What Can I Do When I Grow Up?

14 Dec, 2019 | Book Notes, Career

This is a book primarily aimed at children, but I found it useful nonetheless. It provides some structure to think about the question of what to do for work, by considering both internal reflection (your skills, pleasures, personality) and requirements of the world (economy, wider context).

Occasionally, I found it too liberal in it’s pushing of “helping others” as a core function of work.

Rating - 7/10.

View on School of Life here: What Can I Do When I Grow Up?

You may also want to view my other book notes or see my favourite career resources.


A book about careers, money and the future.

What Can I Do When I Grow Up? is a very difficult question to answer. It’s weird that we think of it as a question for children, when in fact many adults do not have a good answer for it (me as an example!).

In order to answer properly, you need to know a lot about yourself (what you enjoy, what you are good at, what excites you), you should know a lot about the world (what money is, how the economy works, what jobs are available) and then you need to somehow put the two together - fitting what you like to the requirements of the world.

This is the core of the book. It's essentially a two part analysis: first inward looking, what do I enjoy? Second outward looking, where is that useful to other people? Its about being deliberate in the way you think about job suitability.

Interesting that at least part of the problem is a visibility problem. i.e. are you aware of all the available jobs that you might be able to fill?

This will not be a book full of answers, but it should help to appreciate the subtlety and nuance of the question.

Why It’s Hard to Know What to Do

  1. It’s a new kind of question - Before you just did what your parents did. There wasn’t a choice. Only in the contemporary world (last 200 years) did we begin to choose careers.
  2. People want to be happy - Before happiness was less of a consideration. It was about survival and welfare. But now people want joy and meaning in their career.
  3. It’s hard to know what you want - Very few people have a vocation (or calling). It’s not usually like the bible where someone calls down with a clear loud voice. It’s more subtle and we need to invest time in discovering our likes.
  4. We don’t give it enough attention - Don’t study it in school or get training to figure it out.
  5. We don’t see adults do it - As children, adults around us have already got their jobs. So we normally don’t get to see how they figure it out. Not too many books about it.

These are all good points and make sense. As the economy has developed, so have our thoughts about career. We are elevated from questions of surviving to questions of thriving, which are more blurry...

What is a Job?

Most simply, something you get paid for. But this asks the question, why do we pay people? Not just for doing something that is hard or effortful. We do lots of hard things that don’t pay (like raise children or go to school). The reason people get paid is because someone else has a problem which they cannot solve on their own.

Jobs are specifically when we get paid to help people do things they otherwise couldn’t do. We help to solve their problem. If the problem is urgent, painful and few people can solve it, we tend to get paid well.

The framing of jobs as solving problems is useful in two ways: - it extends through to entrepreneurship, so it's one spectrum. - it highlights why school and work is different. In school you are not solving any problems.

Some examples:

  • Laundrette - solves stains
  • Restaurant - solves hunger (and social)
  • Footballers - solves helping your team win

Notice that some problems are less clear or visible.

The difference between a passion and a job is how many people care about it (or is it useful?) and how good you are at it. If your passion is only fun to you, then it can’t be a career. But if your passion (football) is cared for by others (it is) then great. Or if your passion (computers) is useful (it is) then great 1.

This gets to the heart of why "follow your passion" can be bad advice. If your passion is useless, then you'll be great at something no one wants to pay your for. But if your passion is useful, great, you could have a great career. This reminds me of Paul Graham's essay, The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius, where he says: "If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters." The final bit is important, your passion matters.

This also provided some nuance to the main thesis in Cal Newport's Be So Good They Can't Ignore You. Perhaps following a passion is okay if the passion is useful and important? Of course, that me difficult to tell up-front.

Why so many Jobs?

This wasn’t always the case. The economy used to have lots of people doing many things, generalists. But then people realised you could be more efficient if you learned to do one thing very well. Economist Adam Smith developed the theory os Specialisation (or Division of Labour) in his book Wealth of Nations. So jobs became more narrow and specialised and companies became bigger as well.

Funny to think that efficiency and fun are in opposition, but it you can see it. Variety comes at the expense of specialisation and therefore skill.

Why some Jobs are Boring

Because of this specialisation. It means we do only small parts of larger processes. We become efficient, skilled, but also repetitive.

To understand why it’s boring, consider children at play. They tend to do a variety of things, not the same things again and again. So specialisation is efficient, but not interesting. Karl Marx actually noted this. He agreed with Smith’s views of efficiency, but didn’t want us to head there, fo fear of boredom (maybe he was right). Finally, scale of companies also makes things boring. They become slow.

