On Janitors and Doctors of Philosophy

Did you know that in the United States, there are 5,000 janitors who hold a PhD? I didn’t know either until I stumbled on this post on Quora. The most popular response comes from Joseph Wang, PhD, who posits two credible explanations:

3) I’ve known people that have worked as janitors, and they say it’s an easy job. You get paid eight hours of wages for work that usually only takes two or three, and you spend the rest of the night just chatting. You work in the middle of the night so your manager isn’t going to be looking over your shoulder, and as long as everything is clean the next morning, no one cares how many hours you “really” worked.

4) You can do janitorial work and theoretical physics at the same time. You are pushing a broom, you can think about quantum field theory. This is *not* true for a lot of other jobs. You can’t think about QFT while taking orders at McDonalds, selling shoes, flipping burgers, or driving a cab. If the janitor has a blank vacant look, no one cares, whereas being absent-minded while dealing with hot cooking oil or customers can get you fired or cause a fire.

Nate Silver on Learning, Intuition, Boredom, and Changing Jobs

The Harvard Business Review recently sat down with Nate Silver, everyone’s favorite stat nerd and author of The Signal and the Noise, for an interview. The whole thing is worth the read, but I enjoyed the following two exchanges.

On learning and intuition:

HBR: What about if I’ve read your book and I’m just starting college or a little younger and I’m trying to think actually maybe this statistician/data scientist role is something that I’m interested in? What do I study? How much education do I need? What’s that base for plugging into some of these jobs?

Silver:  Again, I think the applied experience is a lot more important than the academic experience. It probably can’t hurt to take a stats class in college.

But it really is something that requires a lot of different parts of your brain. I mean the thing that’s toughest to teach is the intuition for what are big questions to ask. That intellectual curiosity. That bullshit detector for lack of a better term, where you see a data set and you have at least a first approach on how much signal there is there. That can help to make you a lot more efficient.

That stuff is kind of hard to teach through book learning. So it’s by experience. I would be an advocate if you’re going to have an education, then have it be a pretty diverse education so you’re flexing lots of different muscles.

You can learn the technical skills later on, and you’ll be more motivated to learn more of the technical skills when you have some problem you’re trying to solve or some financial incentive to do so. So, I think not specializing too early is important.

On being listened to, being bored at work, and changing jobs:

HBR: You’ve had obviously some very public experience with the fact that even when the data is good and the model is good, people can push back a lot for various reasons, legitimate and otherwise. Any advice for once you’re in that position, you have a seat at the table, but the other people around the table are really just not buying what you’re selling?

Silver: If you can’t present your ideas to at least a modestly larger audience, then it’s not going to do you very much good. Einstein supposedly said that I don’t trust any physics theory that can’t be explained to a 10-year-old. A lot of times the intuitions behind things aren’t really all that complicated. In Moneyball that on-base percentage is better than batting average looks like ‘OK, well, the goal is to score runs. The first step in scoring runs is getting on base, so let’s have a statistic that measures getting on base instead of just one type of getting on base.’ Not that hard a battle to fight.

Now, if you feel like you’re expressing yourself and getting the gist of something and you’re still not being listened to, then maybe it’s time to change careers. It is the case [that] people who have analytic talent are very much in demand right now across a lot of fields so people can afford to be picky to an extent.

Don’t take a job where you feel bored. If it’s challenging, you feel like you’re growing, you have good internal debates, that’s fine. Some friction can be healthy. But if you feel like you’re not being listened to, then you’re going just want to slit your wrists after too much longer. It’s time to move on.

Excellent advice.

Cal Newport on Building a Remarkable Career

Last weekend, I attended the World Domination Summit. It’s a brilliant “un-conference” but together by Chris Guillebeau, whose blog and adventures I’ve been following for many years.

One of the speakers at the conference was Cal Newport, who I’ve been following since my time at Georgia Tech. Cal has finished his PhD (and post-doc) studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is now an assistant professor at Georgetown University.

I attended Cal’s breakout session on Saturday afternoon and his main keynote on Sunday afternoon, and I wanted to present some takeaways from Cal’s talks.

“Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice

Cal Newport came into the conference professing that his argument might stir up some controversy at WDS, since it’s a bit unorthodox. The gist of his argument about building and leading a remarkable career: “the follow your passion” advice is not only bad, it is wrong. Newport’s claim can further be broken down:

Sitting down to figure out what you’re passionate about and then being disappointed when you try it and it doesn’t work out is a mistake. Instead of following your passion, you should pick something that is of interest to you you and that is going to give you interesting options. Once you get into this interest, build it into a craft with hard work and dedication. Once you are skilled in that arena, leverage your knowledge and skills to prioritize the things that matter to you in life. This is the foundation for what can be a remarkable life.

