Monday, August 15, 2016

Interest, aptitude & demand in what we do with our lives

I came across an article recently that suggested the primary factor in whether or not person lives a happy life is finding an occupation that involves work he or she enjoys doing. It counseled that people should thus put the pursuit of occupations that would allow them to do things they enjoy over occupations that have a bigger financial reward.

Without getting too deep into arguing about the assumption that the goal of life is to be happy or that that happiness is something that should derive from ourselves—I think very good debates could be had over those things—I have to say that reading it brought up some serious questions I've had over the past decade. More than that, it brought up some doubts that I've had about my ability to ever really be happy or successful.

I agree with the idea that enjoying what you do is important. Let's call that "interest." I also have to agree that the value of what you do to your society, as measured in how much that society is willing to pay for it, is also important. I think most people just think of that as "money," or "financial reward," but I prefer to think of it as demand because that's really ultimately what money represents. One other factor that I don't hear people talk about as much though is having aptitude for what you want to do. You may really, really like professional football, and there may be a strong market demand for professional football players, but if your healthy body weight is 135 pounds, then you're not going to live a happy or successful life by pursuing football as a professional occupation.

So in my mind, there are these three things: interest, aptitude and demand. And in my own assessment, I feel that most of the really successful people that I know are people for whom all three of those things lined up.

One winning combination I know is a person who has an interest in computers and an aptitude for symbolic logic, which both lead naturally into a number of career options in programming and development that are in extremely high demand. The person does a good job at something he loves and is heftily rewarded for it by a society that is demanding his skills.

interest : aptitude : demand

Of course, most people don't get all three, and I have a lot of friends who've had to choose between two. I've had an almost weird amount of friends who were very interested in music, for which there's a low demand, but also had an aptitude for math. They've pretty much all gone into finance, for which there's a high demand. While they may not be super excited about their work routine, they can console themselves that they make a lot of money and are needed by a lot of people.

interest : aptitude : demand

Conversely, I have several friends who were interested in and had an aptitude for music or art, and have gone on to be professional musicians and artists. Most of them aren't that successful, but they generally seem to be pretty happy, because at the end of the day, they are doing a great job at something they love, regardless of whether or not society affirms them financially or not.

interest : aptitude : demand

Then I look at myself—usually a terrible idea, but it has to be done now and then—and realize that not once in my life have even two of those factors ever lined up.

When I was a kid, I dreamed about being a scientist and spent hours ever day in the summer just sitting next to ponds watching different animals going about life. I'd build vivariums (which is what biosphere terrariums were called before they were cool) out of Rubbermaid containers on my deck and be really proud of how many different organisms I could get to all coexist together in six cubic feet of space. My favorite VHS tapes were all NOVA and PBS documentaries about different scientific topics.

But then I took algebra 1 (for what was to be the first of approximately six times between high school and the end of my undergrad), and worse yet, chemistry a year later. I maintained some ideas about majoring in biology until my junior year of high school, when my abysmal SAT math score made me realize my chances of making it in any science or technically focused program were about as high as my chances of getting that football scholarship.

At some point after discovering what I didn't have any aptitude for, I slowly started to find some things that I did. Gen.-ed. English professors kept on telling me I should switch to their department. Communication professors said the same thing—and eventually I did. I spent enough time hanging around comm. computer labs that I eventually started dabbling with video editing software, not because I had any great interest in film, but—perhaps ironically—I felt I should eventually learn some kind of marketable skill. So that was that. Going strictly off what others have told me, I seem to be good at writing. I'm also, in the perhaps slightly begrudging words of one filmmaker that I really respect, at least a "pretty good" editor.

Unfortunately—and I know some people are surprised to hear this—I've always been kind of apathetic toward both those things. I didn't grow up dreaming of being a photographer or film director. In fact, I rarely watch movies. Nor do I have any ambition of becoming a "published author" beyond the emotional outlet that this blog sometimes provides.

That might not be a problem if it were just a question of choosing between interest and demand, like my cohort of musician-turned investment banker friends. But that's not where it ends, because the things that I'm not interested in but have an aptitude for are also almost completely unneeded in our present society.

I wasn't hoping to be a writer, but if I was, then I was born in the wrong century. Writers are getting fired, not hired, and I've made more money in an hour as a salad-assembler at a floundering upscale dining establishment than I've ever been or ever will be paid to write anything. As far as film-making goes, there is demand, but the problem is there are also so many people with such a strong interest—passion, really—for it, who are willing to work for literally nothing in the interest of "building their portfolio" that the industry doesn't have an inch or a second to give anyone like me who's like, "I'm good at this, but I'm not that excited about it."

In the end, it seems that I have have no aptitude for the things I had an interest in, and that the things I do have an aptitude for are relatively worthless. [I'm considering using that as a pull-quote that on my LinkdIn, for all the good it's ever done me]

interest : aptitude : demand

So, it's always been very difficult for me to imagine having a job that would be either personally rewarding or economically needed. And it's not that I'm afraid I'd have to choose between the two: I actually don't see how it could be either. And in light of that, it's sometimes hard for me to imagine what building a "happy" or "successful" life would even look like.

I'm not saying it's not possible, and I'd actually appreciate your thoughts.

I also apologize for using myself as the example for so much of this, but I do really feel like there are these several pretty distinct combinations that I outlined above that most people I know fall into. So if you feel the same way as me, or if you feel like you fall into a different one, or if you feel like the whole model is fundamentally flawed or overlooks something important, then I'd love to hear what you think. 

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