Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Lottery Assumption

"Your Plan B is someone else's Plan A."

There's something interesting about the way we think about our dreams and aspirations. While we believe our "dream goals" are impossibly difficult to achieve, it seems as though other people doing other things are always an "overnight success". We have a tendency to think that there are other - easier - pathways to success than the daunting uphill trek we imagine our own dreams would require. I think of it as a kind of "lottery" assumption. We figure that people who have achieved success in a creative field were mostly lucky and we conclude that even if we work hard and have talent, our odds of making it in our "dream" field are about as good as our odds of winning the lottery. We also (wrongly) conclude that success will be much easier in some other - usually more conventional - field.

Provided we have reasonable opportunities,
Gary Player's words are simply true.
This lottery assumption is frequently applied to artistic aspirations in particular. The truth is that the people who are "overnight successes" in creative fields - like people who achieve success in any field - rarely arrive at their success overnight. Of course, this is not news to anyone who has ever read the biography of a famous writer, actor or painter. Successful creative people nearly always work hard at their craft for years before their work is widely recognized and/or they achieve great financial success in their artistic endeavors. Yet the conviction persists that there is more than an element of chance to artistic success - not to mention overwhelming odds against you or me winning that particular lottery - undermining the will to work hard and the faith in ourselves that successful realization of our dreams demands.

It's true that opportunity is not equitably distributed throughout the population - and that is a topic for another post - but the lottery assumption goes beyond opportunity. Many people who actually have numerous opportunities to pursue their dreams still fail to recognize opportunity when it knocks. We continue to believe that other people - people who do recognize and answer that knock - are somehow just "luckier" than we are. Most of us turn a blind eye to our chances to do the things we say we would love to do, while telling ourselves that the opportunities we actually ignored just never came along at all. More determined people (who really intend to build a life doing the things that they love) keep an eye out for opportunities and then grab them when they present themselves.

There are lots of reasons why we fail to acknowledge opportunities to pursue our dreams: perhaps we have conflicting dreams and the opportunity means an impossible tradeoff of one cherished dream for another. It's rare that a conflict is so utterly irreconcilable, but it happens. More often, though, our reluctance to commit to a dream may tell us something about ourselves. Although if we pretend the opportunity never existed, we may never figure out what that is while we mourn a dream that we may never have really pursued anyway.

But, I think the biggest reason why we miss opportunities to do work we actually love is because we are socialized to regard enjoyable activities as strictly for leisure, while work is serious business. There is a sense that if we decide to make something we love to do our life's work, that we are somehow...well...goofing off. There is plenty of subtle and not-so subtle societal disapproval to underscore the point, too, so we dream of being able to perform or cook or paint for a living, but we feel a little bit ashamed of ourselves for wanting what essentially sounds like a lifetime of play, when we really ought to be doing more "grown-up" things. We postpone those dreams for some day, never quite formulating a Plan A to make them happen. We give up on our passions at the dreaming stage - decide they are unrealistic and probably we don't have the talent to make it anyway - and move directly on to Plan B. Our culture is more than ready to reinforce that, too.

Meryl Streep's Plan A - Acting
For example, people often say things like "What - do you imagine you'll be the next Meryl Streep?" to young people who express the dream of pursuing a career in acting (or, picking up on the general attitude that performance arts are not serious career options, young people say it to themselves). The unspoken message is loud and clear: performance art is fine for childhood and adolescence, but when it comes to a life plan, get serious! A career in acting is nothing but a pipe dream - a fantasy!

Consequently, the dream never even makes it out of the realm of fantasy to become a Plan A. Feeling naive and foolish for believing that such a childish dream could be made a reality, artistic people all too often default straight to a more acceptable Plan B.

