Study Hacks Blog

The Career Craftsman Manifesto

August 11th, 2011 · 82 comments

On Foundational Philosophies

In 2008, I introduced the Zen Valedictorian philosophy, which argued that it’s possible to lead a student life that’s successful and impressive at the same time that it’s low-stress and enjoyable. All my student advice comes back to achieving this goal.

It came to my attention recently that I don’t have a similar clarifying vision for my career advice. If the Zen Valedictorian is the epitome of what I think student life should be, what’s my equivalent abstraction for maximizing life after graduation?

The need for this answer led me to develop the newest entrant to the Study Hacks canon: the Career Craftsman. I introduce this philosophy below in a pithy manifesto format. These ideas are a work in progress, and the propositions that follow mark the start of my exploration of this new direction in my thinking.

A Career Manifesto

Career advice has fallen into a terribly simplistic rut. Figure out what you’re passionate about, then follow that passion: this idea provides the foundation for just about every guide to improving your working life.

The Career Craftsman rejects this reductionist drivel.

The Career Craftsman understands that “follow your passion and all will be happy” is a children’s tale. Most people don’t have pre-existing passions waiting to be unearthed. Happiness requires more than solving a simple matching problem.

The Career Craftsman knows there’s no magical “right job” waiting out there for you. Any number of pursuits can provide the foundation for an engaging life.

The Career Craftsman believes that compelling careers are not courageously pursued or serendipitously discovered, but are instead systematically crafted.

The Career Craftsman believes this process of career crafting always begins with the mastery of something rare and valuable. The traits that define great work (autonomy, creativity, impact, recognition) are rare and valuable themselves, and you need something to offer in return. Put another way: no one owes you a fulfilling job; you have to earn it.

The Career Craftsman believes that mastery is just the first step in crafting work you love. Once you have the leverage of a rare and valuable skill, you need to apply this leverage strategically to make your working life increasingly fulfulling. It is then — and only then — that you should expect a feeling of passion for your work to truly take hold.

The Career Craftsman thinks the idea that “societal expectations” are trying to hold you down in a safe but boring career path is a boogeyman invented to sell eBooks. You don’t need courage to create a cool life. You need the type of valuable skills that let you write your own ticket.

The Career Craftsman never expects to love an entry level job (or to stay in that job long before moving up).

The Career Craftsman thinks “is this my calling?” is a stupid question.

The Career Craftsman is data-driven. Admire someone’s career? Work out exactly how they made it happen. The answers you’ll find will be less romantic but more actionable than you might expect.

The Career Craftsman believes the color of your parachute is irrelevant if you take the time to get good at flying the damn plane in the first place.


Here are some past articles that can help you adopt the Career Craftsman philosophy in your own working life. Expect many more to come:

(Photo by dio5)

On Minecraft and the Launch of Project Remarkable

June 17th, 2011 · 34 comments

The Minecraft Revelation

Markus Persson got me thinking.

Markus is three years older than me, he’s Swedish, and he’s rich. He made his money in an field not usually known for its wealth-generation: indie computer game development.

Markus’ story starts in 2009, when he quit his job as a game programmer for to build Minecraft, a java-based world building, zombie fighting, mine digging sandbox game. (You probably have to see it to understand to it.)

People, it turns out, really like Minecraft. In January of this year, Markus sold his millionth copy. Earlier this month, sales passed the 2.5 million copy mark. Markus has made somewhere between $30 – 40 million dollars on the project.

Here’s what troubled me about the Markus Persson story. On Study Hacks, I’ve been promoting the idea that you have to be good at what you do before you can expect your job to be good to you. This is why I push myself and others to stop worrying about their “passion” and day dreaming about courageously bucking the status quo. Navel-gazing and conformity-defiance, I argue, is not how people end up loving what they do. Instead, they start by getting good at something rare and valuable, and then leverage this “career capital” to construct — not discover — a fantastic career.

Markus seemed like a good case study of this philosophy. Before he could develop Minecraft, he had to become excellent at game development. Not surprisingly, it turns out he started programming at the age of eight and then after college worked for a half-decade at a game company to further hone is skills.

