In the opening pages of Smart People Should Build Things, Andrew Yang explains that we’ve made a mistake. According to Andrew, “[w]e’ve let the market dictate what our smart kids do, and they’re being systematically funneled into obvious structured paths that don’t serve them or the economy terribly well.” Essentially, we’ve made exactly the mistake James Surowiecki warned us against in The Wisdom of Crowds: we’ve taught our kids to accept what somebody else says they should do instead of doing what they think they should do.
The answer to this problem, according to many writers, is to follow our passions.
I haven’t always liked business books. Truth be told, I still don’t like a lot of them. Like hucksters who sell you books about how to make a million bucks (write a book!), too many business writers tell you saccharine stories about how you’ll find ultimate happiness if you’ll just find your calling and then follow it.
Simply having a passion isn’t enough. Passions fade. Passions can mislead. Worse yet, some passions feed only themselves. Those passions are dangerous because they’re insatiable.
In the end, a lot of our “passion” is really just distraction dressed up and paraded about so we don’t have to deal with the work that is challenging and difficult and scary and meaningful.
I’m not saying don’t be passionate.
I’m saying learn to be passionate about work that serves more than just yourself.
Corporations may exist to maximize shareholder profits, but we don’t. Business, trade, the free market, they all exist to serve our self-interest. But even Adam Smith recognized that our self-interest is broad enough to encompass the well-being of our friends and neighbors. Truth be told, we exist to serve other people. That’s how we connect. That’s how we create art.
What Andrew Yang is doing with Venture For America is an important aspect of fixing the way people think about their jobs. We have to get people to stop thinking that the way to get ahead is to just do whatever pays $120k per year. To do that we’ve got to get them thinking about what matters most.
But in the end, just chasing our passions won’t do it. We have to change our passions. If we’re passionate about the ease that $120k per year can buy, it’s gonna be awfully hard to blaze a new trail. But if we’ll learn to be passionate about helping someone else (it almost doesn’t matter who), we’ll find that there are plenty of people to keep us meaningfully engaged long after selfish passion quits satisfying.