How We Can Be Happy in Our Profession

“Failure doesn’t mean you are a failure; it just means you haven’t succeeded yet.”

-Robert H. Schuller

We often consider our goal in life either to do well at work, or to support our family, or to help others. However, I believe our ultimate goal in life is to be happy. Other things are just ways that we improvise so as to find happiness but they are not the ultimate goal in themselves. Given that our professional lives cover the largest chunk of our time for most of us, finding happiness at work can take us a long way in our quest to find happiness in life.

It all boils down to how we manage three basic things in our life:

  1. Figuring out the right profession
  2. Goal setting and realization
  3. Navigating the inevitable hard times

Figuring Out the Right Profession

Volumes of career advice stress on the importance of discovering one’s passion or what one will be good at. As it turns out, how to discover that passion is a million-dollar question. It is hard to predict someone’s performance ahead of the actual work done, and there is evidence that approaches such as going with one’s instincts and career tests don’t work (Todd 2014). The best approach to make it work is experimenting.

Some well-known figures have found their repute after changing their professions. Charles Darwin, who proposed the theory of evolution, was a geologist early in his career. J.K. Rowling worked as a secretary for a while and was drawing government unemployment benefits while she conceptualized and wrote the Harry Potter series. Albert Einstein was a patent clerk while he published his famous works. A change in profession can open new doors and opportunities provided we get it right.

What Does Not Work?

Predicting job performance is notoriously difficult. Ask any human resource professional to verify the claim. Our instincts, trainings, and experience tests are poor indicators of actual on-the-job success.

Our instincts are honed by experience acquired over multiple trial-and-error experiments. Getting the right mix of spices to achieve a perfect balance while cooking is a perfect example of how our instincts evolve over time. In cooking, what seems to be a difficult task in the beginning becomes easy after a few days. However, unlike cooking, where we take chance with spices every day, significant career decisions in our lives are few and far between and the results take a long time to make a mark. Personal priorities change every few years and so do the economy and the job market. Given the scant amount of trial-and-error data and the ever-changing situation, our instincts are just not well-honed for identifying our dream job.

Points-based training and experience evaluation methods typically award points for relevant training, education, and experience. A formula is then applied to the points to compute a job suitability score. The score is a poor indicator of job performance, as revealed by a famous study conducted by Schmidt and Hunter (1998). There seems to be no correlation between the score and subsequent on-the-job performance.

What Works?

The Schmidt and Hunter study showed that work-sample test is the most promising way to assess job performance. The best predictor for job performance is obtained when one tries to do relevant work to find out whether one is good at it. So if you are evaluating two job options, it will help if you try them out first before taking the actual plunge. Perhaps, you may work on a small project and get your output evaluated by a relevant person. The closer you get to the actual work, the better it helps you in decision-making. If you have the flexibility to be able to take a relevant part-time assignment, that can be a low-risk way of assessing the fit. The examples of J.K. Rowling and Albert Einstein may serve as humble reminders. Rowling cultivated her idea of the Harry Potter series alongside her prior careers as a secretary and as a teacher. Einstein continued his job as a patent clerk during the time and after he published his famous papers. His success with publishing his ideas eventually allowed him to move to academics.

The Schmidt and Hunter study also pointed at structured interviews as a good judge of performance. Hence, appearing for lots of interviews and work opportunity discussions help in determining whether you are suited for a particular profession. When you are trying to evaluate an opportunity, the interviewers, who probably know more about the industry than you do, are trying to evaluate you as well. Therefore, rather than trying to answer the question “Does this career make sense for me?” in your head, you get the benefit of asking more experienced people the same question. The more interviews you face, the more varied and reliable data you get.

Personal Preferences

Our likes and dislikes regarding tasks can certainly help us narrow down subsequent career choices. For example, an important realization might be that you enjoy working with problems on an abstract level versus working on the implementation details. Another one could be whether you like debating and convincing people about your ideas or that frustrates you. These likes and dislikes are acquired over years of daily interactions and are well-suited for instinctive decisions that can help you narrow down career choices.

At the same time, career choices are more about understanding ourselves than about decisions that are right or wrong. Do you have a penchant for running the popular marathon in your city or for finding untouched treks? A number of people are motivated to compete within established rules and win; others want the freedom to define their own rules. The same parallel applies to the workplace. Some people fare better in well-defined corporate jobs that give them a structure and focus. Others prefer the freedom of breaking new ground in open-ended roles or start-ups. An interview with start-up founder Sasha Orloff explains how important it is to recognize our likes and dislikes and choose accordingly. “What I enjoyed doing as a founder was turning a proof to a concept, finding product/market fit and scaling. Now that my company had reached this point of maturation, I was being asked to do something completely different (First Round Review 2019).” He, thus, left to find other interesting opportunities. Sasha Orloff, clearly, does not like working in a mature company that requires patience to navigate through existing corporate and societal structures. On the other hand, Tim Cook, the current CEO of Apple, has made his career at large corporations by focusing on improving their operations. We will do better if we keep our own likes and dislikes in mind than jump to the latest popular role.