But here’s the problem: lots of other people are also really good at programming and also build indie games, but are nowhere near as successful at Markus. The implication here is one that I’ve been encountering time and again, in many different settings, and I realize I can’t ignore it any longer: Becoming “so good they can’t ignore you” is a pre-requisite for building a remarkable life, but it’s not necessarily the whole story.

Once you have acquired career capital, you still have to figure out what to do with it, and the best strategies here — the strategies that separate the Markus Perssons from the hordes of other talented game programmers — are not obvious.

Project Remarkable

I want to explore these non-obvious strategies. In other words, I’m going to assume that my Rethinking Passion series has throughly convinced you that “follow your passion” is bad advice and that you must instead start by becoming good at something. Now it’s time to figure out what comes next.

Here’s my plan: I’m going to use myself as the guinea pig. As I start my new job as a professor, I have a base of rare and valuable abilities to draw on, in that I’m relatively adept at producing cutting-edge research in my field. But so are lots of other young professors. The question, then, is how can I most productively leverage this capital to stand out from the crowd and nudge my career in a more remarkable direction.

Over the next few months, I’ll use my Lab Notes series to report on the efforts I’m deploying. But in the meantime, I want to learn from you. If you’ve found success leveraging hard-earned ability to take control of your life and move it in a remarkable direction, chime in on the comments and share what you’ve learned.

That is, if you can tear yourself away for a few minutes from the sweet new tower you’re building in Minecraft.

(Photo of Markus Persson and his newly formed development company by paulamarttila.)

Is It Possible to Feel Passionate About Being a Tax Consultant?

April 4th, 2011 · 38 comments

The (Lack of) Passion of the Tax Consultant

In the summer of 2008, I met John, a rising senior at an Ivy League college. He was worried about his impending graduation.

“What advice can you give to a student who wants to live more spontaneously?”, he asked. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but was clear about his “dreams to do something big.”

I gave John some advice, mainly centered around lifestyle-centric career planning, and then we went our separate ways.

That is, until two weeks ago, when John sent me a note.

“Well, I ignored your advice at my peril,” he began. John had taken a job as a corporate tax consultant. Though he found the work to be “sometimes interesting,” the hours were long and the tasks were fiercely prescribed, making it difficult to stand out.

“Aside from not liking the lifestyle”, John complained, “I’m concerned that my work doesn’t serve a larger purpose and, in fact, hurts the most vulernable.”

Longtime Study Hacks readers are familiar with my unconventional stance on finding work you love. I don’t believe in “following your passion.” In most cases, I argue, passion for what you do follows mastery — not from matching a job to a pre-existing calling.

John’s story, however, strains this philosophy. It poses a question that I’ve been asked many times before: can I generate a passion for any job?

In other words, is there a way for John to grow to love being a corporate tax consultant?

Here was my answer: probably not.

Read more »

Zen and the Art of Investment Banking: When Working Right is More Important than Finding the Right Work

February 14th, 2011 · 59 comments

The Seeker

During the summer of 1998, Thomas was working an entry level position in the IT department of a large London investment bank, his days filled with data entry and the occasional light secretarial work. It wasn’t a terrible job, but it wasn’t great either. “I was constantly unhappy,” Thomas recalls, looking back at this period.

The most recent crop of lifestyle advice literature offers a clear directive to 1998 Thomas: Follow your passion to something better!

“It’s worse to tolerate your job than to hate it because, if the pain is painful enough, you’ll make a change,” Tim Ferriss explained in a recent interview with 37 Signals. “But if it’s tolerable mediocrity, and you’re like, ‘Well, you know it could be worse. At least I’m getting paid.’ Then you wind up in a job that is slowly killing your soul.”

According to this philosophy, Thomas needs to escape the tolerable mediocrity of his banker job before it becomes too late. But here’s the thing, Thomas had already tried that — quite a few times actually — and it hadn’t seemed to solve his problems.

Years earlier, right after college, a young Thomas, who was terrified of becoming a Dockers-clad cubicle jockey, followed a “passion” for cycling and quickly moved up the sport’s ranks to join a professional team. He had a tendency to overtrain, however, and admidst the physical grind of professional-level athletics, his mind turned toward greener pastures.

