102 - Keep calm and be like Van Gogh

21-09-2023

career designpersonal development

The perils of making up your mind too early

‘How can I see you better than I used to?’ asks Canadian philosopher and professor of psychology John Vervaeke.

The _you _in the question is the world, your best friend, your spouse, your parents. It is the object of your attention. And the answer to this question, Vervaeke suggests, is contemplation. He likens contemplation to taking off the glasses with which we see the world to clean the smudges from the lens and then putting them back on to re-view the world outside.

As I prepare to visit my place of birth after more than a year, the analogy fits like a glove. How do I see the place I grew up in, what lens do I use to absorb it now that I’m a city slicker, a family man, a father myself? Growing up, I looked at the world _through _it (that is, the place was the lens). Now, after more than 20 years away, I’m learning to look _at _it (I’m examining the lens itself).

If you’re new here…

Hello! I’m Satyajit and every week I share my thoughts, gathered from the best and the eclectic, on how to see the world better. I write about decision-making, mental models, and decision strategy, as applied to a better career and a better life.

As always, here are the key takeaways from this week’s piece:

  1. Passion and perseverance are useful, but not if you don’t find something worthwhile for them.
  2. What is too early in our career decisions keeps being pushed back.
  3. All of this is because of something called match quality, which is your degree of fit for your chosen career.
  4. _We live in an Age of Abundance, flush with career options. Our parents only knew an Age of Scarcity, married for life to their chosen profession. _
  5. Generalize early, specialize late – this credo will define modern career design.

Social psychologist and persuasion guru Robert Cialdini calls the present times the most _stimulus-saturated _environment in the history of humankind. Psychiatrist and author Anna Lembke calls the smartphone _a hypodermic needle _that we are constantly jabbing into our system. I’m not going to shy away from coming up with a name of my own at this point. So, let me call it the Age of Abundance.

There are problems with this Age of Abundance, as these famous minds profess, but one they don’t point out is what happens when we approach the Age of Abundance with the mindset of someone living in an Age of Scarcity. We’ll come back to this.

First, a story. One that is unfolding right now in India.

The story I’m about to tell you is something that caught my eye earlier this week. The director of the country’s top-ranking institute of technology IIT Madras said that more engineers than ever are steering away from core engineering jobs after graduating. Professor V Kamakoti called this a ‘waste of resources.’

Kamakoti whose interests are in high-performance computing and cyber security went on to say:

‘Recently, during my travels, I have met alumni from IIT Madras who pursued careers in Big Four companies, such as marketing or high-frequency trading. When asked about their (engineering) background, it becomes apparent that their career choices are completely unrelated to what they have studied. It’s a waste of resources.’ [italics are mine]

Why are the country’s sharpest young minds not sticking to their choice of undergrad specialization? It’s four years they have spent learning the trade. Why give it up?

The Netflix hit series Kota Factory casts an unflattering light on India’s coaching setup for entrance examinations to admission into elite engineering institutions like IIT Madras. Kids start preparing for JEE Advanced as early as grade 5 (10 years old). So, these kids are making up their minds to pursue engineering before they’ve hit puberty, and they’re choosing to opt out instead of cashing in once they’re among the country’s best engineers?

Perhaps this has something to do with the Age of Abundance.

Which age are we living in?

Ten-year-olds are not known for their wisdom. They barely know what the world is, let alone what it may look like a decade or so later when they enter the workforce. They’re simply absorbing an abstraction of their world as handed down to them by their parents. Figures of authority in the avatar of mostly middle-class parents who grew up in an Age of Scarcity.

My parents grew up in a world of scarcity. Their grit stemmed from a lack of viable options. That made them demand the same virtues in their children. My mother fit this cohort. So did my father. My mother- and my father-in-law too. They have held one job all their lives, and they expect their kids to do the same. For a few teenage years, I was cast in the mold of an IIT hopeful myself. Because for my parents as well as those of many million others, graduating as an engineer from a prestigious institute or as a doctor from a reputed medical college is a ticket to financial safety.

Well, today’s Indian kids are not cut from the same cloth.

American Pie

What if I told you neither are American kids. Here’s the American version of this story.

