing of value, other than perhaps citing Adam Smith on alienation and the division of labor.  I’ve felt guilty ever since and I suppose today is the day I fess up to having no good response at all.  Here is his initial email:

1) As a fairly recent graduate of an Ivy League institution (with a bachelor’s degree), most of my classmates seemed to have some idea that career and life path choice should be driven by a “passion” such that the right choice is self-evident to the chooser. What does this belief mean to you as a social scientist?…

For question two, then, you may sense where this is going…

2) Assume I have no such passion. Furthermore, I am a fairly well-qualified young generalist.* What paths should most appeal to me if my goal is to maximize doing “interesting” work? Doing meaningful work? Achieving social status? (Which of these goals should be primary?) Need I try to develop a passion before selecting a life path/career, and if so how do I do it?

All the best,

*Two years out with a BA from an Ivy League school. Top 10% of the class but not an academic rock star. A record of primarily reading/writing-intensive courses, as well as basic to intermediate economics, calculus, statistics, a proofs course. Time spent abroad in study and travel, though no foreign language fluency. Two years in the private sector with a decent amount of analytic and management experience, but without a big name behind it.

Max is hardly doomed.  Still, reading emails such as Max’s makes me more of a determinist.  He seems to have a meta-preference for more career passion, but no way of getting there.  I would tell Max to at least consider the world of consulting (and here is Robin Hanson on same).  I also would tell him that meta-preferences are overrated, as there is no reason per se to side with the meta-preference over the preference.  Passion isn’t a value in and of itself.

What other advice can you all give?

Ray Lopez April 13, 2013 at 7:07 am

How old is Max, 12? He’s naive if he wants to consult as a twenty-something. I became a consultant after 20 years of being a superstar in my field, and had to take a huge 67% pay cut. But I can work anywhere in the world (in the Philppines at the moment) and be my own boss, and even turn down new clients. Priceless.

BCC April 13, 2013 at 7:41 am

You should check the links above on consulting; Tyler may be talking about something very different from what you’re thinking of.

Ashok Rao April 13, 2013 at 7:46 am

The real kind of consulting requires exactly the kind of background Ray talks about.

But of course if you mean fancy graphs on laminated paper…

Rahul April 13, 2013 at 8:00 am

How do you distinguish “real” consulting from the rest?

Ashok Rao April 13, 2013 at 8:09 am

Accidentally replied to the wrong comment, below;

“Hard to say. I’m always reminded of a story a friend who runs a granite company in India told me. They had consultants come and write business expansion plans or whatever, and they produced a fancy report and basically assumed the quality of output was uniform.

They were shocked when they saw how it really worked.

That’s a mistake a “real” consultant would never make.”

Rahul April 13, 2013 at 8:21 am

McKinsey bashing has become fashionable and probably deservedly so. I’ll just add though, that for every preppy 20-something consultant I’ve met, I’ve also bumped into an equal number of stodgy, complacent 50 year olds who’ve worked all their lives in one narrow industry (or worse, a single firm) and find it inconceivable that they might be doing anything wrong.

Ashok Rao April 13, 2013 at 8:33 am

I’m still young, so I haven’t met many people and god knows you’re right.

But I don’t see an allure in becoming a complacent 50 year old in a narrow industry. I do see finance, law, consulting (and to some extent medicine) rents as crowding out what are probably more valuable industries. This is because of the prestige factor behind the top firms. And then invariably what happens is some kids aim for the stars (McKinsey, goldman whatever it is) fail, and get lost in the space of trying to catch up.

Too bad math and science aren’t as cool as they were in the Cold War.

TMC April 13, 2013 at 9:38 am

” had to take a huge 67% pay cut … and even turn down new clients.”

Interesting admission on an econ blog.

dearieme April 13, 2013 at 12:09 pm

I found being an expert witness fascinating and remunerative. But then, when I was younger, I found being a deckhand on a trawler ditto. If he is young, fit, and reasonably bright it’s quite likely that many different jobs should give him some suitable combination of (i) Passing the Time and (ii) Bringing Home the Bacon.

I recommend he ignore any twit who declaims about “passion”.

Rory Sutherland April 13, 2013 at 7:59 pm

He was implying that he *could* turn down clients, not that he was obliged to.

David Hugh-Jones April 13, 2013 at 7:42 am

I think he should mess about and not commit. If you haven’t discovered what you really, really want, then it’s best to try a lot of things. Your 20s are a good time to work this stuff out. Of course, it helps to have a great passion from the start – then you can really fly – but if you don’t have it, then committing too early can lead you to a lot of stress as you back out from mistaken choices.

Consulting sounds dull. Money gives you less status than you might think. How about bartending on a beach in Bali?

Ashok Rao April 13, 2013 at 7:50 am

The “status” behind consulting/finance/law (only at McKinsey, Goldman, and Wachtell Lipton and friends, of course) doesn’t seem to be from the money as much as what it signifies getting a position there.

Kinda along the lines of a Ivy League degree isn’t differentiated as much by the better education you (arguably) receive, but the fact you were admitted in the first place.

Or at least this is the sense I get. But the real rock stars (when it comes to money) don’t seem to become “Analysts” and “Associates” right out of college. Sure earning six figures immediately or whatever is cool. Except when you realize that everyone around you earns more. It’s also kind of like the prestige of Teach for America. Emphasis on the kind of.