Quitting cycling, he entered academia, earning two graduate degrees, before discovering that his research was too mainstream to be interesting.

Wanting to try something more reflective and less demanding, he tried traveling to Korea to teach English. But even the lush exoticism of East Asia couldn’t dampen his sense that he was destined for something better.

“Every job I did paled in comparison to some magical future passion-fulfilling occupation,” he recalls.

Needing to pay his bills, he moved back to London, took the entry level Banker position, and remained unhappy.

If stopped here, Thomas’ story would be a cautionary tale of the soul-sapping repressiveness of the working world. But it didn’t stop here. Nine months into his job at the bank, Thomas did something completely unexpected; something that would change his life, but not at all in the way he assumed:

He dropped everything and moved to a Zen monastery, tucked into the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, where he would spend the next two years…

Read more »

The Pre-Med and Ira Glass: Complicated Career Advice from Compelling People

November 12th, 2010 · 61 comments

The Tragic Mistake

Not long into their interview with public radio host Ira Glass, one of the three college-aged interviewers, a young girl, asks, with a desperate smile etched on her face, how to decide “which of her passions” to pursue.

“Like how do you determine, how…”, she begins.

“How do you figure out what you want?”, Glass interrupts.

“How do you not only figure out what you want, but know that you’ll be good at it?”, she finishes.

There’s a pause. In this moment, when Glass prepares his answer, the young girl’s earlier admission that she’s a pre-med, and doubting her decision to attend med school, hangs in the air. Glass can relate: he too had been considering med school when he stumbled into his first radio internship, after his freshman year of college.

He proceeds cautiously, softly: “Honestly, even the stuff you want you’re not necessarily good at right away…I started working at 19 at the network level, and from that point it took me years. The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come. That’s the hardest phase.”

One of the other interviewers, a young man in a baseball cap, interjects: “Do you think hard work can make you talented?”

“Yes. I do.”

The students let this sink in.

“In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream,” Glass continues. “But I don’t believe that.”

By the students’ reactions, this is not what they expected to hear.

“Things happen in stages. I was a terrible reporter, but I was perfectly good at other parts of working in radio: I am a good editor…I feel like your problem is that you’re trying to judge all things in the abstract before you do them.”

A beat.

“That’s your tragic mistake.”

The Roadtrip Nation Revelation

This interview is one of many conducted by the non-profit organization Roadtrip Nation, which sends students across the country to interview “eclectic individuals who have resisted pressures to conform.” They seek advice for building an interesting path through life.

If you explore the full Roadtrip Nation video archive, as I did one recent weekend, you begin to appreciate the nuance and serendipity behind these compelling people and their compelling careers. Amidst this nuance, however, one conclusion is stark: the canonical advice to follow your passion is way too simplistic. As with Glass’s story of toiling for years before finally discovering a niche in radio editing, many of the interviews echo this same theme that passion is not something you discover in a career center.

Its source is more complicated…

Read more »

The Passion Trap: How the Search for Your Life’s Work is Making Your Working Life Miserable

October 16th, 2010 · 122 comments

The Priest and the Parachute

It began with a joke.

In 1968, Richard Bolles, an Episcopal priest from San Francisco, was in a meeting when someone complained about colleagues “bailing out” of a troubled organization. To remind the group to return to this topic, Bolles jotted a clever phrase on the blackboard:  “What color is your parachute?”

The line got a laugh, but as Bolles recalls in a 1999 interview with Fast Company, “I had no idea it would take on all this additional meaning.”

Two years later, Bolles lost his job as a priest and was shuffled into an administrative position in the Episcopal Church, advising campus ministers, many of whom were also in danger of losing their jobs. Noticing a lack of good advice on the topic, Bolles self-published a 168-page guide to navigating career changes, which he handed out for free. Looking for a catchy title, he re-purposed his blackboard one-liner. The initial print run was one hundred copies.

The premise of Bolles’ guide sounds self-evident to the modern ear: “[figure] out what you like to do…and then find a place that needs people like you.” But in 1970, this concept was a radical notion.

