A few weeks ago we published a century old essay by John Maynard Keynes about the future of work, in which he prophesied that human beings on an average will end up working 15 hours a week i.e, balancing work and leisure in a way that solves the most fundamental economic problem. The pandemic seems to have rekindled the possibilities with labour shortages resulting from changing attitudes towards work. How quickly the narrative changed from burnouts being the most common issue with work where many were guilty running the rat race ! It seems likely that we have swung from one extreme to another. Derek Thompson in this piece in The Atlantic helps us with ‘Five pieces of career advice, shaped by economics, psychology, and a little bit of existential math’.
Ironically, he starts with a rant against all or any career advice. Then goes ahead anyway with the caveat: “In this wobbly economic moment, I thought that sharing the best actual-career advice I’ve come across might be marginally useful. This counsel is surely weighted toward white-collar knowledge work, although I hope it’s at least somewhat valuable to any reader.”
His first point is a bit of math about how much our career takes up of our waking hours – “Work is too big a thing to not take seriously. But it is too small a thing to take too seriously. Your work is one-sixth of your waking existence. Your career is not your life. Behave accordingly.”
The second point ‘Explore, then exploit’ is interesting – he draws from a researcher who studied the careers of scientists and artists: “…he found that their “hot streaks” tended to be periods of focused and narrow work following a spell of broader experimentation. This is sometimes called the “explore-exploit” sequence. The idea is that many successful people are like good oil scouts: They spend a lot of time searching for their space, and then they drill deep when they find the right niche.”
This might justify the frequent job changes that some of us make especially early in our career but Derek makes a more nuanced point: “…Even if, like me, you don’t quit your employer, you should constantly look to quit your job—the precise set of roles for which you are salaried—and push yourself into discomfort zones. Role-switching is important not because quitting is so wonderful, but rather because sampling from different skills and fields is helpful, provided that you’re prepared to pounce on an area that clicks for you. Explore, then exploit. ”
His third point is about designations versus work content: “Work is not a series of words on a LinkedIn profile. It’s a series of moments in the world. And if you don’t enjoy those moments, no sequence of honorifics will dispel your misery.
Some people take jobs with long commutes not fully considering what it will do to their health. Or they take jobs that require lots of travel not fully intuiting what it will mean for their family life. Or they’ll take horribly difficult jobs for money they don’t need, or take high-status jobs for a dopamine rush with a half-life of about three days. If you want to be smarter about your beingness in time, either you can read a lot of impenetrable philosophy or you can listen to Jim. Don’t take the job you want to talk about at parties for a couple of minutes a month. Take the job you want to do for hundreds of hours a year.”
Fourth, he puts career ambition in context: “Be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what you value—and how much professional success matters to you.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he makes the point from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow – “He argues at one point that artists and other professionals feel happiest when their “body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
The best kind of work is voluntary: It’s something you choose to do rather than accomplish under the imminent threat of poverty or getting fired. It’s also difficult: Rewarding work is not easy, but an achievable challenge that requires stretching your capabilities and allowing for learning and growth (another reason to explore, instead of just exploit). Finally, it’s worthwhile, which I interpret to mean that it’s intrinsically rewarding. If you outsource your sense of worth to the feedback of crowds and the approval of peers and professional counterparties, your working identity will feel like a sailboat in a hurricane. You have to moor yourself to something that doesn’t change direction every few moments, whether it’s the confidence that you’re helping people or the joy of pure discovery.
Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” theory became an instant classic in part because the word uncannily captures that gusher of crystal-clear focus that pulls our attention through an achievable challenge. But flow doesn’t come from doing easy things over and over again. It comes from tasks that reside at the edge of our potential. So don’t be afraid to do hard things.”
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