I Hate Life-Advice Memes

I saw someone (who I generally rather like, so naming no names) retweet this earlier:

A venn diagram

That’s four circles, saying “You Love It”, “You Get Paid For It”, “The World Needs It”, and “You Are Great At It”. The tweet said “aim for the bullseye” — the bit where all four circles overlap.

I can’t really imagine a better definition of “privilege” than “being the person who would tweet that image non-ironically”.

I’m a fairly privileged person myself — I have a job which pays me very well. I get over the median household income, by myself, so can support both myself and my non-working wife. A lot of my friends don’t get that even when both partners are in full-time employment.

But let’s break this down for me, and the things I do, or have done.

You Love It: Music. Really, only that. To a lesser extent, writing these blog posts, or writing fiction. But that’s more of scratching an itch — I do those things because I *need* to, to relieve a pressure. Music is the only thing I’ve ever done that I really *love*, that gives me unalloyed happiness. Unfortunately, I’m no good at it, the world doesn’t need it, and far from paying me I regularly lost sums of up to a thousand pounds a year from being in bands and making records no-one wanted to buy.

You Get Paid For It Symbol manipulation. The only jobs I’ve ever had for which I’ve been paid more than the minimum wage have been working as either a software engineer or as a technical writer. In both of these cases, I was and am being paid for extreme pedantry and the ability to go through pages upon pages of very dull text, spot any mistakes, and fix them.
Unfortunately, I’m not great at these things (I’m above average as a technical writer, certainly — I’m *good* at my job, and I like to think *very* good, but certainly not “great”, even if great is a word that could be applied to it, which I doubt), I don’t love them (they’re tedious), and the world doesn’t need them (the company for which I’m working certainly benefits from my abilities, but if I wasn’t doing my job it wouldn’t make a difference to the world).

You Are Great At It Nothing. Most people don’t have anything they’re great at, and I’m no exception.

The World Needs It I’ve done three things the world needs, for some values of need — political campaigning, scientific research, and working on a psychiatric ward. Of these, I’m no good at political campaigning (I’m too flakey and let people down, and am no good at keeping to party lines), I dislike it intensely (it causes me immense amounts of stress), and it not only doesn’t pay but it costs enormously in time, money, and health. I do an amount that stops me being eaten up with guilt for the way the world is, but that’s all.
The research I’ve done (helping my uncle write various papers and number crunching and chasing down data for them) is not something for which I have any great ability, I’m interested in it but don’t “love” it, and I never got (or expected) a penny from it.
And working on a psychiatric ward is a hellish experience that no-one could possibly love, I was a good nursing assistant but far from a great one (I was very good at the personal interaction with patients part, surprisingly, but not very good at the other stuff), and I got paid less than half of what I do now — and that only by working unhealthy and probably illegal amounts of overtime.

I am incredibly lucky in that I essentially get to choose between three of those four Venn diagram circles — I could either do something I love and starve, do something that’s good for the world and starve, or eat while doing a job I don’t love and which doesn’t really benefit the world in any measurable way. That’s something of a forced choice, but it is at least a choice. Most people I know don’t even have as much of a choice as I do.

For most people, those four circles aren’t even touching. There’s no bullseye there to aim for, even for those people who have enough control over their lives that “aim” is a concept that has meaning. I’m utterly sick of this “follow your bliss” crap, spewed by Zen Pencils and his ilk (this isn’t from him, but I’ve seen enough things like that from him that I use him as a convenient label for all of them). Oh, REALLY? I should do something that I’m great at, that I love doing, that I get paid for and that the world needs? I never, ever, ever would have thought of that until seeing this banal diagram.

All this kind of thing does is imply that those of us who are “only” in one of those four circles (and who are lucky enough to be in even one) are there because we’re not clever enough to have thought of this for ourselves. “Why are you poor? Have you thought of trying being rich instead?” “Why are you doing something you hate? Have you thought of doing something you love instead?” “Why are you doing something you’re not very good at? Have you thought of being great at something instead?”

These things aren’t advice that anyone can actually take — they’re a way of reassuring the privileged, those lucky enough to have found themselves in the centre where all four of those circles overlap by accident, that they really “aimed for the bullseye”, when in fact they shot a bullet at a barn door and then the target was painted around it afterward.

Don’t follow your bliss. Do whatever you need to do to survive on whatever terms are best for you, and if you can, also do things in whichever other of those circles you have the time, money, energy, and ability to do things in. But don’t let smug arseholes on the internet tell you that if they manage to have a perfect life, it’s because their aim is better than yours…

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6 Responses to I Hate Life-Advice Memes

  1. I’m not going to insist you’re a great writer if you think you’re not – BUT – I think you COULD be.

    Aside from that I agree, completely with your points, which also apply to me.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thank you — that really means a lot coming from you (and the same goes for you — as you know I’m a huge admirer of your stuff).
      I do think I could be, if not great, very good, given time and enough relief from other pressures to concentrate on my writing, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Maybe in fifty years, if I carry on, I’ll achieve greatness. I’d like to think so.

      • “Great” could mean “great” as in “this is a great cup of coffee”, or it could mean “great” as in “Gandhi was a great man”. You are not a Great writer; but you are a great writer.

        If you see what I mean. The trouble with the Venn diagram is that it doesn’t seem aware that there are choices that people have to make and you can’t have everything and have to make choices. e.g “I could become a musician, which I genuinely love and would happily do for nothing, but I will never make any money out of it; I could train to be an accountant, which won’t be any fun, but will give a nice place to live, security, disposable income, etc.” It’s very hard to think of a single example of a “bullseye” job — a professional sportsman is doing something that he loves and is good at and is making money, but the world doesn’t need him; a nurse is doing something worth while and getting paid for it (and is probably good at his job) but probably doesn’t “love it” in the way an artist loves his work. You can probably only hit the “bullseye” if you are in a creative field; and have convinced yourself that Art is super-important and the world needs movie stars much more than it needs, say, streetsweepers.

