Max wants to know what to do

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?


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.

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

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...

How do you distinguish "real" consulting from the rest?

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."

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.

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.

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

Interesting admission on an econ blog.

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".

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

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Jolly good to see you here Rory.

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.

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.


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

And as Paul Graham advised in 2005, "Stay upwind."

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.)

+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.

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.)

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.

Best advice.

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

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.

The organisation at Oxford exists precisely for resolving this issue.

"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).

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:

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.


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:

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.

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 )

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.

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

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.

Wow, your family sounds like an SWPL train wreck

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.

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).

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.

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.]

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".

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.

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.

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

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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.

Unless, of course, you are killed.

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.

*as "passionate" as they claim

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.

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?

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.

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

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

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.

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.

"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.

Exactly so. Curiosity is a close substitute for passion.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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"

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

Disclaimer: project manager at one of the big three

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

As somebody above mentioned, Paul Graham's essay ( and this one ( are essential
first reading. I haven't read Cal Newport's book but it looks like the
right follow on. Michael Lewis' Princeton baccalaureate although tangnetial is also relevant (and a great graduation speech).

You probably know the material covered by the following Guy Kawasaki's blogs ( and but read them to make sure.)

Remember that the more time passes since school the less people care about where you went and how you did. They want to know what you have done recently, how the world is benefitting from that great education and the potential demonstrated by your grades.

Self promotion is important but underplaying things is usually most effective. I would avoid Ivy League and just mention the university by name. I don't see what Ivy League adds, why are they better than Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, MIT or Cal Tech, for example? Ivy League may come across as snobbish to some.

As others have written above, writing is a key skill for you. Make sure you are using it in your current job. Here's an easy way: if you attend meetings without agendas or minutes offer to write them up and send them out. Make sure your writing is crisp, succinct, specific and direct. For example,in your letter to Tyler I think it would have been better to drop: "For question two, then, you may sense where this is going…", "Assume", and "fairly". Replace "What paths should most appeal to me if my goal is to maximize doing interesting work?" with "What paths should I follow to do interesting work?" I find the mention of achieving social status confusing in the context of your email so I would drop it.

I assume that in an interview you would concentrate on how you can help the company, what value you can add rather than on what you want from the job.

Make sure you know the current software for communicating: Microsoft
Office (Word, Excel, and Powerpoint) and whatever Web tools your
current organizaton uses. Also master public speaking.

I guess I'd ask Max 'what do you think is important'. It is another way of getting at the preference question. Maybe he thinks personal happiness is important, maybe he thinks making a lasting social impact is important. Maybe he merely thinks continuing to exist is important. Until he has some sort of ranking of importance the question is non-sensical. So maybe you don't need a strong 'passion' but you do need some sort of preferences.

I think you have a hard time answering this because it gets at the heart of the shortcomings of economics. Given a preference structure, economics is very good at determining outcome, but without a preference structure somewhere at the heart of things, it all falls apart.

"...some idea that career and life path choice should be driven by a “passion”...

What a load of BS to be sold. Sure, if you've a passion it can help guide you, but many passions won't support you. I worked research ships, I saw so many very passionate about marine biology, especially marine mammals, but few had steady employment. We'd lay in extra food at the start of the season since most of those on the cruises weren't steady employees of the lab but often "volunteers" who were working for cred and trying to fatten up from a long winter.

Most people don't get to follow their passion. They have a powerful need to eat that they must satisfy. Or they the "passion" changes up often but sooner or later they end up with responsibilities so they can't start over without having to take the kids out of private school.

On the other hand, if you can develop a passion for learning, you'll hardly ever do without a source, no matter how boring, mundane your actual job might be. Although, you may have to change up the job routinely (eventually staying the the same field) to avoid doing the "one-year experience thirty times" routine. Once you've got the tech down, you move into management where the psychology of motivating humans can occupy you for some time. Perhaps you'll find something the company or industry are ignoring and create a new line of business.

Try many things, but after you learn what the "job", look at how things really work. When you've mined all you can, move on or up, or out. Wait, after a while, you'll be prepared to be a consultant.