Ashok Rao April 13, 2013 at 8:08 am

Hard to say. I’m always reminded of a story a friend who runs a granite company in India told me. They had consultants come and write business expansion plans or whatever, and they produced a fancy report and basically assumed the quality of output was uniform.

They were shocked when they saw how it really worked.

That’s a mistake a “real” consultant would never make.

Leigh Caldwell April 13, 2013 at 7:43 am

My own experience is that different (but probably related) passions come and go, as I’ve progressed through my career, found different questions that interest me and problems to solve in the world.

I’ve been assisted in this by having some good general transferable skills (mathematics, programming, writing, abstract modelling, analysis) and over time have developed a reasonable competence in some skills that I didn’t have (public speaking, networking, people management, marketing). This gives me the flexibility to pursue whichever interest has currently seized me, develop contacts in that field and get paid for some interesting work.

I might not make as much money as someone who focuses on a single field (e.g. maybe Ray Lopez above) but I do OK, and there’s lots of value in coming into a discipline with experience and ideas from outside it. And I get the lifestyle flexibility and intellectual joy of doing different things every day and learning completely new stuff each year.

So my advice to Max would be: develop those general skills, stay interested in the world, and when you are touched by a problem that needs solving, maybe that will form the kernel of a new passion – for the time being at least.

Leigh Caldwell April 13, 2013 at 7:44 am

And on the consulting point, I found consulting to be an excellent way to learn about different industries, different kinds of people and the challenges they face – but choose a firm that lets you work on multiple projects so that you’re continually learning and being exposed to new questions. Or start your own – that’s what I did, straight out of school.

Mulp April 13, 2013 at 1:52 pm

I’m in much the same boat as Max. Came out of an Ivy three years ago, went to GS.

Soon thereafter, though, I found a job working in finance at a foundation, investing their money. Best decision ever. The work is analytical, entrepreneurial, and varied, and I have work I care about, because the money matters to the mission.

The best part, though, is that I get to meet with people from all corners of the economy and hear them talk about how they make their decisions, what they think of the future of their part of the economy, how they ended up doing what they do, etc. I’m learning a lot about what I want to do and why. I still have no passions yet, and am casting about for what to do, but having a job that introduces you to a lot of people (and makes you analyze those people and what they do) really helps you cut off paths that may not appeal to you, and introduce you to paths that may.

Rory Sutherland April 13, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Agree with Leigh, as usual. And look not so much for perfection but for optionality – some field in which you can reinvent yourself from time to time. The narrowing effects of the division of labour are unavoidable, but if you can vary what you do from one decade to the next, it helps – and may protect against suddenly finding yourself completely obsolete. The advertising industry has been pretty good to me in this respect: have focussed variously over the last 25 years on direct marketing, then online marketing, then behavioural economics and behavioural science (thank you to this blog for introducing me to the last).

A few other things to consider. There are jobs you can do anywhere (dentist) and equally there are plenty of job titles which only exist in perhaps ten megacities worldwide, only five of which speak English. Large cities are emphatically the best place to progress and to build connections; as you get older, however, the appeal of large cities probably diminishes, but by that point you are trapped.

So, if you end up in a large city, some flexibility around hours is priceless: large cities are best enjoyed when everyone else is at work – or at least when you are not one of 4m people commuting to and from work. Also try and master something which *can* be practised by a lone individual – teams are more enjoyable to work in, but depending on a team may prevent you from starting afresh on your own.

One other piece of advice I always give. Try and be pretty good at two or three related but different things. Statistically you will almost certainly never be the best behavioural economist in the world, or the best web-designer: but if you are in the top 10% in both, the combination of these two skills may make you very valuable indeed. Tyler is, inarguably, the best ethnic-restaurant-reviewing economist in the world.

Couteau April 14, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Jolly good to see you here Rory.

Danny April 15, 2013 at 10:01 am

Commenters, please don’t take this personally, but I find responses “You could do what I did, it has these advantages,” to be somewhat dreary. It’s very unlikely that your career path was the optimal solution for you, let alone for Max.

r April 13, 2013 at 7:49 am

Don’t think of a long term career: there is a good chance that any skill you have currently is going to be obsolete very soon. Think, instead, of short term projects that may or may not lead to long-term careers or interests (but increase differentiation at any given point in time, relative to your cohort). There is a certain path-dependency here, and possible local minima traps, but you can’t have it all. Curiously, the economy today, with the increase in demand for part-time labor, encourages experimentation of this sort. I am no romantic, but maybe there’s a case for work leading to passion rather than the other way around?

The only advice I can offer safely: stay curious.

anon April 13, 2013 at 10:29 am


Follow your interests. Following your “passions” is what you do when you want sex.

And as Paul Graham advised in 2005, “Stay upwind.”

Andromeda April 13, 2013 at 7:50 am

Passion is overrated, and it’s possible to develop it by picking a direction and committing yourself to it for long enough that you develop skills and insight.

Startups are an excellent way to expose yourself to a whole lot of things, gain diverse skills fast, and put yourself in the sort of crucible where you learn things about yourself.

Spend as much time as possible with interesting, passionate people. Observe and reflect: what makes them tick?