        I’d rather be a streetsweeper and say “Well, I’m paid enough to get by, and it’s not a high status job, but it’s job that needs to be done and helps the community in a small way, and I’d rather be outside than cooped up in an office” than a creative who says “I’m paid really well, and I’m really good at this job, but at the end of my working day all I have done is proposed a new design for a paperclip that will make no difference to anybody and may not even go into manufacture ” But I’d also have total respect for the guy who says “I have this stupid, dull job designing paperclips, but fortunately, it pays well so I can afford to spend every weekend rock-climbing, which is the thing I really love.” Which may be all that “follow your bliss” means. Venn diagrams don’t reflect those sorts of trade-offs.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Well, first, thank you — I don’t think I’m a great writer even in the great cup of coffee sense, but it’s nice that people whose writing I admire disagree. I wasn’t saying I’m not great in order to get that reinforcement, but it’s nice to know.
          I agree with most of what you say about the Venn diagram. I can think of a few jobs that I could see hitting the bullseye — someone doing medical research into the causes of diseases, some jobs in politics, some teachers or lecturers, priests, people doing various engineering and scientific jobs… I could even see some soldiers or police officers saying they’d got the bullseye — I’d question what it said about them that they loved doing those jobs, but I could imagine people in that position. But those people will always be in a very small minority.
          I’ve been in both the streetsweeping and the paperclip-designing type jobs before now (and am currently paperclip-designing), and both are totally respectable tradeoffs to make — I switched from one to the other simply because my wife’s not really well enough to hold down a full-time job, but by paperclip-designing I can earn enough for both of us. It’s the people who have utter contempt for both types of trade-off that anger me.

  2. Yes, and you’re both great writers, by the way. It reminds me somewhat of Dora the Explorer given this is the sort of crap she used to fall for, not because she really fitted into any of the circles (she wasn’t really interested in anything for a start) but as something to which she could aspire by which she could justify her failure (i.e. – actually being in the same boat as the rest of us, yet needing this to be a more dramatic, more deeply injured boat). When I was at the point of slashing my wrists with Royal Mail crying ‘I hate my job’ she would say ‘no, you don’t, you love your job, otherwise you wouldn’t still be doing it,’ as though channeling L. Ron Hubbard could bring her version of reality into existence, usually following up with ‘only you can choose to be happy or otherwise, Lawrence,’ which at least taught me that evil does indeed have an objective reality. Never trust anything utilising the word “self-actualisation” has since been my watchword (DtE was part of a dubious money-grabbing therapy cult named the Institute for Self-Actualisation, a direct descendant of more overtly sinister organisations like Eckhardt Seminar Training and ultimately L. Ron’s thing). Still, you live and learn etc.

  3. plok says:

    This damn thing’s like looking at a soundbite. Everything’s backwards. Even if we buy the categorization scheme (which I don’t think we should), what we’ve got then is just a list of things with tension between them, some even mutually-exclusive. Who pictures those dynamics as a flower with casually-overlapping petals? It’s wilful nonsense. This is a map of How To Fail, not how to succeed. And oh my God, the assumptions that need unpacking here! Does the world need you to do anything you’re truly terrible at? Does the world need butchers who never wash their hands and who can’t cut meat? Carpenters who build houses that always fall down? So those two criteria are really one, it seems to me…

    And though I think it’s pretty risible to plaster the name “career” on it, I was a ditch-digger for a while and I liked it quite a bit. And I wasn’t very good at it, but the thing about ditch-digging is that you can only be so amazing at it, you know? The nature of the job, itself, limits your ability to excel at it. If the ditches get dug without any pipes being broken through, then you’re basically as good as the next guy, and usually better. I also got paid for it. Hey, according to the diagram, that means I achieved “self-actualization”!


    I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was a perfectly fine job. I’ve had a lot worse! But I’m not sure I got self-actualized. I think, possibly, that it would be bullshit to say that’s what happened. But if I had experienced self-actualization in the ditch-digging, note that according to the diagram it is ONLY self-actualization, only rises to the LEVEL of self-actualization, because I got paid for it. This diagram spells it out for you exactly: if you’re not getting paid for it, then no self-actualization can occur. It’s right there in black-and-white: the addition of money is the only thing that can make loving attention to and immersion in a task a spiritual affair. Otherwise you’re just a machine going through the motions. In the old Zen parable, the student begs the master to let him study under him, and when the master agrees the student says: “what shall I do, Master?”

    “Go chop some wood,” says the master. And then: “HERE’S FIVE BUCKS.”

    “After you’re finished, you can go look at the water.”

    Doesn’t really hold up so fine, in the new updated style.

    As to writing, or any other activity that this diagram, uh…specifically warns against? As to that (I want to say it’s George Saunders I’m inadequately paraphrasing?), I think it’s fairly important to know that one could waste one’s whole LIFE trying to scale Mt. Hemingway, if one disdained to work on one’s own minor enthusiasms in one’s own clunky, sulky way …but worse than that, no one else will ever come along and work on my stuff either, if I don’t. “The World Needs It”, gosh I really couldn’t say, but it’ll certainly never get it if I perish on Mt. Hemingway…

    What a frustrating image this diagram is. Everything about it is wrong. I never got my degree at university, you know? Disastrous flame-out. Super-depressing. Meanwhile the diagram suggests I might like to try the job title “University Professor”.


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