“[At the time], the idea of doing a lot of pen-and paper exercises in order to take control of your own career was regarded as a dilettante’s exercise,” Bolles recalls. It was also, however, a period of extreme workplace transition as the post-war industrial economy crumbled before an ascendant knowledge work sector. Uncertain employees craved guidance, and Bolles’ optimistic strategies resonated. The book that began with an one hundred copy print run and a clever name has since become one of the bestselling titles of the century, with over 6 million copies in print.

This story is important because it emphasizes that one of the most universal and powerful ideas in modern society, that the key to workplace happiness is to follow your passion, has a surprisingly humble origin. What began as a quip jotted down on a blackboard grew into the core principle guiding our thinking about work. “What color is my parachute?”, we now ask, confident that answering this question holds the answer to The Good Life.

But when we recognize that this strategy is not self-evident — and in fact not even all that old — we can begin to question whether or not it’s actually right.

And when we do, it’s dismaying what we find…

Read more »

The Romantic Scholar: A New Approach to Student Life

September 24th, 2010 · 36 comments

The Age of Wonder

Around midnight, on March 13, 1781, William Herschel, an amateur astronomer from the West Country of England, was surveying the northern sky with a custom-built reflector telescope. As the Gemini constellation slid into view he noticed a new object moving slowly across the foreground. On a lesser telescope, the object would probably be dismissed as a new comet — one of the hundreds being discovered at the time.  But the precision of Herschel’s five-inch, hand-polished reflector mirror was unmatched in England, if not the world, allowing him to note the absence of a comet’s distinctive tail.

This was something different.

If you review Herschel’s journal entries from this period you’ll notice that he’s no stranger to hard work. On most nights, during the good winter observation months, his notes begin around 7 pm and end near dawn. He repeated this laborious work, night after night, year after year, systematically mapping the northern sky. As Richard Holmes details in The Age of Wonder, his epic survey of the Romantic Era of science, Herschel enjoyed these labors. In a letter written to the Royal Astronomer, Nivel Maskelyne, for example, Herschel excuses his sometimes unrestrained excitement, saying it “may perhaps be ascribed to a certain Enthusiasm which an observer…can hardly divest himself of when he sees such Wonders before him.”

The attraction of these “Wonders” is made clear by the events that followed that long March night. Though it required another nine nights of careful observation before Herschel made his first “tentative communications” regarding the new object, and several months to receive confirmation from other astronomers,  its importance had long before become obvious. Herschel had discovered Uranus — the first new planet since the age of Ptolemy; an event, as Holmes puts it, that would “[change] not only the solar system, but [revolutionize] the way men of science thought about its stability and creation.”

The Romantic in the Classroom

Herschel was a man of the Romantic Era, a period spanning from the mid 18th century into the early decades of the 19th. The scientists of this era recast their work from an exercise in cold rationality to an aesthetic experience. They reveled in the difficult work of teasing truth out of a reclusive Nature, and experienced frequent moments of awe.

As a young scientist myself, this era is appealing for obvious reasons. More surprising, however, is its relevance to my role as writer of student advice. I claim that we can draw from the ethos of these Romantic Scholars a new approach to student life: one that can transform your education experience — high school through graduate school — from a trial to survive into the foundation of a life well-lived.

Read more »

A Major Newspaper is Looking for Student, Parents, and Professors to Interview About Getting Into Hard Courses

September 20th, 2010 · 4 comments

Quick Note…

I just spoke with a reporter from a major national newspaper. She needs interview subjects for an article she’s writing on college. Specifically, she’s looking for…

  • students at selective colleges who have had a hard time getting into a popular course (or found an innovative way to get in);
  • parents of students who are frustrated that their tuition money does not necessarily gain their student access to all of a university’s resources; and
  • professors with a strong stance on whether this is good or bad.

If you’re willing to be interviewed, send me a short e-mail explaining who you are and where you go to school (or where your child goes to school, or where you teach). If possible, put “[Interview Request]” in the subject so I can notice your message. I’ll forward them on to the reporter.


In other news…

I published an interesting guest post over on Ramit Sethi’s blog; it discusses the danger of “getting started.” It fits in well with our recent discussion on rethinking passion.

You can expect my next post on Friday (God willing): it has to do with specific advice for transforming your student life from a trial to survice into the foundation for a life well lived.

Stay tuned…