I would recommend he watch & review the lessons from the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Jiro hated his job when he started
Later he loved it
He became passionate about it.
along the way he became the best in the world at it.

Passion isn't necessary in the beginning to achieve an optimal outcome.

I'd have Max ask, "What competencies do I have, and how do those compare with what's valued in the market place and what's really important?" Then I'd fill the gaps.

I'd have Max run fast and hard from the "be a consultant" advice. Consultants are good at project management and for net-worth transfers, from companies to consultants.

The advice to "go into the military" for a while is worth considering. If you can find a few ex-military executives, ask them, "Tell me about a life changing experience," you will hear something about their time in the military. You cannot imagine the difference it will make.

Beware selection bias. If you want a fair evaluation you should also visit a VA hospital to talk to permanently disabled veterans, plus a graveyard or two.

Everything you do is going to be meaningless in a few hundred years unless you do something huge that nobody else could, and in a few ten thousands of years even that will be meaningless. People who thing they are changing the world with their jobs and derive passion from that are illogical. Sooner or later you'll die after having lived a life trying to accomplish some ridiculously minor things and, because old people tend to be this way, you'll feel super proud of what little you've done.

I say bartender on a beach in Bali.

IMO, interesting things are what you do when you're free on a long vacation and the thoughts that fill you up pleasantly. I'd recommend not muddling it up with matters of bringing home the Bacon - you'll compromise too many things which may leave you hungry, materialistically and intellectually. commercial things are so hinged on 'selling' that ideal intellectual pursuits have little room for independent growth... I don't know where we got the perverse ideas of defining something as grand as life around something as mundane as servicing other humans demand... puff puff pass...

Seeking passion in your work sounds exciting ,just like seeking passion in your love life does .However the passion in both areas tends to run its course pretty rapidly .Seeking work that is interesting is probably a better course . That interest level should enable you to stick with it long enough to become successful .I went into the wine business because I found it interesting . I spent 42 years in it as a wine maker ,wine salesman ,sales manager,wine taster,executive VP of a wine importer,and started up a couple of companies from scratch and never made a single job move because of the money .It was interesting for pretty much the entire 42 years .

Just read this Wikipedia article:'s_hierarchy_of_needs

That'll pretty much tell you the general outline of what to do with your life.

It's not time to make a change,
Just sit down, take it slowly.
You're still young, that's your fault,
There's so much you have to go through.
Find a girl, settle down,
If you want, you can marry.
Look at me, I am old, but I'm happy

"Knowing that you are going to be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully." Take away the props (I know big assumption on my part) and something meaningful will come along because it has to. And if its not meaningful then think about it a bit more in the grand scheme of thing.

Agree with the comments about life outside work. Agree with the choosing a good spouse (try to find someone fundamentally optimistic and avoid the high maintenance / neurotic types - or at least don't marry anyone with a predisposition to neurosis or depression).

Understand that the baby-boomers are about to start dying on mass so there should be good career opportunities for those ready to seize them.

Via kottke, here is Thomas Keller on why passion shouldn't drive you. Self-recommending.

Over a decade or two of experience, really successful people in the private marketplace, at least, seem to combine three things: 1. Passion, 2. Being A Hero, and 3. Multiplier. Passion, for me, simply means that you've hit upon an ability that has three characteristics: One, it's a superior skill; two, it's continually energizing to you and others; and, three, you keep getting better at it. Being A Hero means that you become increasing good at using your Passion to create useful solutions for an increasing number of people who can pay you. Finally, Multiplier means that you develop your "passionate heroism" in ways that continually multiply your impact, income, and reputation. I think that if Max uses this as his permanent formula for developing himself and his prospects from this point forward, it will produce accelerating results in the years ahead.

If Max hasn't found something he's really interested I'd say don't worry. I wouldn't try to say what type of things Max might try to do but more suggest how to go about finding what he wants.

First, focus on they type of people and corporate culture you are most comfortable with and then find places to work where those people are and with businesses that have that culture.

