I tend to like “life advice”. Whether it’s an article describing someone’s insight, a good graduation address or a book with general strategies for common issues I’m usually intrigued. At the same time, I have contempt for quite a bit of “self help” and have written damning reviews of books like “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”.
A few books along these lines that I’ve read and quite enjoyed are Succeeding by John T. Reed, So Good They Can’t Ignore You (affiliate link) by Cal Newport and Scott Adam’s How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (affiliate link). I’m always a bit embarrassed to mention this sort of book, or recommend them to a friend, as they all have the self-helpy vibe to them. I think there’s something fundamentally different about these however. They’re really thinking about meta-cognitive issues: thinking about thinking. These are often the best things you can learn about, as they impact how you learn and approach everything else in your life.
Qualities to Look for in Your Occupation
A number of these works reference a few high impact psychological studies. Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice and the 10,000 hour rule has been getting a fair bit of buzz in recent years. A number of these works also build on self-determination theory (SDT), work the psychologist Edward Deci did in the 1970s. He examined how satisfied people were with the work they did, and what underlying characteristics affected this satisfaction. He was able to distill this to 3 core characteristics that satisfying work possesses.
Competence (or Mastery)
The idea behind this is that the work being done allows the person to improve at it. This means it will involve one or more skills that can either be continually improved, or it has a wide variety of skills that can be developed.
This will be a spectrum, from jobs where the work is straightforward and you learn how to do it on your first day and keep repeating the same thing until you retire (like screwing caps on toothpaste tubes), through to jobs where every activity you do is novel and requires new skills constantly (like the president or prime-minster of a country or CEOs).
Relatedness (or Meaning)
This refers to whether your occupation helps people and makes the world a better place or if it doesn’t. Consider on one hand, jobs like being a fire fighter or social worker and compare that to jobs like working for a hedge fund or selling time shares. Typically jobs that have you helping people will be more satisfying than jobs where you’re just out for yourself.
Autonomy refers to the latitude the worker is given for HOW they do their job. At one end is being micro-managed (or operating a franchise), where HOW and WHEN the worker does anything is prescribed. At the other end is the ability of the worker to set priorities and goals and determine how they will be pursued.
At the end of the day, even working set hours (such as 9-5) are clearly less autonomy than being able to set your own hours. Other than the self-employed, there aren’t a ton of occupations where you’re given that degree of latitude. Being a professor is actually one of them. One of my thesis committee members joked once that as a professor he can work any 80 hours a week he wants. For myself, class, office hours and departmental meetings were the only “set” times I was required to be in a place working, everything else was left to my discretion how and when to do it.
Can You Get It All?
While it may be desirable, clearly everyone can’t have an occupation that maxes out all three of these characteristics. This theory doesn’t say you shouldn’t work a job if it has set hours, however if you’ve experienced general dissatisfaction with your career or are trying to decide between two paths forward, these are worthwhile characteristics to consider.
It’s probably also worth considering which of the 3 are most important to you. Personally, I would probably sacrifice meaning before I’d accept a position with low competency or autonomy.
How does your current job rank in terms of competence, relatedness and autonomy? Do you find this a useful model for thinking about career decisions?