Career change is a perennial interest to many people, me included. I’ve made a number of career transitions in my time, and seen plenty of other people try switching careers, sometimes with astonishing success, other times with depressing outcomes. Over the years I’ve pondered such things a good deal, talked to others, and read a bunch about it. In this post I’m going to attempt a brain dump of my thoughts and findings on the topic.
Before we get into all that, you might wonder what the heck such a post is doing on this blog, which is supposedly about play. Well, the answer to that is in three parts…
- The topic, while always fascinating and often in the air, was brought to mind by the latest Beyond Bossfights podcast. Braxwolf seems to be considering a career change, and seems to be looking to base his new direction on some hobby or interest.
One angle I want to talk about in this post is whether and when it’s a good idea to look for careers based on things you love, as Brax seems to have in mind.
Another theme is going to be: What makes work work, and play play? Is turning your playtime activities into work going to take all the fun out of them? Conversely, can you turn something that is “just work” into something actually enjoyable?
Follow Your Passion?
In the past you used to pretty often hear advice to follow your passion, do what you love, and epigrams such as “If you get a job doing what you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life”. Such sayings have become a lot thinner on the ground since the global economic crisis hit a few years back, and nowadays people tend to be pretty cynical about such ideas.
What do I personally think of this nowadays? Well this is a brain dump, which means it is not going to progress in a nice linear fashion with well structured points! So before I answer that we’re going to make a little detour into economics.
On supply and demand
If you ever took an economics class and didn’t doze off, you heard about supply and demand. If you never did any such thing, that is possibly unfortunate for you because unlike a lot of things you learn in school it’s actually pretty useful for making good life choices.
Long story short…
- Demand – The more people want a thing, the more badly they want it, the greater the quantity of it they want, the more money they have available to spend, the higher the price of that thing will be
Supply – The more people are offering to sell a thing, the more of it they have to sell, the greater their desire to sell, the lower the price of that thing will be
Where the pushes and pulls between supply and demand even out, that’s where the price for said thing ends up
When we are talking about careers, the “thing” in question is your work, and the “price” is what you get paid for doing it.
When passion doesn’t pay
One upshot of all this is that something that a lot of people enjoy, and a lot of people would love to do for a living, is likely to be something that is going to be relatively low paid.
Let’s think about acting for a moment. We know big name stars make a lot of money, but what about actors generally? Well, in the first place it’s remarkably hard to actually get a job, because lots of people want to act, and plenty are good enough to do it too. Second, even if you can get to do it professionally at all, for the most part the pay is pretty bad, and working life is very insecure.
The same kind of thing applies to the majority of fiction writers, to sports people and even things like college research jobs. It’s also why a career as a game developer is often not such a bed of roses, comparatively.
Good news for geeks!?
But plenty of people reading this site are going to be in luck. If you have a passion for something that is in big demand, and which relatively few people are able or willing to do, it should pay well. This applies to many tech fields at the moment, and likely to for a long time to come.
There’s many times when following your passion is a very good plan indeed, whereas what might seem like “playing it safe” is not such a good idea. Sometimes people ask “Should I focus on this niche skill which I love, or go for something mainstream where all the jobs seem to be?” It turns out that with niche skills, frequently while there may be relatively few jobs going (demand!) the number of people who can do them is even smaller still (supply!). So paradoxically it’s often easier to gets jobs in a niche you love than in something less interesting.
Scalability, the Double-Edged Sword
“But wait a minute,” some of you are thinking. “What about those actors and writers and sportspeople and YouTubers that do make it big. Maybe I can make it big too in my field of choice?”
Maybe you can indeed, and far be it for me to pour cold water on such notions.
But let’s talk some about “scalability” first. Some activities are “scalable” in the sense that the same amount of work by you can be pretty easily scaled up to serve or benefit a large number of people. Other activities are not scalable in this sense, and some are in-between-ish. Let’s think about some examples:
- You are a fantastic cook, and you make the most amazing meals. For better or worse however you can only feed so many people in a given day, so what you can earn in a given day has an upper limit of what can be made from providing that number of meals, more or less.
You are a fantastic actor, and you make the most amazing movies. Well, now your day’s work can be enjoyed by millions, or even billions of people. No wonder you can earn astronomically more, potentially, than the incredible cook can.
You’re a brilliant surgeon, and you save lives every day. However you can only do a few operations per day, and though you will most likely be very well rewarded for your work, you’ll never be in the movie star league.
So, clearly scalability is a wonderful thing? Well, no.
The flip side of scalability is that the world doesn’t need many movie stars. One movie star can entertain hundreds of millions, so the entire population can have their movie-watching needs largely fulfilled by a handful of actors. Whereas the population needs legions of cooks to make enough meals for their special nights out, and a pretty hefty numbers of surgeons to be available to operate on them in their hour of need.
High scalability necessarily means there are very few jobs in the field. It means it’s extraordinarily hard to become one of the few who really makes it, that most of the people in the field are actually pretty low paid, and that most of people who badly want to get into the field work their socks off, bang their head against the brick wall time and again, and eventually give up and do something more commonplace instead.
You have of course heard the stories of people who suffered failure after failure, almost gave up, but didn’t and finally got their break. So, that means if you just want it bad enough, and never give up, you will eventually succeed right?
Unfortunately that reasoning is flawed. Yes, most all the people that made it were very talented, passionate, persistent and got a break somewhere along the line. The bar is so high that all that is a requirement. However there were countless equally talented, passionate and persistent people who never did make it, and we don’t get to hear their stories of trying, trying, trying but never succeeding, because they’re nobody famous.
As logicians like to say “It’s necessary, but not sufficient”. Everyone that won the lottery bought a ticket, but that doesn’t mean buying a ticket will make you a winner.
Never say never!
Yet there are still circumstances in which I’d encourage people to “Go for it” if they want to get into such a field. Some of those factors are…
- They can afford to fail. Maybe they’re young, and if it doesn’t work out, still plenty of time to do something else. Or maybe their spouse’s income is enough to pay all the bills, and it’s not going to be disastrous if the dream doesn’t pan out.
It’s a field where the experience is valuable even if you don’t make it to the big time. If you throw yourself into some tech startup idea, the chances of it turning out to be another Google are pretty remote. But even it goes nowhere at all, that experience will still help get you a good job.
You are extraordinarily good, and it’s not just you and your mother that thinks so. If for instance your sports coach says you’re the best he’s seen in his whole life, it could well be worth taking a shot at that pro career.
Putting it all together
Where does all this leave us?
I think passions and enthusiasms are an important indicator of what you might be able to succeed in. Apart from anything else, major life changes take a lot of time and effort and come with plenty of setbacks along the way. If you weren’t highly motivated in the first place, you wouldn’t be able to stick the course anyway, so things that you are highly motivated by are at least worth sizing up for their potential.
But as well as yourself, you need to consider the world at large. How much demand is there for what you’re thinking of doing? How much competition is there? Given the level of competition, just how good would you need to be to have a hope in hell of being successful?
Given some pragmatism and creativity, ideas based on enthusiasms can often be tweaked this way and that and finally turned into something workable.
To be continued…
Since the post is already over 1500 words, and I haven’t got to most of the topics mentioned at the beginning, I think it’s probably best to make this Part 1, and continue another time.
Top photo by Przemek Jahr via Wikimedia