Dear Max:

Don't think about yourself, or making yourself "happy" . That's the problem. Become outward directed. The fact that you have no interests or passions is a very, very bad sign. You are typically confusing educational success with real success - they are very different. Try to solve an important problem. Try to make other people happy. Try to take joy in learning. Stop navel gazing. Don't follow the pack.

Good Luck,


Why is it that management consultants have assumed the term "consulting" as their own? There are consultants in many fields.

An unspoken question here is money. Do you need it? I don't mean for status, I mean for actually paying the rent and going to the doctor. A lot of people who graduate from Ivies have well off parents and don't *need* to work (they may feel ashamed, but they aren't literally going to go without if they fail).

If you don't need money go do whatever. Chase this passion thing I guess. Worst comes to worst the parents will bail you out.

If you do need money get some investment banking/consulting job you'll hate and do it till you have "fuck you" money and then retire and try to find your passion. With your pedigree that should only take till your early 30s if you start right out of school.

"48 days to the work you love" by Dan Miller

Two thoughts.

1) Become a recruiter. Recruiters love Ivy League graduates because we don't often get them starting off. That's not the reason why. Recruiting will teach you what you have a passion for, while also teaching how to get a job, find people, hire people, and never be scared to pick up the phone. It makes you well-rounded in a way other jobs never do, because it can touch every part of a corporation or start-up.

2) If the idea of selling isn't you, head overseas. Teach English, join Alliance Abroad, or a cultural exchange. In addition to connecting you to useful overseas contacts, it's the perfect excuse for not settling down right away and is not considered a black mark against you the way nonsense jobs are.

My advice to this young generalist would be to find something he knows about or cares enough about to be able to sell and sell the hell out of it. Failing that, he should put himself in a position to learn how to sell and then sell himself.

I too was an unfocused generalist when I was your age. I made my way from the rural South to a major NY trading floor by 24, then on to the 3rd spot to a billionaire CEO (when there weren't many of those) by 27. I was a superstar, and hated it. So I quit. In retrospect, not a wise decision to always "follow your passion". But my immature decision ultimately led to changing careers in my 40s and becoming a university professor, teaching and mentoring college kids - which I love to my core. Life is non-linear and I was lucky. But it took 2 decades to discover the work I love, and I am thankful. Back to your specific problem: Most of my graduates are experiencing similar angst. They love competing for status, but hate work. Most kids these days have never been taught how to work. I suspect this is the source of your angst, now 2 years following graduation. Very common complaint. My advice: Rather than joining the manic "credentials bubble" we now see, securing a masters degree, then a second masters, plus numerous professional certifications, etc, I would simply spend your 20s finding someone to "passionately" love - get married and have children. If by chance, you are suffering your generation's exaggerated need to "make a difference" in this world, then I recommend you do your part to ensure the perpetuation of the species (the real meaning of life), and work hard to ensure your spawn become decent, law abiding, caring adults in their own right. If by the end of your days you have done this, then rest assured you will have lived a passionate, meaningful life. You will have made a difference.

1. If good jobs were easy to find, everybody would have one. Sadly, it isn't that way. Therefore, I recommend finding bad jobs. It is very educational to find out what you don't like. If you leave now, I'll wager that you could make it to Alaska before the ice breaks up and you could find a job in the hold of a fishing trawler. Cold, wet, dirty, and dull. What could be bad?

2. I highly recommend the auto biographical articles of Willis Eschenbach

Willis has had all kinds of weird interesting jobs. Maybe his example would help you.

3. As for consulting: It is just the current version of i-banking. Most of those jobs require excellent quantitative skills.

4. Consider the way the modern world really works. if you wish to advance in the elite inner circle, find yourself a powerful member of that group who needs a "body man". Be that man. Attach yourself to him like a remora. You will go far.

After HS graduation, my mother sent me to a guy who gave me various aptitude tests. He concluded that I should "write articles for scientific magazines." I did not give it another thought but you could say that's effectively what I'm doing now (tho it was a long and winding path to get there) as a legal editor -- putting the law into understandable English. While I've discovered that "passion" has been behind my best work, like the Greek muse, I can't turn it on at will. So I've settled for "interesting" and low-pressure work. I suspect high-pressure work requires "passion" because you wouldn't want to put up w/ the pressure if you didn't have it.

