Scott Adams (Dilbert) Offers Career Advice

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has a long column of career development at The Wall Street Journal. It's brilliant. The entire piece is worth reading, but I’ll highlight just one part of it.

Have you ever heard the career advice “follow your passion”? It’s foolish. Adams argues that passion for an activity, rather than wealth-building, blinds a person to economic realities:

When I was a commercial loan officer for a large bank, my boss taught us that you should never make a loan to someone who is following his passion. For example, you don't want to give money to a sports enthusiast who is starting a sports store to pursue his passion for all things sporty. That guy is a bad bet, passion and all. He's in business for the wrong reason.

My boss, who had been a commercial lender for over 30 years, said that the best loan customer is someone who has no passion whatsoever, just a desire to work hard at something that looks good on a spreadsheet. Maybe the loan customer wants to start a dry-cleaning store or invest in a fast-food franchise—boring stuff. That's the person you bet on. You want the grinder, not the guy who loves his job.

Being passionate about something doesn’t lead to success, but being successful at something can lead to passion:

For most people, it's easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion. I've been involved in several dozen business ventures over the course of my life, and each one made me excited at the start. You might even call it passion.

The ones that didn't work out—and that would be most of them—slowly drained my passion as they failed. The few that worked became more exciting as they succeeded. For example, when I invested in a restaurant with an operating partner, my passion was sky high. And on day one, when there was a line of customers down the block, I was even more passionate. In later years, as the business got pummeled, my passion evolved into frustration and annoyance.

On the other hand, Dilbert started out as just one of many get-rich schemes I was willing to try. When it started to look as if it might be a success, my passion for cartooning increased because I realized it could be my golden ticket. In hindsight, it looks as if the projects that I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, my passion level moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success.

Much of my day job involves helping college students investigate and set career goals. Following your passion leads to things like doctorates in the humanities and other bad life decisions. So I phrase the same sentiment as “follow your interests while taking into account the likelihood that you will succeed and the outcomes, both good and bad, that you may encounter as a result of your decisions.” But that’s kind of wordy and thus hard to fit on a motivational poster.

-via Ace of Spades HQ

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Like cars, few people pay the sticker price at expensive schools, especially better ones that have decent financial aid and as long as your family is not rich. I went to one of those schools that lists its annual price as ~$35k (which includes room, board and travel budget that you can sometime save on), and came out with no debt and my middle class family paying a fraction of that, and the few, small scholarships I had made no difference.

My mother is a financial aid officer... but in the end it wasn't any secret information that made a difference, the only big piece of advice that she gave to me and to family members trying to pick schools, is to not reject a school due to costs until you get their financial aid offer and see how much they are expecting you to pay (which is going to be similar among most schools costing more than they expect you to pay), and if the remainder consist of loans or grants.
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I went to a notoriously expensive private college, and graduated with 5k of debt. Paid it off in 6 years at $50 a month. Now, forty years later, as I check the sticker price on the colleges that are trying to recruit my kids, I feel woozy. "Look Mom, your old school now has private rooms where you can keep a pet!" Yeah, right, for an extra 5K a year. How about Berea?
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Going to college is a time to advance your education, to make yourself a well-rounded person, to expand your horizons. There is plenty of value in a humanities degree -the problem is graduating with tons of debt. Unless you are going into the STEM fields, just don't borrow money for college. Go to your state university or get a large scholarship, and study what you want. I say this as a parent of high school students.
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You have a fair point that any degree can be a risk without a plan to pay for it or for making bad career decisions. But that risk is not uniform across majors. I have seen people study the "wrong" branch of physics and others that just wanted to bail out of the slow, bottlenecked climb of academia, and they all went pretty quickly into industry jobs, often unrelated to their particular field of study. Anecdotally, the few physics majors I knew that ended up unemployed out of grad school were the ones that were holding out to stay in academia within some competitive subfield, while I know several people with graduate degrees in the humanities that are working retail or unemployed. More formally, there are some attempts at gathering stats around to track employment of different majors (APS does for physics) and there are some wide variations in employment and underemployment.

And while grad students are poor, there is quite a bit of variation there. Engineering and science majors typically get tuition covered in grad school and a stipend for doing work that contributes to their thesis, allowing most to come out without any debt. Many places have very limited number of TA positions to pay for humanities majors, and so a lot of those grad students end up with no income from working on their thesis and have to pay tuition on top of that. Unless they came into grad school with money or work an outside solid job at the same time, that makes it very difficult to come out of grad school without debt.

As already stated, attending university does not need to be about getting a job. But like any other large expense in life, your current and future job prospects can factor heavily into decision making. Just as if you have a huge passion for expensive sports cars or flying a high end airplane, you might want to consider saving up prior to fulfilling those passions instead of going into massive debt.
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