Showing posts with label Life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Life. Show all posts

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

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Thoughts On The Fork In The Road

Follow your dreams! (but have a back-up plan) 
Shoot for the stars! (but in a practical way) 
You can do anything! (but be sensible) 
Blah blah blah...

Do these phrases sound familiar, NiftyReaders? No? Call up one of your friends or a trusted family member and tell them you are at a crossroads in life. You should start hearing some version of them in 3..2..1...

We have all heard these earnestly well-intended words of encouragement wrapped up in thin - yet unintentionally soul-crushing - wet blankets of "buts". Admit it. Most of us have thrown them over loved ones, too. I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I have struggled to offer encouragement and useful advice to the nifty offspring.

Crossroads? Forget crossroads. It can be a nightmare 
of equally unappealing "paths" out there!
If this is what your "choices" look like, 
maybe the path you want and need is not there. 
Blaze your own trail!
It seems there are two main schools of thought on giving advice about making life choices. The conservative way - the way parents, in particular, have guided their offspring for thousands of years - is to lay out the life map for other people and basically tell them there are no choices; this is your path. The liberal way - the way more parents have embraced as greater respect and understanding of the psychological component of individual rights grew in society - is to encourage people to follow their bliss and pursue their dreams with little or no outside direction at all: only you can figure out your path.

There is a middle ground, but unfortunately it may be worse than both extremes. It is the mixed message contained in the phrases posted above. At least with the conservative approach, kids have a plan. At least with the liberal approach, kids are utterly free to make (or fail to make) their own plans. The middle approach gives a not-quite-convincing thumbs up to "follow your bliss" with an undercurrent of "but this is what your path should be".

I don't know how young adults stand it. They hear these conflicting messages ad nauseum as they make their way through school and the confusion chorus only intensifies when they arrive at the intersection of high school graduation and the rest of my life™. It rises to a crescendo as they enter their twenties still not quite sure what they are doing - or what they want to do - with their lives. We urge kids to dream big. We tell them they can be anything, do anything with their lives. Then, when they approach adulthood, we begin to temper the soaring reach for the top rhetoric with an endless refrain of cautions which grows louder every year. 

"Sure," we tell Jordan who dreams of becoming a cordon bleu chef, "you can do that. But make sure you have a fallback plan because restaurants fail all the time! Why don't you earn a diploma in business, first? That way you'll be able to run that restaurant successfully"

"That's an awesome dream!" we enthuse to Mary, the aspiring J K Rowling, "you can definitely make it as a writer - some day - but publishing is a tough business. How about getting a teaching degree as a back-up?"

"But you are smart enough to be a lawyer!" we exclaim to Peter, who loves history and wants to be a teacher, "why don't you go to law school and if that doesn't work out, then you can always teach!"

There is somehow a needling sliver of doubt in these encouragements. The suggestion of a back-up plan implies that the advisor lacks faith in the advisee's ability and talent for the dream plan. Sometimes the kid lacks faith in herself, thus never articulating a dream plan, so eager parents swoop in to suggest possible life paths that seem like a great idea to them.

And so, the young people study hard and earn qualifications in these sensible fields. And then, after having invested so much time and effort into those studies, naturally the kids find work in those fields (waste that expensive education? I think not! There may be loans to pay off, too) and before they know it, twenty years have flown by. Instead of becoming a chef, Jordan spends his working years bean-counting for someone else's restaurant business. Instead of writing her latest novel, Mary burns the midnight oil reading painfully bad 8th grade essays and wondering where all of her creative ideas went. Instead of settling happily into academic life, Peter miserably works filing briefs in the legal department for an insurance company. They all have great jobs. They have all succeeded. They are all miserable.

There are more than two possible
When did we develop the insane idea that we are encouraging our kids by advising them to shelve their most precious talents and do something else? I am not saying we don't encourage the dreams and aspirations of our loved ones - we do! - but too often that encouragement is the spoonful of honey with which we deliver the bitter little pill of our perceived reality: that life is unfair and it rarely turns out exactly as we had hoped so it is wiser to go for what conventional wisdom tells us is a safer bet. Already worrying (as everyone does) that they may be ridiculously overestimating their natural talents and fearing the humiliating possibility that they might fail if they pursue the thing that makes everyone around them suggest a back-up plan "just in case", most kids convince themselves that the back-up plan makes more sense anyway. Meanwhile, everyone ridiculously underestimates the talent and effort required to succeed at the back-up plan, too. Because our own self-worth is not hitched to the back-up plan, we think that plan will be easier and success guaranteed. 

I've got news for everybody: your plan b is someone else's plan a. 

And, here's the thing: We can go down what seems like the safer path (the so-called "back-up" plan, later known as "my one and only life") or we can go all-in on the riskier one (the one that requires us to take a chance on our talents and dreams). No matter which way we go, both good and bad stuff will still happen! Yes, life is unfair and yes, unexpected things always happen. Plans nearly always have to be modified to accommodate life events. Detours have to be taken. Sometimes we just come to a total dead end. This is true of life whether we take the "safe" route or the "risky" one. What we fail to see is that our lives will most definitely never turn out even close to what we had hoped they would when we were enthusiastic youngsters if we spend most of our productive years working on the back-up plan instead of working toward an actual dream!

"There's no reason to have a plan b
 because it distracts from plan a."

The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who are trying to do things. Talent you have naturally; skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft. 

I've never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic. You know, while the other guy is sleeping - I'm working. While the other guy is eating - I'm working. There's no easy way around it; no matter how talented you are, your talent is going to fail you if you're not skilled.

What is the classic "mid-life crisis" if not the belated realisation that we have spent more than half of our lives honing our skill at something we thought was the practical, sensible, sure thing while we waited for the perfect time to present itself for us to pursue the activities that actually make us feel alive? The truth is that there is no perfect time, and if we keep waiting for that, we will die still waiting.

That perfect day never comes. We have to work with what we have to work with.

Ironically, the time is never perfect for the "safety" career either, but we don't let that stop us. We are ambivalent and unenthusiastic and yet somehow we believe it is the wiser choice so we work hard to make ourselves do it and do it well. Because we are not emotionally invested in the back-up plan as we are with the things that we actually care about, we simply forge ahead with grim determination to succeed, dammit, so we can earn a living and vacation time in which to squeeze our true passions.

Why can't we skip the safety career and just put all that persistent effort into the things we really want to do?

When we attempt to cover our bases with a "backup plan", what we wind up doing is choosing that back up plan by default, instead of choosing our real dreams. Except for the fear of finding out we stink at the thing we so dearly want to be great at, the risks of pursuing a dream are no greater than the risks of pursuing a "safer" course. The real risk is that if you choose something you don't care about, you will get exactly that - a lifetime of work at something you don't care about. 

American pastor Robert Schuller famously posed this question: What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail? I think the question should be even more urgently phrased: What would you attempt if you knew you only had one chance to try? Do that thing now. Give it all of your energy and all of your effort. Because in a very real sense, you may only get one chance to really try. One thing leads to another and life gets complicated.

Yes! Put all of your eggs in that basket. Your life probably will not turn out as you imagine it today - life just doesn't follow a script like that - but it may turn out better than you dreamed! No matter how things turn out, you will come nearer to realizing your dreams than you ever could by pouring your energy into a back-up life.