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I Know I'm Supposed To Follow My Passion. But What If I Don't Have A Passion?

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A while back, Max Kornblith sent the following email to Tyler Cowen, an economist who blogs at Marginal Revolution:

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, Max

*Two years out with a BA from an Ivy League school. Top 10 percent 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 has me stumped," Tyler Cowen wrote recently on his blog.

The fact that Max and other young college graduates can even entertain this question — "What is my passion?" — is a new conundrum, and still a luxury not everybody enjoys. Yet, Tyler recently told me, it is "a central question of our time."

So what's the best, most rational answer for Max? It seems like economics could help; after all, it's about costs and benefits and modeling complicated decisions.

But, Tyler says, "it was a truly difficult, tough question to make any progress on."

Months passed. Tyler felt guilty. So he invited Max to lunch, and brought along two other economists — Bryan Caplan and Garett Jones — for backup. The economists posed questions to help Max frame the issue:

  • How much are you willing to suffer in the short run to get a better future?
  • Have you ever considered working in Asia?
  • How important will it be to spend X number of hours with your kids? And what is that X?
  • How well do you understand your own defects?
  • What does 50-year-old Max want?
  • Can your community be a cyber community, or do you need to have a face-to-face community?

In the end, the three economists did not advise Max to pursue some particular career path. They didn't even give very specific advice. But they did all agree that Max's lack of a passion could work to his advantage. Pursuing a passion — especially if it's a popular passion — often doesn't pay very well.

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