Interesting or meaningful work are more important than social status, not least because they are more interesting and/or meaningful, but also because if you do interesting or meaningful things within a defined social context (e.g. a profession) and make it at all apparent to others, you will eventually have status (within that context), but having status does not necessarily get you doing interesting or meaningful things.

Pick something, do it accelerator-to-the-floor for a few years, and see what your outlook is afterward. It may be the wrong thing (it almost certainly will be) but that’s okay; if you do it intensely you’ll have gained a lot of skills and a lot of self-knowledge and interesting friends, and it will have moved you closer to knowing the right thing.

(But be careful of picking things that generally expect everyone to work 80-hour weeks, as they are likely to come with their own set of strong values and cultural assumptions that will be hard to deprogram yourself out of, and that will cloud your understanding of yourself. *You* might throw in the 80 hours, but if everyone does all the time as a matter of course, it’s eating your soul.)

zbicyclist April 13, 2013 at 11:18 am

+1, especially about passion being overrated. You MAY have passion for a field and then enter it. You may also enter a field (perhaps out of inertia, or the need to eat) and develop passion for it later. There are also many people who do well (and do good) who never get “passion” for the job — much as many long, successful marriages involve couples without Hollywood concepts of passion.

john personna April 13, 2013 at 5:37 pm

I would also say “+1 on passion being overrated.” Or, there is a hidden message is in “what do you do for a day job?” Too many people believe the day job must be the passion, rather than to support the passion. (A passion in the day job is the best of all possible worlds, but passion in a poor career is not the correct second choice.)

Wil Wade April 13, 2013 at 7:55 am

I would suggest looking for a startup to join. Startups allow for generalists to excel as while they need a few specialists, the organization size along with the hope that the company is solving a new problem leads to generalists succeeding.

Startups also provide two other great things for generalists: constant new problems to solve and a shorter time span so you can try other things.

Startups tend toward younger people as the initial pay is generally lower than many older can afford which is also a benefit to Max.

Finally a practical way to find a startup job? Start with and Hacker News Job boards. Look for the companies that are hiring, no matter who they are hiring and try to pitch yourself to them. (After researching the company of course. ) Also since Max is an Ivy grad, check with the university alumni, business, and computer science departments.

Ashok Rao April 13, 2013 at 8:26 am

Best advice.

john personna April 13, 2013 at 5:39 pm

For some, certainly. Probably for Wil and Ashok. For someone else it could be “backpack the PCT, and then worry about it.”

Geoff May 10, 2013 at 11:02 am

Arguably, he could look to do something with Venture For America or The New Sector Alliance. Start-up culture, consulting industry connections/tools, capacity building/entrepreneurship model. Not sure all of that applies to him, but the 1-2 year commitment broadens his skills and gives him access to stimulating work and interesting people while he figures out the next step.

Lee April 13, 2013 at 8:00 am

The organisation at Oxford exists precisely for resolving this issue.

John Q April 14, 2013 at 2:37 pm


Michael April 13, 2013 at 8:05 am

“Matching your job to a preexisting passion does not matter, he reveals. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”

That’s a quote from the book linked below, and I think it’s a good perspective to consider. In Max’s case this would probably mean continue to build on his analytical and management skills and become invaluable in that area.

That said, my personal (maybe misguided) preference is to try to work on problems I find meaningful, and/or work on businesses that “create more value than you capture” (Tim O’Reilly).

procrustes April 13, 2013 at 10:14 am

I was going to recommend the Cal Newport’s perspective as well, glad you did. An article that may give another perspective is for our hero (and anyone else) is here:

Corey April 13, 2013 at 11:00 am

I agree that the place to start is Cal Newport’s book / blog.

I am completely convinced he’s onto something. FIRST you get really good at something, it doesn’t even really matter what that is. Get a job, and whatever difficult task needs doing there, follow that path if you’re even modestly good at it. Once you’re REALLY good at it, the passion will follow.

I have tried to ‘change careers’ over the years, thinking my passion for what I’ve always done (and gotten fairly good at) was burnt out. That was the wrong move. Instead, I’ve further specialized and done the hard work to become VERY good at some specialties in that field. Now the passion flows. So does the money.

That’s what I’d advise to anyone in this situation. Get really good at something really specific. All else will follow.

PEG April 13, 2013 at 8:07 am


If Max wants to maximize interestingness (defined as “exposure to interesting things”, not “interesting in and of itself”, because Max doesn’t tell us enough about what that means for him), he should become a journalist for a new media outfit–their job is to find interesting stories. What’s more, people in new media can often write about anything interesting (as defined by “actual people will find it interesting” as opposed to “an editor will find it interesting”). If he wants to pursue a career in industry, being a business reporter is a great way to network (CEOs return calls from reporters, not from 24-year-old applicants).

If he wants to achieve economic status, he should look at what you wrote in the first consulting post you link, which is find an immature economic field where young people can make contributions. Obviously the trick is figuring out what that is, and if I knew that I would be doing that right now. $100 bills left lying around exist, they’re just hard to find. Perhaps the most exciting new field that young Ivy League grads aren’t interested in (and is thus worth arbitraging) is the shale gas revolution. If I didn’t have a family, I’d be buying up land on credit in North Dakota to build houses for oil drillers, and go from there (in a gold rush, sell pickaxes. What does an oil boomtown want? IHOP franchises? Strip clubs? Open them.). Won’t get you invited to TED, but if you’re unattached and money hungry that’s the route I would go. It’s the new Wild West (with the added bonus that the likelihood to get shot is much lower than in the real Wild West) and people who are both “G smart” and “street smart” are in high demand in those places.

