Say Hi to Lucy

October 10, 2013

Say hi to Lucy.

Hi, Lucy

You might have already met Lucy in an article that’s recently gone viral. It’s an article that’s been bothering me ever since I first read it. Since then I’ve read and re-read it time and time again in an attempt to assemble this blog post into a suitable refutation of the original article. It’s been hard.

It’s been extraordinarily hard, actually because I think Tim Urban’s analysis is rather spot-on. What I do disagree with, however, is the tone of the post– “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy” doesn’t offer us any advice on what to do if the analysis is correct and we are, in fact, unhappy. The absence of it strikes me an insidious mental stop-sign for the general population that there is nothing to be done. Being unhappy is a reality that my generation needs to face, and that’s that.

I’m not okay with that. If there is something about your life that you don’t like, do something about it. Complaining about it isn’t going to do you or anyone else any favors.

Anyway, back to Lucy.

Lucy’s enjoying her GYPSY life, and she’s very pleased to be Lucy. Only issue is this one thing:

Lucy’s kind of unhappy.

Well, that’s not technically true. On a day-to-day basis she goes out with friends, is engaged in interesting hobbies, and for the most part loves life. Lucy’s kind of unhappy when she thinks about the bigger picture, about why she isn’t a young, beautiful, self-made billionaire who is curing AIDS, demolishing world hunger, who fights crime by night and still has time to throw lavish parties for her celebrity friends.

At the very least, she’s kind of unhappy about her career. Let’s talk about that.

To get to the bottom of why, we need to define what makes someone happy or unhappy in the first place. It comes down to a simple formula:

A Simple Formula

Wait, no, sorry, that’s my first-year calculus homework. It’s actually integration, something which has nothing to do with happiness, although it’s probably closer to the truth than something as ridiculously naive as

The stupidest thing I’ve ever seen

All of her life, Lucy’s been told to “follow her passion” and that if she “does what she loves, the money will follow”. These are sweet, fluffy, uplifting messages, but as we’ve previously discovered, conventional wisdom is often wrong. In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport makes a pretty convincing argument about why.

In fact, his argument is so good that I was just going to point people there instead of writing this post. My friends, however, erroneously seem to be more interested in reading a snarky blog than his book. That’s life for you.

Anyway, Newport’s book can essentially be summed with the excerpt “working right trumps finding the right work”: it’s not so important where you are, but instead how you get there that counts. Like in most aspects of life, if your meta-strategy is stable and well-behaved, things will get better if you give them the chance. What’s more inspiring is that the more well-behaved your meta-strategy, the faster things will get better.

So the real question to look at now is what defines a well-behaved meta-strategy for a fulfilling career (a WeBeMeStratFulCar, if you will)? Well, it turns out that people following their passion are more of an exception than the rule. As Newport explores in his book, most people in jobs they really like got there by what an outside observer might describe as “sheer dumb luck”. There is no rhyme or reason to it, just people making small moves that seem like a good direction to go in, while acquiring useful skills in the meantime.

One facet of a WeBeMeStratFulCar is to revoke the idea that passion in what you do is necessary for career happiness. This is known as the passion mindset, and it is a Bad Thing. A better mindset to adopt is the so-called craftsman’s mindset, which embodies the concepts of getting really, really good at a rare and valuable skill. So good… you might say, that they can’t ignore you?

We will discuss how the craftsman’s mindset will significantly improve your happiness next time, but for the time being, your homework is to come up with a list of skills. Not of things you’re good at, but of things you’d be willing to become good at.

If JFK had been a post-nationalist he would have famously quipped “ask not what your world can do for you. Ask what you can do for your world”. If you’re unhappy where you are career-wise, try being a little more like JFK (but only a little).