For Love or Money or Necessity

From The Wall Street Journal: April 23, 2008:

“Must I Bank” by Jonathan Knee

I’ve been thinking a good deal about my Engineering vs. Liberal Arts post earlier this week, and couldn’t help but remember this great column by Jonathan Knee from just about three years ago.  Harken back to 2008 and you will remember the first rumblings of approaching economic challenges, and the first waves of impact in the financial sector where life as it had been known was about to lose a lot of luster.  Careers were changing, some were ending.

The passage that leapt out at me, and why I committed Knee’s article to memory, is a cogent but quietly profound quote from the existentialist Rainer Maria Rilke which he cites.  In “Letters to a Young Poet” Rilke writes:

“This most of all: ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”

In Knee’s analysis that followed, he framed the business context with poignant clarity: “Rilke warned of the hardships of his chosen craft, arguing that if the poet could even imagine living without writing, he would be better off doing so.”

I remember this same discussion growing up time and again with musicians, comedians, authors, dancers, and actors.  Why did they do what they did, why would they choose a life where hardship was the norm?  The answer in every circumstance was quite clear, they did not choose the hardship at all, who would purposely be such a maniacal masochist?  They did what they did because they could not imagine doing anything else.  They did not choose their path, except in acknowledging that the discipline chose them.  If you could do any other thing for a living than follow the path of the gift and be happy, why wouldn’t you?  You would.

Knee applies this same rigor to the discussion of career choice, in this instance, the path of the investment banker.  Yet Knee’s thought pattern travels well beyond that of the investment banker, beyond financial services, to career at large.  Must You Do what it is you are doing?  If not, then can you make a choice that is a better or closer fit to what it is you are supposed to be doing or could be doing.  Knee is not impractical in what he suggests, he knows we all have bills to pay and responsibilities to meet, he simply asks us to consider the extreme case to make sure that we are thinking actively instead of passively, and at least considering if that which we are doing is by selection, momentum, or the well placed secret traps of the pigeon-hole.

We may choose to study liberal arts or engineering, and we may choose the path of a profession.  The choice to change is always present, but really, it is not much of a choice if we force ourselves to be honest and think about the concept of Must.

Can You Study Want You Want and Still Have a Career in Tech?

 From TechCrunch — March 21, 2011:

Engineering vs. Liberal Arts” by Vivek Wadhaw

So I ask myself, does it really have to be versus?

Increasingly the notion of the value of a liberal education comes under attack, particularly in a tough job market with economic pressure everywhere you look.  Many of our nation’s greatest universities still hold fast to the notion that they are not pre-professional academies, and that their job is to teach undergraduates “how to learn — how to learn.”  That might sound a bit abstract for the aspiring unemployed with bachelors degrees in art history, creative writing, or sociology — especially with a bag of student loans as a lovely parting gift — but consider the following:

1) It’s your life, you only get one, and no matter how healthy you are, it is going to be relatively short.  Why are you here?

2) What you do with that life cannot solely be guided by decisions around income, your earnings will only be one part of the greater picture known as potential fulfillment.

3) The four years (plus or minus) you spend in college is by definition impractical, unless you are pre-med or something similar, the NPV of four years spending without earning is going to be a tough pill to digest unless you Think Different.

4) If you have made the choice to go impractical and invest in a college degree, how can it not be in a subject you love?

5) If you learn to learn, and learn it well, you can probably teach yourself almost anything (ok, maybe not brain surgery).  The point is to love learning, sharpen your critical thinking skills, and pursue your passion.  Passionate people have a much better chance — though no guarantee — at happiness (see #2 above).

So I’m with Steve, follow your muse, study what matters to you.  You can always pick up the focus in graduate school or on the job training, and who knows, the insight you gain in the study of almost anything could just Change The World.  But remember, science and math are a subset of the liberal arts, a classical education includes broad exposure and experimentation, so if already love poetry, perhaps you can also learn to like physics, even if just a little bit — it’s good to stretch beyond your comfort zone and you always need to do that.  And as Steve says, when it comes time to innovate, it does take all disciplines working together at the table, so the more you know and appreciate what your neighbor knows, the more you can help each other win together as a team.