If he wants to maximize the interesting+meaningful aspects, the best work for that is priest. For a living, priests hear the innermost secrets of people from all walks of life–there is nothing more interesting. In a few, few, few places/occupations, the priesthood can also maximize the “prestige” aspect, although the baseline has become quite low. Lawyer (family lawyer, that is, not corporate lawyer) also has that aspect, but it’s poorly paid and with the price of law school it seems like a terrible investment. Of course not many Ivy League lawyers become family lawyers so he could end up being a 98th percentile family lawyer, which is probably good.

I tend to think that what makes us happy is not so much doing what we love but doing what we’re good at. And while its often true that if you love doing something you will become good at it, the reverse is also often true true. A big part of professional satisfaction is being able to tell myself “I am the best [X]”, [X] being defined in a psychically usefully narrow sense (e.g. if you want to be “the best salesman on the planet” you’ll never be happy; but “the best salesman of industrial ball-bearings to mid-size businesses in the Midwest”?). In that sense, the tendency to stay as general as possible before striking on “passion” is wrongheaded, because by generalizing you ensure that you eschew appropriately-defined greatness. Better to pick something you’re not *that* passionate about, put in Gladwell’s 10000 hours, and see if you’re not so passionate at the end. If you’re not, you’ll only have wasted a few years out of your 80, and even if you decide to do something completely different, you’ll still have an important specific skill that the generalist members of your cohort will lack. Sometimes the answer is just “pick something.”

Finally, forget about the Steve Jobs commencement speech, and watch Jeff Bezos’ instead:

Another Max April 13, 2013 at 8:09 am

Echoing Andromeda above, I’d highly recommend Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work you Love.

Based on case studies he shows that people who love their jobs usually have spent years building their skills before figuring out what they want to do.

At the place I work I see this “passion” mindset among recent graduates a lot, it often leads to disappointment, cynicism and feeling underrated, because they’ve been promised that degree+passion= a job they love and pays well, without factoring in the time and basic workplace skills needed.

Rahul April 13, 2013 at 8:09 am

Sometimes a lack of passion stems from a lack of skill or talent. First thing I’d make sure is that’s not it and correct it if it is.
( notwithstanding the Ive League pedigree )

Ashok Rao April 13, 2013 at 8:17 am

I think this is more than sometimes.

But I’ll also be more forgiving because it’s harder to forge that path with a consistent set of “next things” (Oh, you got into Harvard…? Good for you, get into Goldman Sachs).

William Deresiewicz gets it right.

Another Max April 13, 2013 at 8:12 am

Sorry just realized Michael had already linked to the Cal Newport book in his comment above.

Orange14 April 13, 2013 at 8:13 am

Spend two years in ‘Teach for America.’ It’s a good way to give something back to society while figuring out what to do with the rest of your life. Both of my daughters spent the first two years post-college doing something similar prior to making such decisions. The older one got a Master degree in Special Education and has been teaching now for the past six years; the younger one is finishing her Masters in Music Therapy and is interning this year at one of the preeminent children’s hospitals in the US. Both find their work incredibly rewarding.

mike April 13, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Wow, your family sounds like an SWPL train wreck

Miley Cyrax April 14, 2013 at 2:36 pm


David Tomlinson April 13, 2013 at 8:14 am

He’s thinking too much. Find something he’s curious about and that doesn’t suck. Get a job doing it. When he gets bored, move on to the next thing. Hone the writing skills (you’d be surprised how many executives can’t write, tell a story, even spell properly … it’s a highly valuable skill and should always be in demand).

Also – and this is key – get plenty of exercise and sleep.

Rahul April 13, 2013 at 8:26 am

In a perverse way I’ve found that being stuck for a bit in a really drudgerous, boring, soul-sucking job is a great environment to truly decide what your passion is.

One doesn’t really appreciate a good job until one’s in a really bad one (for at least a bit).

Bruce Cleaver April 13, 2013 at 8:30 am

Totally agree with David Tomlinson. The key for young Max is to realize he is not committed to anything beyond an 18-month or 2-year time horizon for his first job. After that, a course correction will be needed (but the information for the correction won’t be apparent until the 2 years have passed, etc.).

He might try something fairly exotic such as working for an oil company in UAE or some such, which at least pays well.

Echoing others here, passion is overrated and developing skills is paramount. All jobs eventually become tiresome, and the key is to keep moving.

Claudia April 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

I don’t think a lack of passion is Max’s stumbling block … inner calm is often a valuable trait to bring to a work team … but if he doesn’t start being honest about his own relative strengths AND weaknesses as well as letting go of some of his status stuff he’s “doomed” to repeat this cycle for a good while. One thing I found very helpful in work is to think a bit about my overall direction but spend most of my energy on small goals. It never ceases to amaze me how a string of small victories and setbacks can give so much information to me (and others) about my overall path and interests. [I would not recommend consulting, though it would probably cure him of a desire for work passion.]

