Thursday, April 02, 2015

On Search Theory, Career Choice, and the Fear of Chance (A draft meditation)

by Max Kornblith

“If you don’t like what’s being said, then change the conversation” – Don Draper

In this essay:
Aziz Ansari on luck and dating
My “passion dilemma”
The unacknowledged co-conspirator in life
Living with messiness

The formula for love

In the midst of a course on probability, my college statistics professor revealed the “solution” to the problem of dating. He told us that, upon granting a few assumptions*, search theory—the statistical toolset honed for the rapid selection of a proverbial needle from a haystack—suggests an optimal approach to picking a mate. Proceed through one third of the maximum number of partners you expect to have the opportunity to date in life, he instructed, and then, having used this experience to set a baseline, settle down with the next candidate whose overall quality exceeds that of anyone you’ve already dated. This approach balances the risk of settling for what’s too easily available versus that of holding out too long for perfection.

The proposal may be computationally simple, but it raises irksome questions:
How will it change my worldview to believe that my “soul mate” and I have found each other thanks to something other than an inevitable emotional-magnetic pull? Could it be problematic to see the match instead as the logical outcome of a specified procedure, an algorithm? And how do I tell a meaningful story of such a major life event if it’s seen as the contingent outcome of a probabilistic process, one that could have gone differently?

This potential for discomfort is illustrated by a bit performed by comedian and Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari. He tells of a friend who found love through online dating. To pair with one specific individual from the massive universe of potential mates online, Ansari says, is “kind of a romantic thing, so I asked him, what'd you search? And he says, 'Jewish, and my zip code.'” To Ansari, this is a troubling answer. “That's how I found a Wendy's a few weeks ago… [but] I got some nuggets [and] he got his wife the exact same way!" In other words, if Ansari had happened to type something slightly different maybe he would’ve ended up at Burger King and his life would’ve gone on as before. But for his friend a few different keystrokes would’ve meant life with a different soul mate. Weird.

Aziz Ansari, modern-day sage.

Are you and your job a love match?

If the winding road to love is the greatest veiled search theory problem most young people face, the second greatest such challenge—for those so lucky—may be choosing a career. The two processes can have a lot in common: An almost endless universe of (hypothetical) options, two sides each navigating a trade-off between holding out for perfect and settling for good enough, the nagging pressure to just pick something already and stick with it.

And then there’s the language of “passion.” In job-hunting as in dating, searchers look for a firm whose unique suitability for them resonates emotionally. And firms seek something similar in their candidates. One recent job posting I happened upon sought only an individual for whom this was their “dream job,” and all others apparently need not bother to apply.

It’s here that I should mention that I’ve previously gotten into some trouble for questioning the language of “passion” in career choice. In late 2012 I wrote an e-mail to blogger and economist Tyler Cowen that focused on two separate questions. The first question I posed was what discussion “passion” in a career choice context meant to him as a social scientist. The second question I put forward, and the one that subsequently gained traction, was how I personally should approach finding the right job and career given that I didn’t have the vision of a specific desired outcome that comes with speaking the language of “passion.”

Bangkok Golden Thai in Fairfax, Va. Site of the 2014 academic panel put on by GMU economists on the topic of my career.
According to NPR’s Planet Money, which subsequently covered the exchange, that latter question placed me in an unfortunate if not uncommon category of young people whose lack of a driving vocational passion leaves them helpless to determine a suitable career.

But in hindsight, my question was perhaps best approached via search theory: More than anything I was seeking an outsider’s read on how to optimize my career search. My lack of one driving “passion” doesn’t mean I don’t have particular values and goals against which I evaluate a job—for me these values include the opportunity to learn, to take on responsibility, and to work with high-quality and empathetic coworkers in a focused environment. I refuse, though, to restrict my application of these criteria within only a limited subset of potential careers. And, as in any maximization problem, an inability to constrain along any particular dimensions multiples the complexity of the problem.

The unacknowledged co-conspirator

A number of people—acquaintances and strangers—reached out to me with advice after hearing the NPR story. In these and other conversations I was struck by the number of individuals—entrepreneurs, financial professionals, academics—who have told me they didn’t know what they wanted to do until they stumbled upon it. If such stories are representative, it’s hard to not acknowledge that a lot of people may be in the “wrong” job just for not having run into the right one at the right time.

More than 150 years ago a young William James lamented the inherent gamble that comes with picking a career. “The worst of this matter,” wrote James, long before he’d become a celebrated social scientist, “is that everyone must more or less act with insufficient knowledge—‘go it blind,’ as they say. Few can afford the time to try what suits them.” Necessarily, in such cases, a lot is left up to chance and contingency. (It seems to have worked out for James.)

An image of William James no longer young.

This lack of foreknowledge, over what will and won’t suit us, makes a good approach to job-seeking—a quality search algorithm if you will—all the more important. Imagine playing a hand of hold-‘em poker without knowing in advance the ranking of the hands.

But to engage with alternate search approaches is also to acknowledge that, as in a hand of poker, many life outcomes are probabilistic; they depend on both judgment and luck. If I could re-run my life again, and make the exact same decisions, I might reach a different outcome thanks to the bouncing balls in life’s lottery. A probabilistic reading translates the reality of my present or future circumstances into the output of a process that depends on my past, my personal decisions, external circumstances, and—significantly—a degree of random noise.

That may be a scary thought: It’s easy to acknowledge chance as the reason that small things happen the way they do—for instance how I might see a particular movie instead of another because the first is sold out. But it can create discomfort—like Aziz Ansari’s above—to acknowledge the role of luck in how major things work out in life, things like families and careers and life satisfaction.

A less-than-clean conclusion

An ambitious existentialist might mention at this point the sheer improbability of each one of us individually coming to inhabit our universe in the first place. The fact of my very being has depended on the precise biographical path of each one of my forebears, and—even more improbably—on one singular outcome from competition between four gazillion gametes.**

Could this gestational implausibility sit at the root of human anxiety at life’s uncertainness? Without taking it that far, the undeniable truth is that life is messy, with luck as an input into many of its outcomes. There is value in acknowledging this messiness, both in the world’s processes and in one’s self, and a danger in dismissing it.

An intolerance for messiness creates risks. One of my favorite critics of academia, William Dersciewitz, writes of his time teaching Ivy League undergraduates for whom “[t]he prospect of not being successful terrifies them [and] disorients them.” These kids don’t take risks—they don’t take chances—because doing so would admit not just the world’s imperfection but their own: Stepping from one’s comfort zone into James’s unknown is an admission that the whole world is not in fact known to the person doing the stepping. Aversion to this fact may be what leaves students “content to color within the lines” (Dersciewitz’s words) of an educational and career hierarchy ranked by prestige and selectivity.

Dersciewitz is also known for struggling to find common topics of conversation with a plumber, who may not have been as friendly as the one in this stock photo.

So how might one avoid the apparent pitfalls that follow from a fear of messiness and chance? In my own recent life, I have tried to use the messiness of the world as a spur toward experimentation. I’ve left good jobs and relinquished nice apartments. I’ve traveled well and read well and dined well. I’ve attempted to stretch out life’s experimental phase—that supposed first third—and to acknowledge the role of chance without using it as an excuse to non-commitment. I hope I’ve done all this without abandoning a strong emotional investment in and personal responsibility for outcomes.

And is it working for me? Maybe, if I’m lucky.

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