The topic is not the content

by aaronb507 min read6th Jul 202123 comments

139

CareersPracticalWorld Optimization
Curated

Curator's note: I like how this post makes a conceptual clarification and turns it into practical advice, or perhaps it captures practical advice into a neat conceptual distinction–in either case, I think it's very neat when you can do that. While I suspect that quite a few people make poor career decisions for exactly the reasons described in this post,  I'm motivated to curate because I really like the mental motion of the post. - Ruby

Disclaimer: I’ve never held a job for more than a year [1] or been paid more than $15 an hour. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.

Many of my peers seem to make career plans like by asking things like

  1. What am I interested in, or what do I like doing? and
  2. How can I do something related to that?

which might lead to some of the following:

  • A person who likes dancing tries to work in the arts industry.
  • A person who likes video games tries to get into game design.
  • A person who is interested in healthcare policy tries to study or design healthcare policy.

The problem here, in terms of diminished performance, happiness, and satisfaction, is a conflation of the topic and the content. The topic is not the content!

The topic

In my schema, the topic is what the work is about. If you’re the manager of a pillow company, the topic is pillows. If you’re defending accused criminals in court, the topic is criminal law.

A lot of folks, it seems to me, focus a lot on the topic when deciding which subjects to study or which jobs to apply for. Someone who is interested in physics might major in physics. Someone who loves to work out might try to become a personal trainer.

I don’t think this makes much sense. Should people ignore what they’re interested in and like to do, then? Well, maybe. 80,000 Hours, perhaps the single best career planning resource out there, writes that

The bottom line

To find a dream job, look for:

  1. Work you’re good at,
  2. Work that helps others,
  3. Supportive conditions: engaging work that lets you enter a state of flow; supportive colleagues; lack of major negatives like unfair pay; and work that fits your personal life.

Ok, but the term “engaging work” is doing a lot of work here (no pun intended), and seems awfully synonymous with “work that you like.” So, how do you find work that you like doing? If there’s anything my utterly negligible work experiences has taught me, it’s that it usually makes more sense to focus less on the topic and more on the content.

The content

In my schema, the content is what the work involves doing. If you’re a physics teacher, the topic is physics, but the content is (I assume) some combination of grading papers, making slideshow presentations, lecturing, doing demonstrations, and answering student questions.

Say Emma is a physics teacher. Which do you think matters more for Emma’s personal career satisfaction: being interested in physics (the topic), or enjoying grading, lecturing, presenting, and answering questions (the content)? Almost certainly, I think, the latter.

Don’t get me wrong, the topic matters too! Even if Emma likes all of these activities, I have no doubt that both she and her students would be better off if Emma were interested in physics. But someone who loves teaching but is indifferent to physics will be better off than someone who loves physics but is indifferent to teaching.

The problem

One of the fundamental issues here is that it’s way easier to discern the topic. For instance, the word “physics” in “physics teacher” is served up on a salient silver platter. Obviously, “teaching physics” involves physics. What is less obvious, though, is what “teaching” involves. The verb “teach” isn’t very descriptive—it’s just a placeholding bucket for more substantive actions like “grade papers” and “lecture.”

In fact, while I’m virtually certain that teaching physics involves physics, I recognize that my description of the content (grading, lecturing etc.) could be misleading or missing something important. In fact, I couldn’t tell you what my high school teachers spent the plurality of their time actually doing.

Me, right now

As my LinkedIn will tell you, I am a newly-minted federal employee and proud member of the economics team in the Office of Policy Analysis in the Department of the Interior (DOI). Now, take a minute to guess the topic and the content of my job. This is exactly what I had to do a few months ago when I (read: my mom) found the job, and I (read: I) decided to, write a cover letter, apply, interview, and accept the offer.

Admittedly, guessing the content from my job title is probably a bit harder than usual because DOI’s name isn’t very descriptive (unlike ‘Department of Agriculture) and is affectionately but tellingly referred to as “the Department of Everything Else.” Nonetheless, you can probably infer quite a bit even before heading to Google. Probably something along the lines of “analyzing the economic effects of DOI policies, whatever those are—maybe like nature preserves and stuff?” And you’d basically be right!

Now, take a minute to guess the content—what actual activities I do day to day. Am I using a computer? If so, which applications? Am I talking to other people or mostly working on my own? Am I producing some sort of output? If so, what does the generation process look like?