Ultimately, rather than thinking about it and trying to reach a decision on our own, it is better to experiment cheaply-prototype-by talking to industry insiders and trying out projects or assignments close to our dream job.

Goal Setting and Realization

Once we decide on a professional goal, how do we ensure that we get there and stay happy while chasing it? One of the time-tested ways is not to focus on the goal but to follow a process that will lead us to the goal.

There are two prerequisites for this to happen:

  1. The goal must be defined in actionable and measurable terms
  2. A deadline must be attached to the goal

Unless the goal is actionable and measurable, there is no way to know when it has been achieved or if you have made progress towards it. With a measurable, time-bound goal, you can unambiguously determine the success and failure of the endeavour that is critical for subsequent improvement. Goal-setting is an iterative process. A few goals won’t be met and only a clear definition of success or failure will prompt critical reflection that will result in achieving subsequent goals.

For example, rather than having a goal to know more about finance, an actionable goal would be to read more finance books. An actionable and  measurable goal is to read six finance books in six months. The first goal of being more informed is fuzzy and is easy to cheat on-will you achieve the goal by watching YouTube videos? What if you read one book over the next three months? What about one book over a year? The goal to read six books in six months is unambiguous. If it is not achieved after six months, you can reflect on the process and figure out the changes necessary to be made to achieve similar goals in the future.

Once you have committed to a measurable, time-bound goal, you can break the goal down into smaller measurable targets. From six books over six months, you can break this down to a book a month. From a book a month, you can break this down to hundred pages a week. From hundred pages a week, you can break this down to twenty pages a day. This will help you to pace it and stay on target. If the target is missed in any week, you know you have to make up for it by reading more in the next week. Lapses get caught and course correction can happen early rather than realizing one day that you have not read a single book since you set the goal.

Once you have broken the goal down to the daily measurable level, you can define your process for it: Say reading twenty pages at home, after work, from 8 pm. And once you have defined the process, you should forget about the bigger picture and focus on sticking to the process.

The benefits of translating a goal into a daily process are manifold:

  1. You can focus on a much smaller goal each day. Your goal each morning has gone down from reading six books in the next six months to reading twenty pages that evening. Smaller goals are easier to focus on.
  2. By achieving the goal every day, you are winning small battles that essentially boost your confidence. This is an important factor and will quickly increase confidence in your ability to achieve the goal.
  3. There is a daily feedback in case of failure and you can reflect on why you were not able to follow the process that day and if any changes are required to be made to the process.
  4. Persistently focusing on the bigger picture can be stressful and counterproductive. For example, the thought of an upcoming interview could be quite scary. But by breaking down the preparation for the interview into measurable goals, setting appropriate milestones, following a daily process, and then not focusing on the interview but the process, we can be happy with our daily progress and also with the knowledge that we did not cut corners.

Most of us would have followed a similar process while preparing for competitive exams. We translated the goal of clearing the entrance exam into measurable goals and milestones (for example, periodic tests and their scoring targets), which we broke down into weekly and daily targets in the last few months. Thinking about an exam’s outcome, understandably, creates stress and we would be better served by focusing our energies on the preparation process. Ironically, no one teaches us to generalize the process for later life when we don’t receive or seek much guidance. We need to recognize that the simple process of focusing on the inputs encourages discipline and reduces stress, and can be generalized for achieving loftier goals.

Navigating the Inevitable Hard Times

It doesn’t matter if you are in a perfect job or have a disciplined routine that allows you to set and achieve goals. Eventually, you will stumble. Life is absurdly random, and it is inevitable that some situations will be favourable and others not so much. The ability to figure out a way through setbacks is a requirement for an eventually successful and happy life. We may stumble but we need to pick ourselves up and persevere. In a 1995 interview, Steve Jobs said “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance (Jobs 1995).” There is no denying that hard work, creativity, and perseverance have their role in success. Society seems to constantly reinforce this message all around us. So there can be a tendency to take failure too critically. Reflecting on our failures should give us ideas for improvement. If such reflection is leading to demoralization, the process in itself is self-defeating. It must be identified early and discarded. We need to quickly get over the sharp pang of failure and view failure constructively, through the lens of logic.

Role of Luck

There are over ninety teams around the world working on a COVID-19 vaccine. One of them might eventually be remembered after ten years as the one that put a stop to the pandemic. Despite all the money, talent, and motivation, there is a large amount of luck involved. “Every attempt to make a vaccine is like a blind trial and error procedure in which you might succeed early in the process and you might not succeed even late in the process,” said David Morens, senior adviser to Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases.