As a Chemical Engineer all I can do is shake my head and mutter: "what a waste of 4 years". Passion is over rated. Besides passion without skill is useless. I'm sorry I just can't crank up any compassion for someone who has willingly placed themselves in such a position; 4 years getting a degree that has so little commercial value plus the debt. What were you thinking? Obviously you weren't.

Max would be better off figuring out what his talents are, the things he is naturally great at, not just good at because he's been in school studying for so long. He should also take an honest assessment of his other strengths and weaknesses and see what comes together. It may be something interesting.

The best advice I ever read was the following:

1. In your twenties, learn all you can.
2. In your thirties, take all the risks you can.
3. In your forties, make all the money you can.
4. In your fifties and beyond, enjoy life as much as you can.

I'm now in my fifties, and this has worked out extraordinarily well for me, notwithstanding the fact that most of the risks I took in my thirties did not turn out well.

For what it's worth, I'm a partner in a top-tier consulting firm, and I would definitely recommend a consulting experience for someone in Max's shoes simply because the learning experience is tremendous (see point number 1 above). I won't comment on whether consulting itself is a worthy profession (other than to say that as I don't work very hard to sell a lot of business every year, someone must find it valuable), but indisputably, there are few opportunities for a twenty-something to learn as much as Max could with a firm like mine.

"...there is no reason per se to side with the meta-preference over the preference".


Siding with preference is, as Hirschman/Frankfurt recall, what "wantons" do:

"Men and women have the ability to step back from their "revealed" wants, volitions, and preferences, to ask themselves whether they really want these wants and prefer these preferences and consequently to form metapreferences that may differ from their preferences. Unsurprisingly, it is a philosopher, Harry Frankfurt (1971), who first put matters this way. He argued that this ability to step back is unique in humans, but is not present in all of them. Those who lack this ability he called "wantons": they are entirely, unreflectively in the grip of their whims and passions." (Hirschman, Against Parsimony, 1985).

After you figure out what advice to give Max, could you also explain what you mean by "meta-preference?" I think I'm the only person in this thread who doesn't get what that is.

Here is a way of distinguishing between the two:

You have a preference for X when you want/desire/feels an urge for X (over Y).
You have a meta-preference for X when, all things considered, you think that it is a good thing that you want/desire/feels an urge for X (over Y).
You have a meta-preference for things which you value.
You have a preference for things which you merely have a taste for.

Tell Max to take some computer classes, learn Java/C# and get into software. If you don't know what you want to do, being able to work indoors and be well-paid is as good a place to start as any.

This is the first time I really felt compelled to comment, as this topic actually hits home to me. I think what Max should do depends very much on his socio-economic state and what he wants of his income going on into the future etc... Does he have parents, a wife and child, or siblings to support now or later in life etc...? I am thirty-three, graduated from Harvard, but have never had a “real” job in my life. I make enough investing, but that “just pays the bills”, it does not interest me at all. It never has. I spend most of my time reading books and blogs like yours all day (Econlog, Cafe Hayek, CoPro, TedTalks, Freakonomics, Kings of War, Small Wars Journal, etc... too) because that is what is fun for me and really fulfills me. I am not sure Max can afford to do that though, as few people can. He should also think about time preference issues as I hope I will die old enough with a nest egg to pass on to any kids, but preferences change over time and he might regret past decisions later.

this response is sans coffee so we'll see how it goes.

1) some people have actual passions in that a given field of work they are lucky enough to have stumbled upon matches their personality and lifestyles desired to a sufficient extent for them to never feel compelled to deviate from this. I emphasize the luck portion of this because most people with a passion did not try everything or sit down and contemplate who they are to figure out what their optimal career path or life choices would be.

There is a difference though between having a passion and thinking you know what you want to do. I think that the vast majority of people start down a career path for the subtlest of incidental reasons, but if they are sufficiently capable they will achieve some measure of success - for example in coursework or extracurriculars - which will cause them to invest further, achieve more success, and so on. This builds strong positive associations with the work, and many many forms of work, many possible careers, would be satisfying to that person, not exclusively the one they have stumbled upon.