Bill April 13, 2013 at 8:48 am

My advice:

Sell the cappuchino maker and live in the real world.

Anyone who spends time abroad during school at an Ivy League school, now studying his navel at this stage about “what to do”, needs a course in real world living.

Volunteer to work in an unemployment office, helping the unemployed find a job. That’ll wake you up and help you decide about his concerns: “passion”, “meaningful work”, and “achieving status”.

Squarely Rooted April 13, 2013 at 8:49 am

I have an extremely similar background to Max – recent bachelor’s degree from Ivy League institution (though worse grades), some good work experience but without the direct possibility of promotion. I am currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Policy while still working full-time – this is much less expensive then going to graduate school while not working, and the degree tends to be less expensive per-credit than, say, a law degree, but it gives you a lot of good background in statistics, econometrics, economics, cost-benefit analysis, program evaluation, good knowledge of public systems. There are a lot of different ways you can “go” with the degree, public, private, or non-profit, and many different roles, and many of them interesting. I specifically chose the degree to maximize the combined “interesting work/increased salary/increased options” frontier while minimizing the debt incurred.

Jeff April 13, 2013 at 9:01 am

LOL Max! Do the right thing for yourself and your descendants! Find a good wife and she will light a fire under your butt! Option 2: happiness comes from serenity and occupation. Live in the present.

Martin April 13, 2013 at 9:06 am

For many good thoughts on this specific topic he should read through the blog posts of Cal Newport, assistant professor at Georgetown.

Edward Burke April 13, 2013 at 9:07 am

In keeping with the adage “do not live to work: work to live”, I advise restricting most of whatever passion is available to the entire enterprise of living, assigning a portion to work but hardly more than half.

In the 1980s we were told that a reasonably solid undergrad liberal arts foundation would put us in good stead, which turns out to’ve been the case for me (a mere English major, I now style myself a “communications generalist”, having worked successively in public school teaching, book publishing, desktop publishing, and television news production: now a more-or-less full-time writer of fiction and non-fiction). Apart from having eyes open to opportunity (I also had an early stint as a property-and-casualty underwriter in a family-run insurance company and have since learned a little about business management), native intelligence and educational attainment gave me the versatility to build the career I am pleased to have had and which overall I have found rewarding.

Readiness and ability to relocate are further considerations. (And forget cable and television altogether: already, you’ll never have time to read everything that’s worth reading and re-reading.)

Isaac Shalev April 13, 2013 at 9:09 am

Get married. Build a family. Have those needs drive your other decisions. I can guarantee that your live for your spouse and family will generate energy and motivation for your career. Besides, why spend years trying to fit yourself into the mores of a work culture that you clearly aren’t suited for? Embrace tout iconoclasm to advance in other areas that your colleagues are ignoring.

Dr Phil April 13, 2013 at 9:12 am

An alternative is to take a community/area of need focus.

Most people feel the greatest passion when they are helping others (even for Steve Jobs, making iThings that people loved was more important than the money). You can always go for the money later.

When you are old and frail, you will look back MORE on the friendships made, the relationships enhanced, the joy brought from helping others. Prestige/financial success/social status don’t count for much when you unwell in hospital.

dead serious April 13, 2013 at 9:16 am

Max should try to find an entry-level job in a large company. Just as with Ivy league schools, the difficult part is getting in. The easy part is staying there.

Once in a large company, it is fairly easy to move between departments if you have proven yourself and have made lots of (and more importantly key) contacts.

Some companies have ‘young associate’ programs wherein a small group of selected new hires are fast-tracked to management positions.

Someone from the other side April 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm

This could not be further from the truth.

Having seen my fair share of companies (I am a consultant), let me tell you: in almost all, even highly skilled people are liable to get stuck on a side-track. More often than not, switching companies is the only chance you have to get to do something meaningfully diferent.

dead serious April 13, 2013 at 12:37 pm

You are unfortunately associating with underachievers. Highly skilled people know they are highly skilled and are oftentimes adept at moving around wtithin an organization.

prognostication April 13, 2013 at 6:37 pm

I worked for years at a firm where your division VP had to approve your transfer to another division, and if you were good, they wouldn’t approve it, and if you weren’t, the other divisions wouldn’t take you. I suspect this is not uncommon.

dead serious April 14, 2013 at 10:41 am

Well, at that point, you leave of course. I haven’t encountered that, having worked at some of the top IBs.

Tim Worstall April 13, 2013 at 9:19 am

One point: what you do to make a living can be very different indeed from what you have a passion for. If you don’t have a passion for any particular form of work then consult your inner homo economicus. What’s the best gig you can get in terms of more money and less work? Then find the passion elsewhere.

Another point. PEG has some of it above. Not just new media in fact, old as well. “A record of primarily reading/writing-intensive courses, as well as basic to intermediate economics, calculus, statistics, a proofs course.” There might be (although it is possible that I exaggerate just a little) three journalists in the entire country that have these skills. Everyone else did English then a Masters in journalism. Even a quick skimming of the day’s newspapers will show that almost no one understands statistics for example. There are good gigs out there for people that do.

Erik April 13, 2013 at 9:20 am

stop over-thinking things and get a job. Work is about solving real problems, and when you start doing that you will find it both interesting and meaningful.

stop trying to over-optimize everything. Take a first step and adjust as you learn from experience. My god.

