What should I do with my life?

This page is outdated. The text below is from the first, 2007 draft of Meaningness. My understanding of the material has changed since then, and the style I write in too. Someday I would like to rewrite this; but I hope the 2007 version may be adequate for now.

A good question… Or is it?

If you look for answers—in books, on the web, from supposed experts—everyone will agree:

Discover your unique talent, follow your passion, and success is guaranteed.

Richard Bolles’ enormously successful self-help book What Color Is Your Parachute was a main reason this idea came to dominate our culture’s thinking about personal purpose in the realm of work.

It was originally published in 1970, just around the time that the formerly-industrial American economy started creating large numbers of jobs manipulating abstract meanings rather than bits of metal. This caused a crisis of meaning. The fraction of the population for whom a career was supposed to be a source of meaningfulness jumped. But which were truly meaningful? Most of those meaning-manipulating jobs are obviously bullshit.

Bolles’ idea was hugely appealing: I am special, I have a unique mission, and if I pursue that mission as a career, the Cosmic Plan will certainly reward me for being true to myself.

It’s terrible advice, though. It’s done great harm, to individuals and to society.

Pragmatically, it’s bad career advice. If there’s something unusual about you, it’s generally pretty unlikely anyone wants to pay you for it. (Of course, there are exceptions, and advocates of this idea tell inspiring stories about nice people who became extraordinarily successful because they had an obsession with garden snails or something.) If you love doing something, probably a lot of other people do, too, so there’s likely to be an oversupply of people who want that sort of work, and it won’t pay well. Or at all!

Discovering this often sets you off on a Quest for your True Mission In Life; if only you could find that, a satisfying career would follow! This reliably causes misery, as in the story of Fifi’s bad career vision.

At the level of meaningness, it’s also terrible advice. The stance of mission reliably messes up your life and makes you miserable.

You don’t have a single, special purpose or passion in life. You have many, and they’re all shared with others. Which ones are best to pursue depends on pragmatic considerations, including “how much can I get paid for this?” Such circumstances shift over time. In 1970, everyone assumed they’d only have one career. It’s common now to change every decade or so.

Which purposes are best to pursue also depends on shifting interests, increasing capabilities, and the arc of personal development through adulthood.

There is no “supposed to” about purposes. Implicit in “supposed to” is that Someone else is doing the supposing. Bolles was an Episcopal clergyman. His book was notionally secular, but God is a constant ghostly presence. If you don’t think God is going to give you career advice, you should be suspicious and careful when reading this book, or the enormous number of similar texts it inspired.

If you do think God should be involved in your career, I’d suggest adopting the eternalist stance rather than mission. In other words, take your religion much more seriously. It probably does not recommend the sorts of self-centered attitudes and psycho-magical exercises Bolles did.1

Encouraging young people to “follow their passion” and “discover their mission” has created an enormous oversupply of graduates with expensive degrees in fields that are almost entirely useless. This is bad for progress, for making the world better by doing pragmatically useful things. It has also created a class of meaning-manipulating malcontents who agitate for social changes that provide bullshit jobs for them. They have become a substantial, and often harmful, political force.

“What should I do with my life?” is a bad question. “Pursuing which purposes will be most enjoyable and useful now and over the next several years?” is a better one.

2020 note

I wrote that “everyone will agree” (about what you should do with your life) in 2007. It was true then. I began working out a rebuttal. The above is a rough draft, partly from then, partly from 2020.

Recently, Cal Newport has written about this extensively. I haven’t yet read his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. However, from summaries, his critique seems to be broadly similar to what I intended:

The passion hypothesis, which says that the key to loving your work is to match a job to a pre-existing passion, is bad advice. There’s little evidence that most people have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered, and believing that there’s a magical right job lurking out there can often lead to chronic unhappiness and confusion when the reality of the working world fails to match this dream.

We don’t have much evidence that matching your job to a pre-existing interest makes you more likely to find that work satisfying. The properties we know lead people to enjoy their work—such as autonomy, mastery, and relationships—have little to do with whether or not the work matches an established inclination.

His alternative advice seems at least partly right:

It’s important to adopt the craftsman mindset, where you focus relentlessly on what value you’re offering the world. This stands in stark contrast to the much more common passion mindset, which has you focus only on what value the world is offering you.

I’m not totally on board with “relentlessly,” or with the implication here that you only focus on what value you are offering the world, rather than what value the world offers you. The complete stance for purpose acknowledges the role of both.

The last part of his book also explicitly advocates “career mission.” Having not read it, I’m not sure how his use of “mission” relates to mine here.

  1. 1.“At the heart of this book is the Flower Exercise: a self-inventory in which you examine seven ways of thinking about yourself” says the 2020 edition.