Monday, November 1, 2010

Doing What You Love

If you looked at all the advice that's dispensed, and compare the numbers for 'Frequency That Advice X is Given' and 'Actual Value of Advice X', some of the most frequent and useless seems to be the admonition to 'Do What You Love.'

To my mind, the best job to aim for is the one that maximises (roughly speaking):

P(Getting & Keeping Employment in Job X) * [(Wage in Job X) + (Personal Non-wage enjoyment of Job X, expressed as an equivalent dollar value)].

For simplicity, call this P*(W+N)

'Do What You Love' says to focus on N, and ignore the rest.

Viewed from this perspective, it's obviously stupid to ignore P and W.

But it's even worse than that. Maximising N will generally cause you to aim for jobs that you can't get, and that pay nothing. The problem is that if your tastes are the same as everybody else, N is likely to be negatively correlated with P and W (holding constant the demand for the end product being produced)

Suppose Bob loves playing X-Box and sleeping with hot women. Should Bob aim to become a video game tester or a porn star?

Seen from this perspective, it's obvious. Lots of guys enjoy these things, so the competition for these jobs is huge (P is low for male porn stars and video game testers). Because lots of people are competing for the jobs, the market clearing wage will be low (W is low for male porn stars and video game testers).

Same for being a political staffer, a journalist for the New York Times, an intern at a trendy nonprofit, or a sitcom writer.

On the other hand, it's possible to modify this advice to something more useful:

"Do things you love more than the average person."

Things that you love more than the average person will be roughly loading up positively on N. So you'll still be more likely to end up in jobs you'll somewhat enjoy. But more importantly, they will also be loading up positively on P and W. Jobs that fewer other people enjoy will have less competition and higher wages. This is doubly true if you think that lots of other people are foolishly following the 'Do What You Love' advice.

In other words, you don't have to love reaching into clogged toilets to be a plumber. You just have to dislike it less than the average person. Because plumbers make some pretty serious coin. You know why? Most people can't stand the prospect of reaching into clogged toilets.

Combine this with the secondary part of :
"Do things you are better able to do than the average person."
(which will also lead towards higher P and W) and you're a long way to a good rule of thumb.

Finish it off with:
"Do things that there's a high and reliable demand for the end product being produced"
(which focuses on some of the demand determinants of P and W), and you've got a pretty damn good way of evaluating employment.

I remember Coyote making a similar point a while ago.

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