Bill April 13, 2013 at 4:08 pm

+1 Or, get a part time job and sample.

Chris April 13, 2013 at 9:28 am

Work the problem. Don’t ask others to “fix” what you should be capable of figuring out on your own.

Steve C. April 13, 2013 at 9:35 am

Join the military. Spend three years learning skills that will benefit you for the rest of your life.

MarkD April 14, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Best advice in the thread. You will never meet more interesting people, and you will never have to wonder if you’ve done your share. If you’re really lucky, like me, you might end up with a civilian career out of it.

Ricardo April 15, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Unless, of course, you are killed.

Shawn Stevens April 13, 2013 at 9:42 am

Apply to the most interesting jobs. Take the most interesting one. Pursue the most interesting work at said job. I’ve found that in work, the things we’re relatively good at tend to be the things we find interesting. That leads to becoming actually good at something which intertwines with passion.

Also, some people aren’t nearly as “passionate” as they seem.

Shawn Stevens April 13, 2013 at 9:44 am

*as “passionate” as they claim

Jan April 13, 2013 at 9:42 am

I served two years as a Peace Corps volunteer right out of college. It helped me discover my passion while doing something worthwhile and led to a job doing similar things domestically. That experience helped me figure out to enroll in an epidemiology grad program that my employer paid for, which never would have happened if I had rather arbitrarily chosen a graduate school or career out of college.

mw April 13, 2013 at 9:47 am

What fraction of people with this “conundrum” graduated with liberal arts degrees vs STEM degrees? What does that say about the future of liberal arts degrees?

Alexander Moore April 13, 2013 at 10:03 am

I had an almost identical experience to Max by the time I was 24. I graduated from a great university with a great general education and great grades but lacked passion. I wanted to do something interesting and as a result I went into consulting, which, in my experience was a complete mismatch. It was partially the company and partially the job, but in the end, I found consulting neither interesting nor satisfying. I did that for two years, and then spent two years working in a cognitive psychology lab because I thought I might want to get a doctorate, but that turned out to be a terrible fit as well. After doing some soul searching, I ended up doing something that I never thought I would do: I decided to take over the family business. I now manage a small factory manufacturing custom metal widgets in Japan. The strange thing is that I’ve been doing it for two years and I absolutely love it. I never would have predicted it, but my passion has become manufacturing technology and processes which is certainly a far cry from Economics which I studied (and enjoyed very much) in college. I’ve become obsessed with it.

At any rate, I would say that the moral of the story (so far) is try a few somewhat different things and try and discover what you like and dislike about each one. Use these to help you decide what you want to do next. Consider your future, but not so much that get stuck at a job you hate because you’re worried about career advancement. You’re obviously a smart person with some work experience and connections and so you’ll likely always be able to find a job. With any luck, after a couple of tries, you’ll land somewhere that satisfies you even if it’s somewhere you never expected to end up. That’s my 2 cents anyway, but I’m only 28 so I obviously still have a lot to learn about life, the universe, and everything.

Ken H April 13, 2013 at 10:08 am

Find that point where passion and financial gain intersect at the maximum point.

Don’t be afraid or annoyed to learn something, ever.

Affe April 13, 2013 at 10:19 am

Find something that supports you but takes only a few hours of your day and you find moderately interesting. In your (copious) spare time build kayaks, mess with guns and ride your mountain bike.

Anon April 13, 2013 at 10:27 am

I was a lot like Max. Pretty much down the line. And then I dropped out of said Ivy. It was sort of a class issue thing. (20-odd years on, I still maintain if your answer is get over it, we’ll, I will smile and ignore you.)

I dithered, really not knowing what I wanted. Go back? Finish at a lesser school? In the mean time, the first boom was heating, and I was here for it. I didn’t get lucky, but I met a lot of interesting people. After it crashed, I started a company, which had a good run in the downturn, but failed when things started looking up – we were being too conservative. I have freelance consulted, a lot. Don’t let the hourly rates fool you, it isn’t a fun life unless you are one of those that turn it into a speaking arrangement gig or something similar. Just for starters, taxation is punishing, there is no form for reimbursing your expenses at the end of the month, and everyone assumes “consultant” is a synonym for “unemployed”, even if you are a corporation.

So, what happens to an Ivy washout? Well, for this one, a 6 figure job at a niche but well-defended company in a relatively boring-seeming industry living in a nice place with a nice partner in one of the most desirable cities in the U.S. If you get over the industry-stigma, a lot of really interesting stuff actually goes on – I never thought I’d be working with robotics and logistics when I was a fledging web developer, and in college I never thought I’d be a programmer. I was a sociology major.

Bottom line – I’d say that if you feel unfocused, call that your focus. Embrace experimentation, don’t be afraid to fail. Keep money in the bank (much more than I did, if you’re smart – 6 month’s living, at least, but I’d say at least a month for every 10k/year income you want, plus 6 months as a buffer, and maybe a bit more for those “crap, my landlord just sold the building out from under me” moments – those are expensive). Keep up with your friends. Keep up with the people you don’t like. Do stuff, even if you lose money on it, stay current. Make sure you’re enjoying yourself- if you are the unfocused sort, it is deadly to do something that is boring. Go somewhere you haven’t been at least once a year, no matter what. Do things that are a natural turn-off to you.

