What Should You Work On?

People aren’t deliberate enough about choosing what to work on.

To paraphrase the words of John O’Donohue, we are blind to the complacency that passes for ambition in modern society.

Too many of our smartest minds are working on trivial tasks and spending their time in corporations where they feel invisible. The vast majority of my friends who work for big companies say they’re bored, unchallenged, and under-employed. They don’t see the tangible benefits of their hard work.

Looking like you’re being productive is often a better strategy for career advancement than actually being productive. That’s why extroverts without conviction, many of whom spend more time networking than executing, rise to the top of the corporate hierarchy.

New ideas are fragile. Since they originate in the messy madness of intuition and the fringes of society, they don’t carry the crisp edges that rational critics look for. Forgetting this, we beat precious but unconventional ideas out of people before they have time to blossom.

As Peter Thiel once said:

“There’s a strange phenomenon in Silicon Valley where large levels of successful founders seem to have Asperger’s. You can turn that around as an indictment of society. What is it about society where if you don’t have Asperger’s, you’re talked out of ideas before they’re fully formed?”

Risk-averse parents and educators push children down conventional paths. Parents enroll their kids in the same schools and the same extracurriculars to help them get into the same colleges, so they can work for the same corporations. In 2007, more than half of Harvard graduates went to work in investment banking or management consulting. At Elon University, my alma mater, career advisors pushed us towards secure, but complacent careers at large corporations like three-letter media companies and the big-four accounting firms.

Too many of our top people aren’t putting their differentiated skill-sets to work. They graduate from the best schools in the world only to burn their attention on standardized checklists and the high school cafeteria game theory of corporate politics. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every person I know at big companies. But there are too many talented people who sleepwalk through their workday.

Entrepreneurship is one solution. Employment and independent research are two others. Unfortunately, the national rate of company formation in America has fallen, just as academia has become politicized and overly bureaucratized.

Right now, in order to do something truly innovative, you need to drop out of the system entirely or be so independent-minded that people call you a lunatic. In a time when it’s easier than ever to start a company, we should encourage people to identify the important problems society ignores and find scalable solutions to them — all while making a truck-load of profit.

Broadly, there are five buckets that talented people should start companies around: energy, education, housing, healthcare, and transportation. That’s because the western world has stagnated on all five fronts. For every sector except energy and sometimes housing, costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation.

We’ve made tremendous progress in other parts of the economy. Viral diseases have virtually disappeared, childbirth is safer than ever before, and we’ve improved semiconductors at a remarkable rate, which is why the phones in our pockets are now so powerful. But where the quality of life in America hasn’t improved, you can blame the five buckets of energy, education, housing, healthcare, and transportation. And because costs in these industries are rising faster than the rate of inflation, there are huge financial opportunities.

The government sets the laws for society, so it’s a wrap for all five buckets. And there, we can do so much better too. Politics doesn’t need to be the zero-sum game it is today. Because of its cut-throat nature, I know very few talented young people who want to work in government. We need more people like Dominic Cummings, a senior advisor to Boris Johnson, who is probably the most forward-thinking politician in the world today. Cummings borrows ideas from people like Bret Victor, Alan Kay, Philip Tetlock, Warren Buffett, and Charlie Munger while everybody else follows tired conventional wisdom.

Those who would work in government but choose not to say there’s too much red tape and the pay isn’t high enough, so they spend their time optimizing advertisements and selling copycat products instead. We don’t need a 17th bottled water brand at CVS or a 28th CliffBar competitor at Walgreens. We need our best and brightest people working on important problems that wouldn’t be solved otherwise.

Paradoxically, ambitious and differentiated goals are sometimes easier to achieve than mundane ones. Ambitious people attract other ambitious people. In positive-sum areas, they find ways to work together and help each other. That’s why inspiring goals make it easier to hire, raise money, and meet the kinds of people who can move the world with a single phone call.

I publish a weekly newsletter called Monday Musings where I share ideas like this every week. You can subscribe here.