Should You Follow Your Bliss?

Are you a maximizer or a satisficer?

Posted Oct 22, 2011

In a recent article, Atlantic Monthly Senior Editor Megan McArdle goes out on a limb, sharing her disquiet with Steve Jobs' now oft-quoted 2005 commencement speech. In "Follow Your Bliss-Sort of" she suggests we think twice before quitting our day jobs to pursue high-risk/high-reward work based on the advice of billionaire outliers.

Like the man, the speech is undeniably catchy, inspiring and moving--filled with large gestures and broad, mythic strokes. From his Moses-in-a-basket beginnings, to the 33 years he spent looking in the mirror asking, "If today were the last day of my life..." Jobs had all the narrative markers of a Silicon Valley Savior. Given Pixar's success, it's clear storytelling was among his many gifts. Jobs himself admitted that we can only connect the dots in hindsight.

The problem is how to connect the dots forward. How do you effectively forecast your prospects without relying on the tremendous ‘luck' and prodigious talent of a Steve Jobs. Part of the American Dream is pursuing that which we think will maximize our happiness. Nice as this sounds, in social psychology parlance, maximizers often wind up being unhappier than satisficers. Maximizers seek out the absolute best, while satisficers accept that which passes a certain satisfaction threshold. Maximizers may have objectively superior outcomes, but they're so busy obsessing about all the things that they could have had, they tend to be less happy with the outcomes they do get.

In addition, as McArdle points out, following your bliss fails to take into account the demographic realities that define the vast majority of people's lives. No one wants to be average--at least when they are young. As the years roll by, an average dose of life satistfaction and quiet contentment begins to sounds like a nice alternative to letting an innate drive for status run your life! The truth is that most of us are, if not average, than at least somewhere in Occupy Wallstreet's 99% rather than the 1% trotted out for graduation speeches.

Jobs' narrative had all the makings of a dream once presumed to be widely available to the great American middle, even working class person of merit--humble beginnings, risk mixed with a spot of innovation, hard times and a dash of perserverance and voila a $2 billion dollar company. As he told students that day, "Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees." Given the current state of affairs, it sounds more like a training montage in a Rocky movie than a life story a young person should try to replicate. Don't get me wrong. I love the Steve Jobs of the world, and I love the American Dream--but a more pixelated version might paint a clearer picture. I'm saddened by the reported dissapearance of the Great American Middle Class, but even a grossly muted version of the original seems better than being born into a dictatorial backwater or even a more moderate country with entrenched classes and little chance for growth.

Jobs was a visionary who revolutionized virtually every aspect of modern life. I was truly inspired by him, even his speech--the way I am inspired by the dopamine hit from a good romantic comedy whose message I should leave at the theatre.

As McArdle put it:

"It was great advice...on how to be Steve Jobs...But not everyone has the potential to be Steve Jobs. Not just because most people are rather more ordinary, but because there are a limited number of jobs that are really fun, greatly admired, and fairly well remunerated, which is what most people want."

We also should not forget the admirable but less romantic angle that underlies many a billionaire outliers' success; Jobs was a phenomenal capitalist with a fierce temperament and the drive to match. Energy levels and personality type have to be taken into account when projecting how to best follow your bliss (or at least integrate as much of it as possible into your current life). A conflict-averse introvert is going to burn out pretty quickly in pointy elbow land. This isn't to say you shouldn't go for it, perhaps just partner yourself with an extrovert.

In a nod to the obvious, Jobs was also a man. Women (particularly those who want families) have to take every Great Man speech with a grain of salt--adding ‘before you're 35, 40 tops!' to the end of each sentence. Jobs rounded out the picture of his life with a mention of his family during the speech, but not as something that altered the trajectory of his career, not as something that he began thinking about before he'd even hit his teens, trying to project where he was likely to be at thirty to thirty five in various career trajectories as he picked a college major.

A teaser for the new biography claims that he authorized the book in part so his children, who he had not always been there for, would know him and understand why he did what he did. Perhaps the book will provide a fuller picture of how he managed to ‘do it all,' or give us more angles to consider when we contemplate the costs of following our bliss, not settling, staying foolish and staying hungry.

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