The darker side of this however is that many people (I see it every day in academia) start down a path for just such a reason - unconsidered satisfaction - and over time if they are not truly congruous with the career they can become unhappy. The degree of reflection and life circumstances that person undergoes determines when and if they come to this realization.

In other words, I don't think many people have passions made just for them, I think most people just don't think about it that hard. They do what they end up doing, and if nothing causes them to question that they keep doing it. This is true even of very capable, bright, considerate people. I believe there is a tendency over these spans of time to begin identifying with what you've ended up doing, which leads you to believe that this is your passion or this is the right thing to do, but I think there is a spurious connection made in that perspective.

That is not to say that is bad. Almost everyone could do all manner of things, and as long as you end up in a role that satisfies you, there's no reason to worry about other roles that might have satisfied you just as much. The danger comes only when you follow a path that doesn't give you what you need. Fortunately, most careers 'reveal their hand' pretty early, so you know if you'd like it or not early on when you first form an attachment. Others though, for example being a lawyer or doctor, may take more investment to truly understand the career choice. Again a lot comes down to luck.

For the social sciences in particular, does he mean social science academia? Or the real world? For someone making an initial choice of career path, they have to evaluate what makes them happy, in not just an amorphous but in a concrete way. They have to be honest about their desires, however selfish they may be.They have to consider their personality and their past experiences, and hone that into a set of constraints on what they want to do. The alternative is the more active approach: start doing something that seems like its what you want to do, and follow it while being conscientious of your long-term goals. You'll then gradually shift from one thing to another, ideally moving in the direction of greater compability in these incremental steps, and ultimately you'll end up where your happy. This can take time, but so can contemplation. The greater risk is that some career changes cannot be achieved incrementally, in differential steps, but rather require sudden leaps.

2) see above, previous paragraph.

I would contend that consulting is not necessarily a good idea. If he takes the latter path I suggest, then it is an option if it seems appealing to him - it will expose him to a variety of careers and he can adjust accordingly. I in general favor the contemplative approach, at least in part. He should do that sort of analysis, and really be hard on himself. Don't expect an answer to come instantly, really try to get specific and let it take a bit of time. Reading helps. After some of that he'll at least have a better idea of what he wants, and then can take the next steps to try out some experiences. Starting experiences without much real sense of what he wants as a person in the long run though is less likely to be fruitful than giving thought to the problem and narrowing down career parameters first.

He should read The Start-Up of You:

You asked Max the wrong questions. He should start with what he values most. What books has he read that have influenced him most. Education should not be about dollars and sense. If you want an education, you want to learn, know things, experience things. If you want a job, go to a school that trains you for a specific job. Education should be a time of exploring your own mind and values through the courses you take, the experiences you seek. If these questions don't bring a response, volunteering at something that interests you, sports, art, reading, music, is the best way to get outside yourself and see the world that exists outside your own. Only by going out and experiencing, and being willing to fail, either in a class or in a volunteer experience, do you learn about yourself. How much you will make is not the way to go to begin self exploration. Challenging yourself, without focusing on the grade but on doing whatever is your best, is a beginning. Learning to ask yourself the hard questions and being willing to challenge yourself is also a start.
The educated mind is not always the mind that makes the most money. An education cannot be valued on return on investment. It is valued on how well you learned to think, read, question, seek, and learn what you don't know.

Passion and compassion are helpful in vocational choices primarily as an indicator of values for people whose temperament is more feeling oriented. I'd be interested to know what Max feels that he has to offer? What does he bring to the table that is unique to him? As an analytic generalist what is his core competency or genius? Is he able to understand both the big picture and see meaningful patterns in the details? Then consulting might be a great direction to pursue(although it may require some more education and training). Another question I'd ask is what really matters to Max? Is there anything of importance in his life that drives him to distraction? Is there a cause that he's drawn to support? That may be a framework for understanding his values that isn't as confounding as knowing his passion. I get the sense that Larry Page at Google isn't as tuned into his passion as much as he is able to make decisions based upon data. Data is king in his world. If passion isn't available to Max, I'd encourage him to work with the tools he does have.