One of the reasons for failing in a situation like closing an interview or a deal can be the lack of a eureka moment that is often required for succeeding in situations that are hard to predict. We often realize our slip in hindsight and berate ourselves for not preparing enough when the truth is that no amount of preparation can help us generate ideas predictably.

Rovio, the company behind the popular Angry Birds game, was valued at 1 billion USD at its IPO in 2017. Angry Birds was one of the most popular mobile games in its day and a massive success. However, the path to success for Rovio was anything but smooth. In the six years before releasing Angry Birds, Rovio had released 51 games without great success. It was on the verge of bankruptcy and had fired most of its staff members. Angry Birds was a hit, though. Was it a much better team that created the 52nd game? Did they have lot more resources to create it? No. The same team which had created 51 duds earlier leveraged the opportunity presented by the iPhone to create a simpler, well-timed game.

Success is not only a combination of hard work and perseverance but also of right timing, right geographic location, right connections, and numerous other factors that are nearly impossible to foresee.

A detailed forty-year-long simulation conducted by an Italian team of researchers looked at the impact of luck and talent on success. They defined talent as not just a skill but broadly as any personal characteristics such as intelligence, skill, creativity, motivation, determination, etc. Their analysis established that success was not proportional to talent and that success was a lot more unevenly distributed. While talent was important for success, luck was even more so (Pluchino, Biondo, and Rapisarda. 2018).

Graph The missing ingredient seems to be luck

Rather than questioning our judgement when we fail, we should

  • reassess our goals and
  • focus on improving our process for achieving the goals,
  • while remembering that our failure can be the result of factors beyond our control.
Is It Too Late for Me Now?

The young entrepreneurial upstart has become a cultural icon in modern times. As technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple have become the most valuable companies in the world, their founders have become role models for millions. Numerous books and articles have been written on Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs. All of them started their companies pretty early in their career; some even dropped out of college to do so. This leads to a lot of importance attached to early choices and a feeling of resignation when we are looking for a change later in our careers. “It is too late for me to do well now” is a feeling that can easily surface when we see that we are already older than the people society idolizes.

However, this feeling is baseless. Research conducted by Dane Stangler at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (Stangler 2009) showed that every year, from 1996 to 2007, Americans aged between fifty-five and sixty-four had a rate of entrepreneurial activity that was higher than that of those aged between twenty and thirty-four. Another research by the Kauffman Foundation showed that “average and median age of key technology company founders was thirty-nine (Wadhwa, Freeman, and Rissing 2008).” It is inspiring to note that Apple launched its most successful product, the iPhone, when Steve Jobs was fifty-two. These are not isolated studies. Several others have reached the same conclusion that age is not a restriction when it comes to start-up successes.

I believe that it takes five years to show results in a career opportunity. Five years to go from joining to having shown promise in a job, five years from founding a start-up to proving that it is scalable and can be profitable. This means that over a span of thirty years of professional life, we get multiple opportunities to chase our dreams. A career is like a stretched out version of college-there are multiple tests along the way, opportunities to explore our interests and to spend time on what we really like doing, and if we fail at any endeavour, there are opportunities to pick ourselves up and make another attempt.

References

First Round Review. 2019. “I Asked 100 Founders, CEOs and VCs About Career Transitions—Here’s What I Learned.” https://firstround.com/review/i-asked-100-founders-ceos-and-vcs-about-career-transitions-heres-what-i-learned/.

Jobs, Steve. 1995. Interview. https://vimeo.com/31813340.

Pluchino, Alessandro, Alessio E. Biondo, and Andrea Rapisarda. 2018. “Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure,” Advances in Complex Systems 21, no. 03n04: 1850014. https://arxiv.org/abs/1802.07068.

Schmidt, Frank L., and  John E. Hunter. 1998. “The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings,” Psychological Bulletin 124, no 2: 262–74. https://web.archive.org/web/20160227075513/http://lab4.psico.unimib.it/nettuno/forum/free_download/articolo_114.pdf.

Stangler, Dane. July 2009. “The Coming Entrepreneurship Boom,” Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. http://www.kauffman.org/what-we-do/research/2009/07/the-coming-entrepreneurship-boom.

Todd, Benjamin. August 2014. “How to find the right career for you,” 80,000 Hours, Last modified April 2017. https://80000hours.org/career-guide/personal-fit/.

Wadhwa, Vivek, Richard Freeman, and Ben Rissing. May 2008. “Education and Tech Entrepreneurship,” Kauffman Foundation Research Report. http://www.kauffman.org/uploadedFiles/Education_Tech_Ent_061108.pdf.

Prateek Agarwal is an entrepreneur who currently manages his high frequency trading company in Hong Kong. Prior to that, he worked at Barclays in Hong Kong in their equity derivatives division. He studied Computer Science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi followed by a Post Graduate Diploma in Management from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He is keenly interested in financial markets and technology. His other interests include playing badminton, fencing, and observational astronomy. He spent his childhood in Lucknow. 

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