This isn’t just a hokey hypothesis put on by Newport. He has spent significant amount of his free time (the guy isn’t on Facebook, Twitter, or any social media: any effort that he doesn’t put into his work goes into this other interest of Newport’s, namely, how students think, behave, and choose their careers).

How To Develop a Remarkable Career

Cal Newport summarized the path to a remarkable career (and doing what you love):

1. Get good at something that is rare and valuable. 

2. After you get good, leverage yours skill for things that really matter to you (e.g. a lifestyle with more autonomy, freedom), allowing yourself to focus on the parts of that skill that truly matter, or convert that value into a part of your life you really care about. Understand that you cannot convert anything to what matters to you unless you have first developed necessary and valuable skills, because otherwise you’ve got nothing to leverage.

3. But it is only when you become really good at something and have the opportunity to leverage your skills that you will face the most resistance from outside forces (family, internal struggles, your boss). In other words, at the moment when you can take    the leap and do something extraordinary, you’ll have the greatest resistance to stay complacent (in status quo), continuing on your current path.

4. What you do for your work might be a lot less important than you think. The general traits you leverage are more important than the work itself, as counterintuitive as that might appear. Cal talked about a number of things that Steve Jobs could have done and been successful at, besides starting Apple Computer. In fact, Steve Jobs was successful in leading another company: Pixar.

Case Study: Bill McKibben

To drill down to Cal’s hypothesis, Cal offered the example of one of his favorite authors: Bill McKibben. McKibben went to Harvard University, where he worked for the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. After a strong career at the paper (where he ended up becoming an editor), McKibben went on to write at The New Yorker. He spent six years working at The New Yorker, developing his career and honing his skills as a writer.

But then McKibben did something unexpected. Instead of taking a promotion at The New Yorker, he quit his job and moved to Adirondocak Mountains in upstate New York to write a book called End of Nature. The book became a critical success, cementing McKibben as one of the authorities on environmentalism. What’s important to realize here is that McKibben used his leverage that he developed pursuing his writing career to go out on his own. At perhaps the apex of his career, instead of choosing to continue on his path at The New Yorker, he had enough attention (and skill) to know that he can go out on his own and write this book. When he quit his job, he already had an “in” with various publishers and other notables in the publishing industry such that he could get a big advance and go out and write End of Nature. Had McKibben not paid his dues, so to speak, at The New Yorker and decided to write this book right out of Harvard, he would have probably been ignored. At the same time, McKibben faced massive resistance from those around him when he decided to go out on his own and spend time writing End of Nature.


The key to building a remarkable career isn’t following your passion, necessarily. It’s doing something interesting, developing valuable skills, and then leveraging your opportunities. On Saturday’s conclusion to his keynote, Cal offered this brilliant advice to the audience: Do as Steve Jobs did, not as he said.

Cal Newport has written about his experience speaking at World Domination Summit in this post.

If you are interested in this topic, then I recommend giving Cal Newport’s upcoming book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love a closer look. It comes out in September.

On Careers and Happiness

I’ve been thinking about the subject of careers and happiness recently, and stumbled upon this Q&A session with Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com. From this piece, I learned that Tony Hsieh studied computer science at Harvard and that Tony is really interested in the science of happiness (so am I!).

The entire piece is a great short read, but Tony’s response with how students should approach pursuing a career is what resonated with me the most:

I would say rather than focus on what will make you the most money or be best for your career, figure out what you would be passionate for in 10 years and go pursue that. A lot of people work hard at building a career so that one day down the road they think it will bring them happiness. And most of the time, when they finally accomplish their goal, they realize that it doesn’t really end up bringing happiness or fulfillment for the long term.

I do think Tony’s advice is applicable not just for students in college, but for aspiring entrepreneurs and those that are working in the corporate environment. It seems the advice is recession-proof: so long as you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you can feel proud of your efforts, that what you’ve worked for has not been in vain. My only criticism is this: you never know how your life may unfold and what interests you may discover in living your life. So figuring out what you might be passionate about in ten years might not work for everyone.

I also liked Tony’s response to the question below:

Interviewer: What did Harvard bring out in you that you might not have had when you arrived on day one?

Tony: For me, most of what I got out of Harvard was outside the classroom, including people that I met and running the pizza business. My concentration was in computer science because that’s what I was most passionate about at the time, but I also learned to discover other passions through other classes (for example, linguistics).

What do you think of Tony’s advice on choosing a career? Do you have any advice of your own?

Note: the best book I’ve read on happiness is Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss. I highly, highly recommend it.