Mindshift Week 3: Learning and Careers

Passion and Work

There is often a kind of tension between what we want to do (our internal desires, what we think of as our passions) and what the world has to offer in terms of opportunities (external circumstances).

We have to be careful not to fall into The Passion Trap, which is where we develop ourselves extensively in one skill (which usually comes out of our passions) without considering its value to the market (and hence whether you can get a job).

This is made worse by friends and teachers who encourage us to "follow our passions". Realise that your friends generally want you to feel happy in the present, and will tell you what you think you want to hear. Teachers also (generally) teach a subject that they are passionate about, and may inadvertently try to steer you towards a career related to their subject even if it's unlikely that you would get a job out there related to that subject.

(As a side note - Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You debunks the "follow your passion" myth.)

Parents generally think more about your success. They will likely consider your internal passions less, but try to steer you towards a career that allows you to make a comfortable living (and in that sense, be as success).

People tend to think of career development as a "T" - you have one skill that you are very good at (the downward stroke of the T), and other areas where you have just a superficial knowledge.

Unfortunately, this tends to result in a lack of opportunities, especially if your one good skill isn't in high demand in the market.

A better way to think about career development is as a ฯ€. You can think of it as being more stable since it has two "legs". This is an approach where you develop deep skills in two areas - second skilling.

This second skill can be one that is very different from your main skill, or it can be something that you are familiar with. If time and money are constraints, it's better to build it out of something that you already are familiar with.

The second skill may be your passion, or it may be something that you take up for more practical reasons: it complements your first skill.

There are times in life when you may have to spend time away from your passion and dive deep into a skill that you originally don't have a passion for. First, realise that you can fall in love with this other skill that wasn't originally your passion, but ends up being something you enjoy.

Second, you don't have to give up on your passion. You can come back to it later. In fact, there are examples of people who became successful at their passion only after they stopped focusing on the passion directly, went to learn another skill, before coming back to their passion. Santiago Ramon y Cajal wanted to be an artist, but his father wanted him to be a doctor. Eventually he realised that he needed to study medicine to make a living. However, he never forgot his passion for art, and brought it into his study of medicine. In the end, it was also instrumental in helping him win the Nobel Prize.

This also ties to the "seemingly unrelated knowledge" portion of Week 1 - your other skill that you were "forced" to learn due to the circumstances may come in handy next time. And of course, the other way is true too; your passion may help you in learning this other skill. (Generally, based on the content, this other skill you are forced to learn is given as more technical, while the example of passion skills are generally more artistic, hence the statement that your passion skills can enhance your creativity.)

There's other ways of looking at careers and skills, beyond the "T" and "ฯ€" shapes.

For example, think about your hobbies - they make you happy, but also keep your brain fresh and agile. They can also offer insights into other areas (again, the "seemingly unrelated knowledge' theme pops up).

In terms of building a skill set, don't necessarily think that you have go deep in just 2 areas. If you have a "talent stack", where you are pretty decent or mediocre at a lot of things, kind of jack-of-all-trades, you also increase opportunities for yourself. One example is Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert) - he says that he's not a very great artist, but with reasonable skills in writing, business, marketing, and social media. Together, they contribute to his success as a cartoonist.

These skills that build your talent stack can be from different areas. In fact, having them from different areas can add significant value (provided they are the right skills, of course). Instead of learning just a technical skill, consider soft skills too.

Brian Brookshire also offers an interesting perspective along the same vein. He says that skill development careers are typically logarithmic, and not linear. It takes a very long time to develop deep expertise in a given area. On the other hand, this is good news for second skilling - you can rapidly accelerate to the point of diminishing returns in a fairly short period of time, which tends to be enough for the skill to be useful.

Sometimes, you might be blocked from your ideal career choice due to circumstances. This also provides an excellent opportunity for learning a new skill.

Mindshifting in the Face of Opposition

Depending on where you live, students may be sorted into career paths earlier or later. In some countries, students may be sent for vocational training or continue the academically-oriented path at age 16. Of course, each approach has its owns merits and drawbacks.

Some people's career path are determined by their parents, while others have the freedom of the choice (but this freedom may not be such a great thing, because students lack the real-world experience of the job choice they are making). In some cases, others don't have access to quality education, or even a proper education, which limits their career choices.

Regardless, even if people are on a well-chosen career path, they may want to change. This is good, because any well-thought-out career change is creative fuel for societies (recall that those who switch careers are those who see things in a new way, leading to breakthroughs).

Whenever you consider a change though, make sure that you don't go into debt while learning the skills. (Let me just say in general, don't go into debt, it's not wise at all.)

That aside, when going through a change, there is likely that you will encounter resistance from those around you who want you to stay the same. There are 3 approaches for dealing with this:

  1. Dabble - a slow approach with a less jarring transition. Gradually learn skills in the new area.
  2. Double life - more intense, where you compartmentalise your life and avoid telling people what you are trying to do. This can be more stressful, but it can prevent others from talking you out of it.
  3. Contrarian - when others say you will fail, use that as fuel for your resolve to prove them wrong.