I know a lot of generalists in the Human Resources field, in organizational consulting and in professional coaching/mentoring. Most of them have not had a clear career trajectory, but they've taken a variety of jobs and made a unique path for themselves from the experience and skills they've gained along the way. Start where you can, Max.

What really helped me was doing the Strengths Finder 2.0 test and learning more about myself. Even though I'm going through something very similar to Max, at least I have more self awareness about what my natural strengths are. Now, its all about getting out there and making the most of the opportunities that I come across and trying to find the ones where I can leverage my natural strengths.

Sometimes I have wondered, "is this a millennial thing?"

I asked myself this question 3-4 years ago, when I was 40, an assistant professor in finance, and was getting close to my tenure evaluation. I am still looking into the answer, but I have decided to quit my job in the university. I have written about my findings on my blog. (
There are some ways of finding your passion which are essentially finding out who you are and what is your life about. I can mention some important elements. (1) Being playful, (2) practicing a decision-making style that starts from the preferences (what would I do/want if I did not have any constraints) and then imposes constraints, (3) story-telling, what is the narratives of your life?
There are some practical signs that I found relevant and I tell my students with the same questions. When you really like a subject, you have a much higher retaining rate when you read about it, you can spend your time thinking about questions in that field/profession without even noticing it, and you easily come up with ideas and interesting questions.

Hope these help!

This your the answer right here:

In one of my talks I remind people that passion is not a thing, but a feeling. So, when people talk about following your passion, I believe they are talking about something that creates a high energy, joyful and compelling feeling within. Many people have many things they enjoy doing. I have done dozens of jobs and now do hundreds of things and what guides me is my connection to knowing who I am and what brings me and my life meaning and joy. Please send Max my way. I can help him discover a path that will bring him the feelings he desires and the conditions he enjoys in a context that gives him meaning. The question I offer is: What is the Greatest gift(s) you have to give, the meets the world's greatest need NOW? This is where we bring ourselves to what is needed and can be in our greatest service. I would love to talk with you about the third and seldom-talked-about decision criteria - inner knowing, intrinsic wisdom, and individual expression. From here the what and how we can be and serve in the world becomes clearer.

I'm the co-founder of a local DC based Tech start-up who is trying to solve this problem for people like Max.

The most recent psychological science points us not to passion but to strengths.

A large research project in 1998 out of UPENN discovered and mapped the common strengths that we all have in different levels and since then we have been able to better define human character and what each of our unique talents are.

The book Strengthsfinder 2.0 first commercialized this and is one of the all time best business book sellers on

Much subsequent research found that if someone's natural strengths can been used regularly at work then people have large increases in productivity, happiness and fulfillment.

So that is what we are doing, using technology combined with the latest psychological science to match people to jobs that will use their strengths. A little like e-harmony for Jobs. We're currently talking to schools about offering this as a free service to all students. Check it out on

A student of social science wants to know what to do. I could go in so many directions with Max's question and most would be spot on.

First I must say, good for you. Your question is one that should be expected from a student of social science. Society would expect a Philosopher to beg the question "what is the meaning of life", a Doctor to challenge God as to why people must die and a graduate of social science to ponder their role in society.

Unlike a Doctors path where 90 percent of the learning is done under supervisor and the the rest of their career is for practice, Max chose a path that teaches 10 percent in the classroom and the remaining 90 percent is to be learned through out the course of his career. Any path of discovery is riddled with pockets of self doubt. Asking the age old question is "The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living" is an act of social science.

The answer to Max's question? Simple. I would tell Max that even if I could conger a believable answer I would not tell him. Max chose a path that requires self discovery and he is stuck with all that comes with that element. I would give Max a piece of advice and tell him that one can be born with a awareness of a passion but most are bumped into by accident. I would ask Max if he would rather be a bumper or the pin ball? If the choice is the pin ball then I would tell Max to get out their and bump into anything that's bump-able.

On a encouraging note I would point out to Max that a passion to find a passion is a passion.

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