The topic is not the content

Career advice from someone who's never had a real job

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Disclaimer: I’ve never held a job for more than a year1 or been paid more than $15 an hour. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.


Many of my peers seem to make career plans like by asking things like

  1. What am I interested in, or what do I like doing? and

  2. How can I do something related to that?

which might lead to some of the following:

  • A person who likes dancing tries to work in the arts industry.

  • A person who likes video games tries to get into game design.

  • A person who is interested in healthcare policy tries to study or design healthcare policy.

The problem here, in terms of diminished performance, happiness, and satisfaction, is a conflation of the topic and the content. The topic is not the content!

The topic

In my schema, the topic is what the work is about. If you’re the manager of a pillow company, the topic is pillows. If you’re defending accused criminals in court, the topic is criminal law.

A lot of folks, it seems to me, focus a lot on the topic when deciding which subjects to study or which jobs to apply for. Someone who is interested in physics might major in physics. Someone who loves to work out might try to become a personal trainer.

I don’t think this makes much sense. Should people ignore what they’re interested in and like to do, then? Well, maybe. 80,000 Hours, perhaps the single best career planning resource out there, writes that

The bottom line

To find a dream job, look for:

  1. Work you’re good at,

  2. Work that helps others,

  3. Supportive conditions: engaging work that lets you enter a state of flow; supportive colleagues; lack of major negatives like unfair pay; and work that fits your personal life.

Ok, but the term “engaging work” is doing a lot of work here (no pun intended), and seems awfully synonymous with “work that you like.” So, how do you find work that you like doing? If there’s anything my utterly negligible work experiences has taught me, it’s that it usually makes more sense to focus less on the topic and more on the content.

The content

In my schema, the content is what the work involves doing. If you’re a physics teacher, the topic is physics, but the content is (I assume) some combination of grading papers, making slideshow presentations, lecturing, doing demonstrations, and answering student questions.

Say Emma is a physics teacher. Which do you think matters more for Emma’s personal career satisfaction: being interested in physics (the topic), or enjoying grading, lecturing, presenting, and answering questions (the content)? Almost certainly, I think, the latter.

Don’t get me wrong, the topic matters too! Even if Emma likes all of these activities, I have no doubt that both she and her students would be better off if Emma were interested in physics. But someone who loves teaching but is indifferent to physics will be better off than someone who loves physics but is indifferent to teaching.

The problem

One of the fundamental issues here is that it’s way easier to discern the topic. For instance, the word “physics” in “physics teacher” is served up on a salient silver platter. Obviously, “teaching physics” involves physics. What is less obvious, though, is what “teaching” involves. The verb “teach” isn’t very descriptive—it’s just a placeholding bucket for more substantive actions like “grade papers” and “lecture.”

In fact, while I’m virtually certain that teaching physics involves physics, I recognize that my description of the content (grading, lecturing etc.) could be misleading or missing something important. In fact, I couldn’t tell you what my high school teachers spent the plurality of their time actually doing.

Me, right now

As my LinkedIn will tell you, I am a newly-minted federal employee and proud member of the economics team in the Office of Policy Analysis in the Department of the Interior (DOI). Now, take a minute to guess the topic and the content of my job. This is exactly what I had to do a few months ago when I (read: my mom) found the job, and I (read: I) decided to, write a cover letter, apply, interview, and accept the offer.

Admittedly, guessing the content from my job title is probably a bit harder than usual because DOI’s name isn’t very descriptive (unlike ‘Department of Agriculture) and is affectionately but tellingly referred to as “the Department of Everything Else.” Nonetheless, you can probably infer quite a bit even before heading to Google. Probably something along the lines of “analyzing the economic effects of DOI policies, whatever those are—maybe like nature preserves and stuff?” And you’d basically be right!

Now, take a minute to guess the content—what actual activities I do day to day. Am I using a computer? If so, which applications? Am I talking to other people or mostly working on my own? Am I producing some sort of output? If so, what does the generation process look like?

These questions are way harder to answer. Even the job description, if I recall correctly, didn’t say anything like “you will be using Microsoft Teams to have 1-3 short daily meetings, produce PowerPoints with a fellow intern, and try to figure out how to get your government-issued laptop with 16 gb of RAM to handle downloading, analyzing, and uploading 5 gb .csv files (spreadsheets) with millions and millions of rows using R” (answer: it’s hard).

And my impression is that this pattern holds true more generally. If you currently work, think about what you really spend time doing. Would a smart layperson be able to easily figure this out? I suspect not. For over a year now, my parents and I have been working under one roof. I see them in front of their computers in separate makeshift offices, and can tell they’re working hard, but I have little idea what the hell they’re actually doing on there.

I’m pretty sure they write stuff, fine, but there’s a big difference between writing poetry, drafting cease and desist letters, and manually transcribing audio. I’m pretty sure they’re not doing any of these three things, but what does “being a lawyer” actually mean, minute to minute? After 21 years, I should probably ask them.

Medicine and me

As another personal anecdote, I am genuinely fascinated by psychopharmacology. From beer and coffee to prescription psychotropics to weird grey market research chemicals, the way that substances impact the raw experience of life is, put simply, very interesting and important. So, as my family has asked me, why don’t I consider medical school or psychopharmacological research?

Well, I have considered it, and the answer is no. The topic is fascinating, but I can’t imagine myself studying for the MCAT or being a lab rat. Maybe I’m wrong, but my mind’s eye pictures memorizing lots of anatomy and basic biological information or learning about all the metabolic pathways and common diseases, or, on the research side, pipetting lots of chemicals into test tubes and stuff. If this is anywhere close to accurate, the content is something I’d abhor. Reading about the relationship between monoamine receptor activation and world modeling is one thing, but being the person who figures all this out is another.

A plea, for the world

I suspect that a mismatch between what people enjoy doing and what their work actually entails is the source of a lot of unhappiness. In part, this is because some jobs suck and the American economy depends on the threat of poverty to operate. In part, though, it’s because people place too much weight on topic and not enough on content when making career decisions

So, here are some proposals:

  1. Replace or supplement “what do you want to be when you grow up” and “what are you interested in” with “what do you want to do when you grow up?” and “what do you like doing?”

  2. For job advertisements, describe in granular detail what the work actually involves, minute to minute. Describe the action, not just the end product. Use verbs less like “teach” and more like “lecture” and “grade papers.”

Conclusion

I shouldn’t be getting on my high horse about all this. At the age of 21, I haven’t exactly had a long, successful career. And, like so many of my posts, I doubt my thesis is original even if it’s correct.

For all the thousands of hours we study preparing for tens of thousands of hours working, though, strikingly little is spent trying to determine what kind of career to purse, both for ourselves and for the world. And as 80,000 Hours (named for the number of working hours in a typical career) will tell you, helping others really does depend (to some extent) on doing something you’re good at and can sustain.

So, for the tenth time, the topic is not the content. Pay attention to both, but focus on the latter.

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Never fired though!