Yet, we rarely hear anyone say things like that to kids who pursue paths that lead to what are perceived as safer, more conventionally solid, high-status careers like law, engineering, medicine or business. Let's take business, for example. No one ever says "What - do you think you're going to be the next Warren Buffet?" to the teenager who announces he is going to pursue a business degree or who hopes to open a small business someday. Unlike the liberal or performing arts, business is regarded as a very sensible course to take. Nobody insists that the only alternative to Buffet-like success is failure or that it is foolish to even consider trying. Why is that?

Out of the millions of people who work in the thousands of business-related occupations, there are very few who achieve the kind of stratospheric success of a Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, and perhaps a few hundred who "live the dream" of merely "great" corporate career success. There are many successful actors, writers and musicians among the thousands of people who work in creative occupations: actually, a person's relative odds of extraordinary success are probably greater in the arts than in business!

Warren Buffet's Plan A - Business
But even more to the point: where does the assumption come from that making it in business (or law, medicine or what have you) is easy - even a given? Have business diploma, will succeed!  Consider the huge numbers of students who flock to business schools. They can't all be passionate about business! And guess what? They're not. Many of these students love other things much more than business, but they've bought into the idea that to be successful (or, rather, to make money which we sometimes mistakenly equate with "success"), they should go into business school. They've shelved Plan A with hardly a whimper and gone to Plan B in the mistaken belief that Plan B will be easier.

They forget that their Plan B is someone else's Plan A.

The biggest pitfall of going with a Plan B is assuming that everyone else who has traveled the same path defaulted to that plan, too. This mistaken assumption is the root of the equally mistaken belief that Plan B will be easier. We see people in solid business careers and we assume: that's the ticket to success! No need to agonize over talent or possible humiliation - it's business!

But virtually every really successful person is working not on a Plan B but on their Plan A. People with no interest or passion for business do not simply walk out of college, diploma in hand and immediately start climbing the corporate ladder.  The people who seem to have effortlessly navigated a dream career have done so only after decades of working their way up through hard work, determination and a little luck. About the only thing that can sustain a person through years of striving at a demanding career is to love what you do. When you love what to do, the work energizes and invigorates you. When you don't, it can drain and depress you.

When you choose something because it seems expedient, rather than because you really want to do it, you actually choose to devote the majority of your one and only life to something you don't care about and don't particularly enjoy. Why would you choose to do that?

Advancing in a field that doesn't excite you is not easy. Aiming higher in a career you really don't love is not easy. Showing up each day at a job you neither care about nor enjoy is not easy at all. It is very hard. Without the passion and excitement we feel when we are working at something we love, it is very hard to find the energy and drive necessary to succeed. Even with a business, medical or law degree success is never easy and certainly not guaranteed.

What should this guy's Plan A have been?
For plenty of young people, these careers are a genuine dream come true, and they are fortunate to be able to convert the sincere desire to do that work into a solid Plan A. They work hard at careers they love, and whether or not they achieve the highest honors in their field, they command respect in society and live satisfying lives, too. Yet, there are doctors and lawyers and business majors who fail because their ambivalence about their work has translated into lackluster job performance. There are Plan B people languishing in dead-end jobs or who are always looking for another job - constantly searching for the right one and rarely succeeding.

It is worthwhile to give some thought to the things we really enjoy doing and try to figure out a way to incorporate those things into a career plan. A career Plan A.  Many of us avoid doing this because we fear the possibility of failure at something we really care about. Yet, by defaulting to a Plan B which ignores our dreams and passions is to guarantee that we will fail to do anything with them.  There are meaningful careers to match any interest known to humankind - if we make the effort to find them.

It is a fact of life that we won't all become CEOs, movie stars or celebrities in our respective fields. Whether or not we end up rivaling Meryl Streep or Warren Buffet, most of us will feel pretty successful if we can enjoy friendships, family, a little fun and the security of a decent job. If that job should also happen to be in a field we really enjoy - if we made a Plan A, stuck to it, worked hard and grabbed our opportunities when they presented themselves - then we will have the satisfaction of spending the best part of our lives doing stuff we love.

And that must feel a little like winning a lottery.

Steve Jobs  1955-2011

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