  1. Historically, the US Army was spoilt for choice. The Army drew its recruits from Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and West Point where education was taxpayer-funded.
  2. The move from Industrial to Information Age in the 80s and 90s meant workers had to move from factories to offices.
  3. The private sector saw in the well-trained graduates of ROTC and West Point a catchment area. A booming knowledge economy meant more and bigger carrots for knowledge workers. More and more graduates left military service after ‘five-year active-duty service commitment.’
  4. Moving to the private sector made sense. It opened up opportunities for these crops of young officer graduates. At once, a skilled talent pool that saw the Army as a long-term employer now looked outside for better options. This coincided with the decline of the Cold War.
  5. Come the Global War on Terror post 9/11, and in dire need of young officers, the US Army found itself unprepared and forced to make suboptimal trade-offs.

A crop of highly talented cadets nurtured on taxpayer money ditch their benefactor for a lucrative career elsewhere—reads like Professor Kamakoti’s worst fears.

Match quality

Psychologists measure match quality in terms of how much an activity or a job is a fit for someone. If one has the skills for and interest in a certain career, they are said to show a high match quality. If not, then the match quality is low.

Research shows that later decisions on specialization offer students more opportunities to suss out their match quality in different fields. Ten-year-old Indian kids getting tuitions for undergrad competitive exams are unlikely to have a bank of exploratory experiences to base future decisions on.

When we make specialization decisions _before _we have gathered reliable information about match quality—which is a pedantic way of saying before we have figured out who we are and what we want in life—we tend to switch career tracks later. This switching traditionally has come at a high cost. My parents had little luxury in this regard because options were not dime a dozen for them. So did yours, probably.

That is not the case, thankfully, for our generation. In an Age of Abundance, better pay and comfortable working conditions await the graduates of India’s premier engineering institutions. They no longer have to sweat on the shopfloor or spend days on construction sites, if they don’t want to. So why not switch?

**Happiness beats hygiene **

American psychologist Frederick Herzberg believed that employee satisfaction has two dimensions: hygiene and motivation.

You hear about hygiene factors all the time. Money, team, work hours, boss, and so on. Motivation is harder to pin down. Is the work meaningful? Does it make me happy? Does the job help me grow?

Hygiene is table stakes. Motivation is the differentiator. In an Age of Scarcity, hygiene was all there was. In an Age of Abundance, happiness stakes it claim.

Career polygamy

Why does David Epstein in his book Range call Van Gogh an ‘example of match quality optimization’?

A tour of the Van Gogh Museum in 2017 offered me a glimpse of the answer even though I didn’t know what match quality was at that time. Yes, Van Gogh died a struggling artist but there’s more to it than first meets the eye. He didn’t start painting seriously until he was thirty. He compulsively tried things out, cutting his teeth as an art dealer, teacher, and preacher.

‘He tested options,’ writes Epstein, ‘with maniacal intensity and got the maximum information signal as quickly as possible, and then moved to something else, and repeated, until he had zigzagged his way to a place no one else had ever seen, and where he alone excelled.’

Perhaps Van Gogh was ahead of his time. Perhaps he was well-off enough to indulge himself. Whatever it was, Van Gogh’s kind of career polygamy may become a trending social norm in the near future.

Here are some symptoms of career polygamy in an Age of Abundance:

  • Knowledge workers will optimize for match quality over job security (The Great Resignation).
  • Monogamous (lifelong) careers will be the exception to the rule.
  • Workers will plan their careers in five-year blocks, not lifetimes.
  • Exploring mid-career, much like dating in middle age, will become acceptable.
  • Quitting will become socially acceptable. Pivoting will become mainstream.

Generalize early, specialize late

Explore first, exploit after. This credo redefines modern career design.

Where it made sense for our parents to specialize early and get a jump on their career track, the same behavior today simply accrues sunk costs and holds our future hostage. In an Age of Abundance, self-discovery should precede decisions to hunker down. Self-discovery demands exploration. Exploration commands failure.

Welcome, the age of short-term failure for longer-term success.

Devote is a strong word, but I feel like I donated four years of my learner’s life to a degree in mechanical engineering. Only to accept a job as an entry-level software engineer at the first available opportunity. Since, I’ve changed career tracks a few times over. Today, I’m an operator across marketing, product, operations, sales, and strategy. I’m also cutting my teeth as a decision coach. I didn’t set out to do any of this but now I’m here.

For our kids, could we push back the age at which they make a choice between throwing themselves into a chosen field and exploring the world at large and their own interests in life?

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