Hope that helps.

Sarah April 13, 2013 at 10:31 am

“Passion” is what happens when you encounter a question you want to answer or a problem you want to solve. This only works when you have a concrete enough understanding of the problem to have some avenue to work on it (“I want to fix global poverty” is too vague.). Some ways to encounter problems that motivate you:
Go to grad school in a hard science (only if you can get funding, don’t pay.). That’s what I did. There’s an interesting relationship between procrastination, discipline, and passion. On the one hand, you have to work on your advisor’s problems to develop rigor — the stuff you play with in your spare time is usually too fluffy. On the other hand, you usually don’t make any progress in science until the day you decide “Screw you, advisor, I’m working on my own problem.”. And many a startup or discovery was some grad student’s spare-time project.

It’s also supposed to be instructive to spend time at a large organization, as a software engineer perhaps. Though I have a friend who got the same benefits out of being an actuary and joining the Peace Corps. The thing is, Ivy League schools give you a view of the world designed to be seen by your cohort, so you don’t know what the real needs and failures of businesses (and nonprofits) are. Sound businesses are usually founded with the motivation “It drove me nuts at BigCorp that we didn’t have X.” Necessity is the mother of invention.

The best insurance against unemployment, I think: reading, writing, math, programming, elite cultural literacy (ie wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb among Harvard/McKinsey types.). And, of course, good health and no debt. If you have all of the above the world is a safe and friendly place to explore.

Paul April 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Exactly so. Curiosity is a close substitute for passion.

Millian April 13, 2013 at 10:33 am

Can’t help with 1.

2. “What paths should most appeal to me if my goal is to maximize doing “interesting” work?” If you are talented, international finance, banking or economics are good. The skills seem to be globally applicable to satisfy demand, and if you are good, you may end up working in countries that are in states of flux, growing either rich or poor very quickly. This diversity of environments, albeit without necessarily having diversity of working experiences or colleagues, will offer safely interesting experiences. You don’t need a passion for it; I know no passionate bankers. Bankers probably have the highest “compensation and social status : passion” ratio. Furthermore, you can live comfortably and earn enough money in the first half of your working life to change careers in middle age.

Doing nothing for a few years is both dull and bad for your CV.

Cicero April 13, 2013 at 10:34 am

Whatever you do, do NOT go into supply chain management. The pay can be good (not stellar) but it is mind-numbingly boring, tedious, and stressful. No one I know in the field is happy but most claim to be trapped by the money.

Matt H April 13, 2013 at 10:37 am

As someone who had a similar experience to Max when I left college, I have to agree with Tyler that Meta-preferences are overvalued. Don’t buy into the BS about your career being about self-actualization, its not, and all of your ancestors would chuckle at the fact that your so concerned about it. Life is about enjoyment. You will enjoy your family and kids, and when you get a bit older you will realize that your job is just what lets you do what you want the rest of the time.

Figure out where you want to live, don’t let your career tell you where to go, go where you want, you will be happier. Find a job that is challenging enough to not be boring. I am very well paid, and although I am not super passionate about my job, I like it in the way I enjoy doing crossword puzzles, I look forward to doing them, they require insight and creativity, but I am sure that would be just as happy playing another puzzle game.

To summarize: Self actualization is overrated. Have lots of friends, and lots of kids. Pick a job that makes over 100k a year minimum, you don’t have to love it, but it shouldn’t bore you. Live where you want, in a place that has the things you enjoy, friends, family, access to your hobbies. Save a lot of money and don’t worry about moving up in your career. If you and your wife work and you each earn over 100k you can retire at 50,no need to try and become a CEO.

Jon N April 13, 2013 at 2:08 pm

“Pick a job that makes over 100k a year minimum,”

By what age? And in what state?

100K is very different in NY than Texas. Also, most careers don’t pay 100k till much later in your life.

anon April 14, 2013 at 3:33 pm

If you and your wife work and you each earn over 100k you can retire at 50

If you and your wife work and you each earn over 25k and you live on less than 10k each and save the rest you can retire at 35.

Nathan Fiala April 13, 2013 at 10:59 am

I don’t think its important to have a strong preference for your work, as long as you find it very satisfying and meaningful. People often say their children brought them meaning. I don’t think you should wait for children to have meaning; make it happen every day.

student April 13, 2013 at 11:01 am

It sounds to me that passion involves a compensating differential derived from the work itself. Does Max know which areas provide such a differential to him? Maybe he is a person who is indifferent to job content. Maybe he should judge jobs based on characteristics like autonomy, flexibility, etc. which are correlated with industries or positions but not exactly the “essence” of the work. I’ve never thought of the world this way, but I think this is how some my friends do.

Vincent Licitra April 13, 2013 at 11:07 am

Think and cross that bridge when you get to it. ^Consult the ultimate authority^ and remember that recognition comes to those who aren’t in it for the recognition but for the ride of a lifetime.

Highgamma April 13, 2013 at 11:25 am

If you don’t suffer from depression, your expected work-life time that you will have in life is much longer than you think. So, slow down a little. Don’t go to graduate school until you figure out what you like. Spend the next five years trying different jobs (perhaps within a large firm which will have those opportunities to move around) and make some money.
Then, give yourself a deadline, say, age 30, and spend 5 to 10 years doing something “great”. Just kick butt. You’ll know what to do after that. That Ivy league education will prove a great advantage.

