What Would You Do If Nobody Knew?

UnknownWhen thinking about what to do with our lives, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the idea of doing something, rather than how we’d enjoy the experience of doing the thing itself. I loved the idea of being a public interest litigator when I got out of law school, for example, but it turned out I really didn’t enjoy the process of writing briefs arguing over endless procedural details and reviewing thousands of pages of documents to build my case. I was bored.

The esteemed management professor and consultant Warren Bennis was once asked how he liked being a university president after he’d left teaching at MIT to run the University of Cincinnati for seven years. He was stumped. He couldn’t say. Later, after some reflection, writes psychologist Tal Ben Shahar in his book, Choose the Life You Want, Bennis acknowledged that he liked the idea of being a university president, but not actually the job of doing it. At the end of that academic year, he quit and returned to teaching and writing.

In thinking about what sort of work we want to do, it’s easy to get caught up in how it sounds, what we’d tell people at cocktail parties, how our profiles might look on LinkedIn. Of course, at some level we know that doesn’t really matter, but it’s still easy, when we’re feeling insecure, to get hooked by it.

As Paul Graham writes in “How to Do What You Love,” that’s a big mistake:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. . .

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like. . .

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself. . .

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

The philosopher Alain de Botton similarly cautions that rather than get caught up in ideas of “success” that we’ve sucked up from other people: “We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

Of course, this is easier said than done.  It can be difficult at times to separate out what you think you want from what others have told you that you should want. To separate out our often subconscious worries about what our parents would say or what our ex-boyfriend might think of us, I think the following exercise, proposed by Tal Ben Shahar, can be very useful.

Consider:  What would you do if you had complete anonymity? In other words, if no one else would know your actions and their consequences, what would you choose to do? It may be hard to imagine, since we live in a world where it’s so easy to be constantly publicizing our actions, and there’s so much pressure to do that. But what if you were somehow invisible to the world, there were no Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, no parties to boast at or family visits or reunions where you had to account for yourself?  What if only you knew how you were spending your time? Now what would you do?

Give yourself time to sit with that and see where it takes you. If you’re like one of the many people struggling with this question, it could help clear the messy mental landscape a bit. Kind of like pulling weeds.

Some Simple Career Advice

images-4I sometimes hear from recent college graduates struggling to start their careers. They want to know how they can get into human rights work, or journalism, or some combination of the two, and they think that because I’ve done both I’ll have the answer.

I don’t, of course. Career paths are rarely linear, and both public interest law and journalism have changed so much over the years that my own circuitous career path hardly seems relevant. Inevitably, I’m afraid, I end up dampening their enthusiasm with my cynicism about most jobs these days, particularly in law or journalism. Not that some aren’t great, but many people in their 20s have a lot of illusions about what they imagine to be their ideal careers, based on very little actual knowledge. The sooner they rid themselves of those the better.

There are really only two pieces of advice I end up giving: the first is to let yourself be drawn toward what you really enjoy. Try to shield yourself, at least somewhat, from other people’s expectations and your own insecurities, and think about what you really love to spend your time doing. Then go learn about what kind of work would allow you to do mostly that.

Once you’ve figured that out, try things out. You may really care about the environment, for example, but find that working at an environmental agency or advocacy organization is a total bore. You might really care about justice, but find that working at a law firm or even the social justice organization you admire most just keeps you stuck in front of a computer all day and feeling isolated. Don’t decide how you want to spend your life based on an abstract topic or issue: find out what the work entails doing all day. If that doesn’t inspire you, don’t do it.

These sounds like really obvious points. But it’s taken me many years to learn this myself; and I have to keep re-learning it.

I went to law school wanting to fight poverty and inequality; I ended up, seduced by the prestige of judicial clerkships and “impact litigation,” in a public interest job that sounded great on paper, but which I couldn’t stand.

I quit and went to journalism school. After that I did some interesting work that I’m proud of, and I took a lot of risks. But after ten years, the field had changed far more quickly than I’d expected and I was no longer excited about pitching stories to elite newspaper or magazine editors so they could pay me a pittance to do a lot of really hard work. My interests, my admiration for the field, and my tolerance for that level of insecurity, had all changed.

I’ve tried to combine the two fields of journalism and public interest law in my human rights work, and I’ve had some success doing that. But all work has its limitations, and I am still learning to appreciate what really interests me and the types of work I need to do to feel fulfilled. Coaching has been an important part of that.

All of which comes down to this really obvious but frequently-ignored advice: find a way to do the things you most enjoy and care about.

The psychologist Kenneth Sheldon and his co-authors Richard Ryan, Edward Deci and Tim Kasser flesh that out a bit, based on a wealth of psychological studies, including their own, about what makes people happy. They conclude:

“People seeking greater well-being would be well advised to focus on the pursuit of: a) goals involving growth, connection, and contribution rather than goals involving money, beauty and popularity; and b) goals that are interesting and personally important to them rather than goals they feel forced or pressured to pursue.”

My own 20 + years in the workforce certainly bears that out.