The Case For Jobsian Megalomania

Reported by Timothy B. Lee, Forbes
Monday, October 10, 2011
Topics in this article:
Apple, Steve Jobs

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Robin Hanson, Megan McArdle, and Will Wilkinson all think Steve Jobs gave bad advice to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford University. They think Jobs’s advice to follow your heart and “never settle” on a career you don’t love had more to do with Jobs’s own extraordinary talent and good fortune than the circumstances of the average person. I think they’re right that Jobs’s advice isn’t good advice for everyone, but it’s a message that unusually-talented 22-year-olds ought to hear.

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This topic inevitably descends into navel-gazing, and this post will be no exception. I went to a fairly ordinary state university—the University of Minnesota—and studied computer science. If you’d asked me about my career plans at age 20, I wouldn’t have even mentioned journalism or public policy as possibilities. But I was an obsessive kid. I got hooked on politics during high school, and spent a ton of free time in college reading (mostly libertarian) books about public policy. I helped organize a campus libertarian club, sent more than a dozen letters to the editor of the school paper, and spent a ton of time arguing about politics on Internet forums.

I graduated and got a job as a computer programmer. After about a year of full-time work, one of my Internet friends left his entry-level job at Cato, and encouraged me to apply to be his successor. I’d never really considered working at a think tank, but it sounded like a fun time and I didn’t have anything holding me in Minnesota. And as it turned out, my years of obsessive interest in public policy and libertarian politics made me a strong candidate for the job, which required someone who was both a decent writer and well-familiar with the libertarian canon.

I was offered the job, and so I took a big pay cut and moved to DC. I started meeting 20-somethings with dramatically different personalities and ambitions than the people I knew in Minnesota.I was suddenly surrounded with people who not only aspired to that kind of career, but in some cases almost took it for granted that they’d be famous in a decade or two.

This kind of megalomania is infectious. For my first year or so I was just happy to have an interesting job at an organization that was making a positive impact on the world. It had never really occurred to me that I had the option of writing about public policy for a living. But as I started to assimilate the attitudes of my new peers, the idea went from seeming slightly outlandish to being almost expected. Half the people I knew were doing it, and a few of them were becoming Internet-famous.

Like Megan and Will, I’ve been extremely lucky to have had a series of great opportunities placed in my path. But it wasn’t all luck. I know Megan and Will well enough to know there’s something else we all share: we’re obsessive about the topics we write about. Public policy was a serious hobby for me for about 5 years before I got my first paycheck. I’m willing to bet something similar was true for both Will and Megan. We can’t help ourselves. If my paid writing opportunities dried up and I was forced to go back to programming for a living, I’d probably still spend an unreasonable amount of time blogging in my free time.

I don’t think this kind of obsessiveness can be willed into existence, but it can be cultivated. If I hadn’t gotten that job at Cato, I’d probably still be a computer programmer in the Twin Cities. This is not so much because that Cato job opening was my only opportunity to switch to a career in public policy, but because it wouldn’t have occurred to me to actively seek out other opportunities like it.

The kind of obsessiveness I’m describing is rare enough in practice that I think the people who have it have a pretty high chance of being successful. There are a few professions, like acting or studio art, where the competition is so intense that even extremely talented and hard-working people never get a break. But most professions—even relatively competitive ones like the ones Megan, Will, and I are in—aren’t like that. There are lots of people who say they want to be bloggers or journalists, but only a small minority seem to be animated by an obsessive interest in a particular subject; there seem to be a lot of people who like the idea of being professional writers but don’t have all that much they particularly want to say.

And this is why I think the message of Steve Jobs’s commencement speech is valuable. If you’re the kind of person who loves immersing yourself in a subject—public policy, computer programming, fashion, video editing, whatever—you’re likely to have a more interesting and fulfilling life if you’re able to find a career that lets you do something you’re excited about. And if you’re graduating from Stanford, you’ve got a pretty good shot at securing such a job.

“Don’t settle” is bad advice for a 35-year-old who is still waiting tables while he waits for his big break in screenwriting. But it’s an important message for a 22-year-old Stanford grad to hear, because if he’s the obsessive type, he’s far more likely to regret taking a well-compensated job he finds slightly tedious than spending a few years in relative poverty while he pursues a career he’ll love.

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