Is this always true? Is variety always more fun? Or do some people take pleasure in going deep on one thing? For example, Patrick Collison said he pretty much went all in on computers. That probably is a more rare example though. I think in general, more people tend toward variety.

So there is a bit of a choice here. Become specialised and most likely earn more money. Or be a bit more generalist and maintain some variety.

Or are there some roles where generalists can get paid better? Perhaps, but my feeling is the route is less clear and it happens later in life. For example, you could argue that founders are generalists, but they are also quite rare...

How do Jobs get Invented?

We’ve already defined jobs as solving problems for money. So as long as humans have problems, we will also have jobs.

Someone who invents new jobs is called an Entrepreneur. Predominantly, they are a problem spotter. They become aware of a problem around them and then help to make a solution. Most businesses that go bankrupt fail because they don’t properly solve a problem.

Interesting framing - an entrepreneur as a problem spotter. So first, become sensitive to peoples problems. Then dig deep on understanding what they really are.

A few ways of doing this. Ask:

  • What big/important problems do others have?
  • What problems do I have?
  • What problems do I care about?

Jobs also evolve over time. We used to focus on body problems (like injury and hunger) but now we focus on mind problems as well.

Good and Bad Jobs

People tend to use money as a way to evaluate if a problem is good or bad. But it’s not as simple as that. We should also look at the problem you help to solve. For example, a teacher doesn’t get paid so much, but they solve a useful problem. A cigarette marketer, may get paid a lot, but doesn’t solve a good problem. So we should try to note this down when we consider and evaluate jobs too.

Why Adverts Matter

Sometimes, we spend money on a sports car, when we should have spent on our health. This is in part because of adverts, which focus your mind on things you want rather than need. Marketers sell you on ideas, which the product may not actually fill. As a society, we should try to better advertise people to spend money on things that will help them (education, gym, psychotherapy).

Bit of an aside... But it does pose an interesting question of how we can better incentivise people to spend more money on things that will help them...

Visible and Invisible Jobs

Some jobs are visible in day to day society e.g. waiter, bus driver. These tend to be B2C jobs. Others are invisible e.g. Investment Banker, Software Engineer. These tend to be B2C.

Why are Jobs paid Differently?

People can work the same hours, just as hard and get paid wildy different amounts. This may feel unfair.

People feel that maybe they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on how much they earn. This is also not true. This can be quite saddening and lead to low self esteem.

The truth is, how much you earn depends on what problem you solve and how well you solve it. It’s a case of demand and supply. On the supply side, how many other people can solve the problem you solve? On the demand side, how many people suffer from the problem you fix?

This is a powerful way to think about jobs. How many people do it? How many people need it? Can I do it better? If few people need it (D-1) and lots of people do it (S1) then the wage for that job will be low (W1). Conversely, if lots of people need it (D1) and few people can do the job (S-1) then the wage for the job will be high (W3).

Job Demand and Supply

Again, what you are paid doesn’t necessarily say anything about the importance of the job. A nurse gets paid far less than a footballer. One mental shift, is to change your perception of money. Rather than a measure of human worth, simply a measure of demand and supply.

How Important is Money?

Most people assume more money is better, but it’s not always the case. First, ask yourself, what does more money get me? Most people would say a nicer time, but actually there are many parts to that (where you go, who you are with, what you did). So it’s important to understand what you value and adjust your life to that.

A good way to think about money is like an ingredient in a meal. It’s an important ingredient, but it doesn’t make a meal on its own. Some other ingredients may be friendship, curiosity, fun, adventure and humour.

Again, this requires some inward looking evaluation - what do you actually value? And does what you value cost money? For example, if you really value books and quiet time, thats not expensive. If you value holidays and sports cars, then maybe you do need more money...

Of course, we all want enough. But then other things should also be considered, like time with family, meaning, enjoyment, etc.

What Makes a Job Enjoyable?

What makes work enjoyable:

  1. How much you get to help people.
  2. Use your skills and abilities - you want to use your full skillset (not have one hand tied behind your back). What we are good at isn’t an accident. It’s because we have talent for it or enjoy it, so we tend to want to do these in our jobs.
  3. Sense of accomplishment/seeing the result.

Thought this was a bit wishy-washy. Should helping people matter in an abstract sense? And what does helping mean? Helping them do their laundry? Or helping them by saving their life? You could argue everything to some degree helps someone.