Seth April 13, 2013 at 11:35 am

I am reminded of something quite poignant that an old sushi master once said. “Love what you do.” [1] He specifically mentions that this is very different from “Do what you Love.” I highly recommend watching that documentary to anyone.

The second question is a bit tricky because what is meaningful and presumably fulfilling to you is entirely subjective. What is meaningful to you may be meaningless to me. Thankfully, as the sushi master referenced above indicates, esteem can be had by pursuing just about any field with tenacity and drive that results in mastery unmatched by your peers.

I also agree that your meaning in life shouldn’t all be derived from how you earn your income. There is even some merit in your profession simply being a means to providing a fulfilling family/personal life. Work to live rather than living to work, so to speak.

On consulting specifically, I once thought it ideal for me as well since it seemed to offer so much of what I craved. Perhaps I was unlucky in my choice of firms, but I was soon ‘educated’ on the business realities of consulting and I quickly realized that I was under tremendous pressure by employers to sell services more than anything. This conflict of interest between my employer’s interest and my clients’ interests eventually drove me from the field.

1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi, dir. Dart Layton. Perf. Jiro Ono. Sundial Pictures, Preferred Content. 2011. Film.

Euripides April 13, 2013 at 11:45 am


Cal Newport in his blog Study Hacks has examined this question in detail.
Passion comes at the end of a process, it’s not what you start with. Check his posts on “passion”

Someone from the other side April 13, 2013 at 11:56 am

Consulting. Hands-down. Hell, half of the recruiting spiel ponders to exactly THAT demographic.

Disclaimer: project manager at one of the big three

TuringTest April 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Elephant in the Room … Who here a gives a sh*t about Max? Is this self-centered pr*ck forr real? What do I care about his ability to maximimize his passions? If he really did go to an Ivy League school, I’m sure he can figure out his choices on his own

Gamma April 15, 2013 at 9:58 am

For many of us, it’s not about Max, it’s about the opportunity to analyze our own life choices, and posture about them. For others of us, it’s about a desire to help people. And I’d guess that both types have a passion for those perspectives.

The Original D April 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I think flow is more important and easier to discover than passion. Once you figure out what gives you flow, the passion comes naturally, and it can be applied in a lot of different fields.

Robert April 13, 2013 at 1:00 pm

How do you develop a passion? Fine:

Move somewhere warm with waves. Learn to surf. From the sound of it, it will be way more interesting than anything you’ve ever done. Get a job that lets you work at night and meet interesting people that do all kinds of different jobs. Quit one job, try another. Get laid; the surfing should help with that.

If you can’t get your head on straight after a couple of years , enlist in the military.

I’m not kidding.

lords of lies April 13, 2013 at 3:19 pm

100% win. try bartending, then move on to opening your own bar/club.

make love when you can, because it is good. and because toiling as a cog in the machine is life’s greatest swindle.

BRL April 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm

1. The amount of uncertainty in life is very high for most people. Unless you are very driven in a particular direction, it is likely that whatever you set out to do, you will be doing something very different five years from now. Thus, de-emphasize concerns regarding what you should set out to do.

2. Work out regularly, doing weight-training and a sport if you like sports.

3. Ask yourself if there is anything un-glamorous that you are good at and that helps people. That is your best bet for making a positive impact on the world, if making a positive impact on the world is something you would like to do. If not, don’t beat yourself up about it.

4. Be kind to those close to you. The closer they are, the more their happiness depends on you, and the greater your obligation to be kind.

5. Keep a healthy disregard for the thoughts of human beings, most importantly those belonging to yourself.

6. Do work that allows you to get enough sleep, that does not create stress without also providing a way to bring that stress to a healthy conclusion (think pro basketball player or MMA fighter), and that doesn’t make you want to eat unhealthy foods.

7. Unless you are forced or choose to spend time being poor, money is mostly a logistical issue, an issue of smoothing earnings, disposing of it in a way that doesn’t make you feel miserable if you make too much of it, keeping it from creating friction between you and the people who share in your financial life.

8. If you are successful, quietly consider your success on cold winter evenings, and keep it an absolute secret from everyone else.

James April 14, 2013 at 7:13 am

I agree by and large, but what could possibly be so great about weight training to get it into second place on your list of things to do in life? Not criticizing, just puzzled/bemused.

Gaspard April 13, 2013 at 1:40 pm

What doesn’t get emphasised enough is “appetite” – isn’t this what Tyler means by the age of the infovore only benefiting those few who have an endless appetite for data. At least think about subjects you have great capacity to spend time thinking about.

Even in the “rock star” jobs, you normally only get to have a career by major specialisation – who wants to hear Paul McCartney’s symphony or see Bob Dylan’s paintings. Even they probably don’t have a ‘passion’ for playing Hey Jude or Like a Rolling Stone yet again. It’s the specialisation and having to do the same thing over and over which is what makes it “work” and lucrative and not play. Also think about personality – consulting with new clients every few weeks can be exhausting for introverts, as well as pitching for new business. A lot of the personality stuff you can only discover by experience, which is why just entering the workforce is important, to find out these things about yourself.

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