I’m sure most of you have seen the recent Jim Carrey commencement speech (or at least the shortened clickbait version). If not, here’s the short one:
While it is inspirational and uplifting if we put aside some of the issues of privilege in Carrey’s situation which I’ve been having discussions about with some folks elsewhere, this Salon.com piece, Dear graduates: Don’t follow your dreams (A commencement speech for the mediocre), by Tim Donovan reiterates what I’ve talked about regarding Survivorship Bias in two previous posts. Interestingly, Donovan’s piece isn’t specifically a response to Carrey’s speech as the post was published two days prior to the Maharishi University of Management Graduation.
As Donovan states:
See, commencement speakers are the outliers — the most successful, interesting people that colleges can find — and their experiences are the most inspirational but also the least realistic. Even worse, they tend to be far too willing to dish out the craziest, worst advice, simply because it somehow worked for them. “Follow your dreams” and “live your passions” are insanely unhelpful tips when the bills need paying or the rent is almost due. Invariably, commencement speakers tend to be the lucky few, the ones who followed their dreams and still managed to land on their feet: Most of us won’t become Steve Jobs or Neil Gaiman, regardless of how hard we try or how much passion we might hold. It’s far more likely to get stuck working as a waiter or bartender, or on some other dead-end career path. Most people will have to choose between “doing what they love,” and pursuing the more mundane promise of a stable paycheck and a promising career path. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making the latter choice; in fact, I’d usually recommend it.
And this is simply a restatement of the Survivorship Bias effect. This begs the question of who might be the most appropriate speaker for graduates as Donovan states:
“But for all of those young graduates who look out today and see a limitless horizon of excitement and opportunity, I hate to be the one to say it, but you probably won’t get there. And I’ve often wondered if, perhaps, those of us who ended up waiting tables or working the dead-end office jobs would be better suited to offering real advice to new graduates, advice tailored toward the majority, those who won’t attain the loftiest heights of their dreams — but still must find meaning and value in our imperfect world. And for those people, the rest of us, my advice is quite simple: Stay curious and keep learning.”
The Passion Hypothesis
This is actually in the vein of what Cal Newport has called the Craftsman-Mindset and the phenomenon of the Negative Impact of the Passion Mindset of recent graduates in his research. As Newport states:
To simplify things, I’ll use the “passion hypothesis” to refer to the popular belief that the way to end up loving your career is to first figure out what you’re passionate about, and then pursue it (a strategy often summarized with the pithy phrase, “follow your passion.”) The more I studied this hypothesis, the more I noticed its danger. This idea convinces people that there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.
He illustrated this with an example from another Comedian, Steve Martin:
In a 2007 episode of the Charlie Rose show, Rose was interviewing the actor and comedian Steve Martin about his memoir Born Standing Up. They talked about the realities of Martin’s rise. In the last five minutes of the interview, Rose asks Martin his advice for aspiring performers.
“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ . . . but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ “
In response to Rose’s trademark ambiguous grunt, Martin defended his advice: “If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’ people are going to come to you.”
This is exactly the philosophy that catapulted Martin into stardom. He was only twenty years old when he decided to innovate his act into something too good to be ignored. “Comedy at the time was all setup and punch line . . . the clichéd nightclub comedian, rat-a-tat-tat,” Martin explained to Rose. He thought it could be something more sophisticated. It took Martin, by his own estimation, ten years for his new act to cohere, but when it did, he became a monster success. It’s clear in his telling that there was no real shortcut to his eventual fame, and the compelling life it generated. “[Eventually] you are so experienced [that] there’s a confidence that comes out,” Martin explained. “I think it’s something the audience smells.”
He explains what this means in the context of a Craftsman-Minset and eventually learning to love what you do rather than following what you love.
Martin’s advice, however, offers more than just a strategy for avoiding job uncertainty. The more I studied it, the more convinced I became that it’s a powerful tactic for building a working life that you eventually grow to love. As I’ll explain below, regardless of how you feel about your job right now, adopting the craftsman mindset can be the foundation on which you build a compelling career.
Research shows that the traits that lead people to love their work are general, and can be found in many different career paths. They include things like autonomy, a sense of impact and mastery, creativity, and respect and recognition for your abilities. Once you recognize that these traits have little to do with following a pre-existing passion, and can be cultivated in many different fields, you can safely abandon the myth that there’s a single right job waiting out there for you.
This is not to say that Jim Carrey didn’t have a Craftsman-Mindset which became the solid basis for his career, nor does this say that you can’t also learn to love what you’re passionate about. The problem about the Passion Hypothesis is that far too often, once we see how much work is actually involved in the maintaining of a career, the passion burns out.
As performers, we’d rather be performing no matter what the genre, but few of us have the discipline to put in all the work that’s necessary for building a career. Whether that career is as an orchestral musician, or as a freelancer, or as an ensemble entrepreneur, it all takes work–and for those who can’t (or won’t) learn to love the work, the Passion isn’t be enough to sustain them. Unfortunately for some, the breakout superstars become the model or ideal for what it means to be make it.
Unfortunately, those superstars are often the lucky ones amongst hundreds or thousands of others who have also put in the hard work and who constantly work the trenches of a sustainable career and when we measure against that yardstick, if we can’t learn to love what we do, no amount of Passion will keep you in the running when you can’t become the next Jim Carrey.
What becomes problematic is when these cultural pop superstars become model for how to be successful or relevant in Classical Music, or as a model for change in the Classical Music world. Not only does this ignore the superstars and successful or relevant groups within the field, but it also ignores the non-superstars and legions of “failures” in the pop cultural field who also did many of the same things the superstars have done. This is how the Survivorship Bias effect can be especially pernicious and lead to unrealistic expectations, unsustainable solutions, and most importantly, ignorance of other less publicized successes.