It’s best to not think of what is a good job in general, but instead think of what a good job is for you. It should be a personal decision to your unique skills, likes and character traits.

What do you Really Enjoy?

Jobs don’t have to be about suffering. They should be fun. So you first need to know what you enjoy, which can be hard.

“You can’t do do well in a job unless you are having fun.”

Really? I'd suggest there are probably people who can succeed in a job and not think of it as fun (at least in the short to mid-term). I think what they are trying to suggest is that it will be easier if you enjoy it and that I can agree with. Similar to Naval's notion that you should focus on what "you consider to be play, but others think of as work" (see Thoughts On Hard Work).

Those done out of love are done better.

Thinking about what gives you pleasure should be important to your work, which is weird as we rarely think about it at school. But its difficult to know exactly what we like…

Some useful exercises:

  • What did you enjoy as a kid?
  • What do you enjoy? Then ask what do you enjoy about those things? Try get into the essence.

The great discovery is to realise those pleasure can exist in more places than you currently know, some even at work. It isn’t that jobs are like games, but under the surface they can appeal in similar ways. For example, the order of organising lego and the order of organising someones accounts.

We don't have to be so literal here. Building in Lego doesn't mean we want to be a builder. Perhaps it means we like imagining how people can live (politician, lobbyist, etc).

Some pleasures to consider:

  • Pleasure of making money - Money as a reward for understanding other people. Sort of like a game where you accumulate.
  • Pleasure of beauty - Enjoy making things attractive, presentable and tidy.
  • Pleasure of creativity - You like creating and changing things around you.
  • Pleasure of understanding - You ask lots of questions. You are surprised when people can’t explain how things actually work. You hate it when someone says “thats just the way it works” without explaining how.
  • Pleasure of self-expression - You like giving your opinion and being noticed.
  • Pleasure of technology - You find interest in how things work and tools.
  • Pleasure of helping - You like rescue scenarios and helping others.
  • Pleasure of leading - You like the responsibility and challenge of putting your ideas into practice.
  • Pleasure of teaching - You want to help people learn.
  • Pleasure of order - You like your homework to be clear and clean. No pencil marks. You are fascinated by the cutlery drawer. You appreciate when things have their place.
  • Pleasure of nature - You like the outdoors and wilderness.
  • Pleasure of independence - You like to be early to follow your projects in peace and quiet. You like being alone and don’t get bored.

Useful Exercise - List things you like (football, stock picking, etc) and try to assign the pleasure you find in it. What patterns do you see?

You can then take these pleasures and think about how they map onto current jobs.

How is School like Work?

Teachers will try to tell you if you so well in school, you do well in life. But thats not always the case. Lets consider some differences:

  • There is always a correct answer - School typically teaches things we already know. Whereas in real work we need to exercise thought and judgement on unknowns.
  • Don’t break the rules - In real work you need to be creative and original.
  • Work should not be fun - In real life it helps if you enjoy your work.
  • People skills don’t matter - In school, you can get by with no friends. In the world of work getting on with people really helps.
  • Learning matters more than teaching - In real work, it also helps to teach those around you and make them better.

School does still teach some useful things; like effort and diligence, organisation, broad core ideas (maths, physics, etc) and punctuality. But you should also be aware of the differences.

Another way that school and work are different, you can't "hack" work like you "hack" school tests. This is an idea extended from Paul Graham's, Lesson to Unlearn. There are no practice exams. There are people and managers who are incentivised to make sure you are actually doing the work, not just looking good at doing the work. (In larger companies it might be possible to "hack" work, which may be why some people dislike it).

Why do People End up in Jobs they don’t Like

Why do people do badly in jobs?

  • Too obedient - You should be prepared to say when something is too much or unreasonable.
  • Too rebellious - Sometimes you will need to submit for whats right for the company.
  • Love of prestige (status, money) - Prestige can lure you into doing something you don’t actually care about.
  • Suggestible by family - Family mean well, but they will normally push what they know and like and not necessarily consider what you like.
  • Too much competition - Some jobs are just too competitive unless you have real talent, like being a singer or footballer.

Role of family - As they know you well, they can mirror back the aspects of the job you think you'll like and marry it with your personality (an idea from Hunter Walk's, You're Probably Asking the Wrong People for Career Advice).

Are these the only reasons? What about simply not yet finding the thing that you really love...As we've said, its hard to know.

How to answer the Question?

You may first consider what you like vs any specific job. You’ll point out work and school are different. You’ll appreciate the nuance, subtlety and complexity.

You may also want to view my other book notes or see my favourite career resources.

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