Don't just do what you love, but don't just do what pays the most, either
Every new school year brings with it a predictable round of news stories and research papers touting the most profitable college majors and most important courses to take. The very cyclicality of it is comforting.
■ The shortcoming of any such advice is that it can only be based upon either the author's subjective experience or the cold impartiality of aggregated data on tuition rates and salaries. Advice to take classes in communications or business is often fairly wise, but it's not much upon which to build a choice of major.
■ The advice that everyone should get (but that almost nobody knows how to communicate) is: Find the path with the biggest gap between what you can create and what you have to give up to do it.
■ The easy way out is to say "Do what you love and the money will follow", but that's deceptively bad advice. Not only are there plenty of "loveable" career paths that leave people entirely upside-down financially, the advice threatens to leave people terribly un-rounded. Many things are extremely well worth doing as hobbies, volunteer work, or side gigs that a person ought to keep carefully cordoned-off from the risk of an unsatisfying career or an inopportune moment to enter a particular job market. Warren Buffett plays enough bridge to count as a part-time job, but he does it to make himself happy, not to make more money for Berkshire Hathaway.
■ This isn't to say that a career shouldn't be rewarding, or that we shouldn't be able to find joy in work. Work will take up about a quarter of the hours in every week, and those hours should not be joyless and unrewarding. But to take the whole picture of a person, we have to look at the other three-quarters of the hours, too. You can be laid off from a job, but not from a family, a hobby, or your chosen communities.
■ Economically, work is about the creation of value. On balance, being a productive person means creating more value than you consume -- and, in the modern economy, most of what gets created is in the form of services, not stuff. So anyone with a view toward education as a path toward economic productivity needs to think about the value they will be able to create.
■ But we can't only measure one side of that balance sheet. What also matters is what it takes to reach the point where you can create that value, and what it takes out of you to do it. Daniel Day-Lewis may be a profoundly gifted actor, but when he retired, he said, "the impulse to quit took root in me, and that became a compulsion. It was something I had to do." The value he created was enormous -- measured in hundreds of millions of dollars in box-office receipts. But the gap between what he created and what it took from him shrank, and he retired.
■ One doesn't have to be a film star to consider that same gap. People drop out of medical school and leave their hard-earned law degrees behind. Sabbaticals and career breaks are mainstream. Career burnout is real.
■ Yet, so is the problem of living paycheck-to-paycheck. So looking at both sides of the balance sheet -- and taking the value a person creates and subtracting what it takes from them to create it -- gives a more complete picture of the college-major decision than any ranking of the most in-demand careers on one hand or the most motivational commencement addresses on the other. (Remember especially that any advice you get on following your dreams usually comes from someone who benefits from survivorship bias -- we hear from Mozart, not Salieri.)
■ Just as a company's net worth is the assets minus the liabilities, an individual's choices balance out to what they get minus what they had to give up to get it. "What you get" isn't merely the sum total of all your annual salaries, and "what you give up" isn't just the time you spend in school. Looking only to one measure is a hazardous form of personal myopia, and looking to find most of a life's fulfillment from a career is another.
[Originally published in the Evening Post & Mail on August 24, 2021]