It's important regardless to create achievable interim goals and checkpoints to assess your progress.

Don't forget though, it's not just you - your environment is also important. Try to immerse yourself in the best possible environment and learn by osmosis.

However, remember to keep an open mind and seek for advice for change. When faced with valid criticism, listen, take the feedback, and use it to improve.

General Competence versus Selective Ignorance

What we have discussed previously was about developing skills in different areas - this can lead to general competence.

Selective ignorance is when you choose to ignore something that takes you away from what you are trying to master at that given point in time.

the practice of selectively ignoring distracting, irrelevant, or otherwise unnecessary information received, such as e-mails, news reports, etc.

This is great even at work - if you know how to do everything, you end up being that "go-to" person at the company, which can hinder you from getting your own work done. If you cultivate selective ignorance, you can prevent yourself from getting dragged into things that you have no interest in (but have the skills for).

The Value of Feeling Like an Impostor

The impostor syndrome is that feeling that you're not as good or as talented as the other people around you and that you got to where you are only because of luck, which will run out.

This is a very common feeling, and can make whatever you are trying to accomplish even more difficult. You start to doubt yourself.

But self-doubt is not all bad. It makes you more open and flexible, and it's people who are open to self-doubt that tend to be more successful in the long run. Generally, people tend to fail because of overconfidence, and only listening to wingmen who tell them what they want to hear.

Yes, it's not good to have too much doubt, but it tends to be undervalued. Doubt leaves you more open, and can encourage you to try harder - this is key because as we saw in Week 1, it's not genius, but persistence and flexibility that matters more.

The way to manage it is to realise that these feelings are normal, and re-frame them to your advantage.

Avoiding Career Ruts and Surviving Career Catastrophes

Keep an eye out for the big picture societal trends in relation to your skills - this is true no matter what stage of life you are at, and where you are along your career path. In today's world, engineering is one of the good skills to have.

It's good to balance any technical/analytical skills with soft skills to enhance your talent stack (and vice versa).

Be careful not to fall into a sheeple mentality where you follow your friends, only to find out that the subject you studied and put yourself into debt for was better off as a hobby than a career.

The golden rule of career catastrophes is that it's never as bad as you think it is at the time, and there is always a silver lining.

Be wary of falling into a career rut. Don't become too settled at doing the same job - even if you are doing a variety of activites at your job. Your mind might still fall into the rut, leading you to stagnate.

Even if you think you have the perfect career, things can change in a heartbeat. (How true, especially given the current pandemic...)

Make it a point to change your area of focus sometimes to keep yourself sharp.

Bad Traits as Best Traits

Some of what you thought were your bad traits can actually be some of your best. If you start to hate on your bad traits, try to reframe your thinking.

Remember the discussion about how people with a poor working memory tend to be more creative? While people with a strong working memory have it easier with problem solving and tend to get better grades, research has also shown that there is an inverse correlation between better grades and creativity.

There's also a correlation between disagreeableness and creativity.

For worriers, while too much anxiety is unhealthy, it can also help you to anticipate possibilities by mentally reviewing scenarios, even if they are negative.

The Intelligence of Emotions

Emotions were thought to be unreliable compared with cognition, but in recent years, this has changed.

Emotions are important for social interactions, learning, and decision making.

Paul Ekman, the world's leading expert on facial expression, went to Papua New Guinea to determine if there were universal expressions of emotion in all human societies. He found six:

  1. Happiness
  2. Sadness
  3. Anger
  4. Surprise
  5. Fear
  6. Disgust

Emotions are generally slow in onset and can last for a long time. Groups of neurons on the brain stem called neuromodulatory systems control your level of arousal, motivation, and attention.

In week 2, we discussed the serotonin system, which was important for regulating social interactions. There's another system that makes use of noradrenaline.

There's also a drug that prevents the reuptake of noradrenaline to increase its activity - Edronax. It's similar in function to what Prozac does for serotonin.

What noradrenaline does is increase drive motivation. A related molecule (adrenaline) produced by the adrenal gland will cause your heart to pound faster when it's released into your blood, preparing it for intense physical activity. This parallels the increase in mental activity that noradrenaline triggers in the brain.

All these neural systems are deeply integrated and interact with one another, like different players in an orchestra. This is despite the fact that we talk about systems as though they are isolated systems. This makes it difficult to find effective treatments for mental disorders.

There is another motivational system in the brain which uses another chemical - dopamine. High dopamine levels puts you in a good mood. When you receive an expected rewards, your dopamine levels increase past the baseline levels, but if you don't get the expected reward, it will decrease.

It is your dopamine cells that give you a gut opinion on decisions like what to eat, whether you should marry someone, etc.

Dopamine is also central to reinforcement learning, which is when you associate sensory input with a reward. The classic example is Pavlov's dog. While simple, this form of learning was the basis of AlphaGo, the AI program that defeated the world's Go champion.

The three neuromodulatory systems based on serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine interact strongly with the emotional systems in the brain. They are what allow us to form social bonds, evaluate dangerous situations, and learn new skills. Social interaction, decision making, and learning.


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