These questions are way harder to answer. Even the job description, if I recall correctly, didn’t say anything like “you will be using Microsoft Teams to have 1-3 short daily meetings, produce PowerPoints with a fellow intern, and try to figure out how to get your government-issued laptop with 16 gb of RAM to handle downloading, analyzing, and uploading 5 gb .csv files (spreadsheets) with millions and millions of rows using R” (answer: it’s hard).

And my impression is that this pattern holds true more generally. If you currently work, think about what you really spend time doing. Would a smart layperson be able to easily figure this out? I suspect not. For over a year now, my parents and I have been working under one roof. I see them in front of their computers in separate makeshift offices, and can tell they’re working hard, but I have little idea what the hell they’re actually doing on there.

I’m pretty sure they write stuff, fine, but there’s a big difference between writing poetry, drafting cease and desist letters, and manually transcribing audio. I’m pretty sure they’re not doing any of these three things, but what does “being a lawyer” actually mean, minute to minute? After 21 years, I should probably ask them.

Medicine and me

As another personal anecdote, I am genuinely fascinated by psychopharmacology. From beer and coffee to prescription psychotropics to weird grey market research chemicals, the way that substances impact the raw experience of life is, put simply, very interesting and important. So, as my family has asked me, why don’t I consider medical school or psychopharmacological research?

Well, I have considered it, and the answer is no. The topic is fascinating, but I can’t imagine myself studying for the MCAT or being a lab rat. Maybe I’m wrong, but my mind’s eye pictures memorizing lots of anatomy and basic biological information or learning about all the metabolic pathways and common diseases, or, on the research side, pipetting lots of chemicals into test tubes and stuff. If this is anywhere close to accurate, the content is something I’d abhor. Reading about the relationship between monoamine receptor activation and world modeling is one thing, but being the person who figures all this out is another.

A plea, for the world

I suspect that a mismatch between what people enjoy doing and what their work actually entails is the source of a lot of unhappiness. In part, this is because some jobs suck and the American economy depends on the threat of poverty to operate. In part, though, it’s because people place too much weight on topic and not enough on content when making career decisions

So, here are some proposals:

  1. Replace or supplement “what do you want to be when you grow up” and “what are you interested in” with “what do you want to do when you grow up?” and “what do you like doing?”
  2. For job advertisements, describe in granular detail what the work actually involves, minute to minute. Describe the action, not just the end product. Use verbs less like “teach” and more like “lecture” and “grade papers.”

Conclusion

I shouldn’t be getting on my high horse about all this. At the age of 21, I haven’t exactly had a long, successful career. And, like so many of my posts, I doubt my thesis is original even if it’s correct.

For all the thousands of hours we study preparing for tens of thousands of hours working, though, strikingly little is spent trying to determine what kind of career to purse, both for ourselves and for the world. And as 80,000 Hours (named for the number of working hours in a typical career) will tell you, helping others really does depend (to some extent) on doing something you’re good at and can sustain.

So, for the tenth time, the topic is not the content. Pay attention to both, but focus on the latter.

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23 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:24 PM
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Looking back on the ten years I spent teaching piano lessons to children, do I think that this framework would have helped me decide if it was a good career?

The topic was music. One way of describing the content was a combination of sitting down with children, managing behavior, explaining how to read music, correcting errors, negotiating with parents, accounting, driving between houses, buying music books, workshopping learning and emotional challenges, inventing new approaches to teaching songwriting and improvisation, and providing encouragement. I could have anticipated that with forethought.

That dry verbal description captures absolutely nothing of the rich and rewarding experience I had teaching music lessons. And just getting a sense of the day-to-day, as by job shadowing another teacher, would have also been more deceptive than descriptive. Having relationships with children that evolve and deepen over the course of years, experimenting with solutions to problems and having the satisfaction of seeing some of those solutions work out, and creating musical performances at nursing homes that put a smile on the face of the elderly residents, are experiences that become vastly more interesting and meaningful when it's your life, rather than somebody else's.

So my concern with this approach of focusing on the content, rather than the topic, is that I suspect I'd have been really bad at anticipating the content. And the more work I put into it, I suspect the more confident that I would have become in my misinterpretation. Coming into a job with a sense of mission and purpose, but an open-ended sense of what it was actually going to be like, actually seems to me like a better approach than trying to somehow imagine how the day-to-day experience will feel like from the inside, and then trying to choose from the imagined option that seems the most attractive a priori.

For me, the focus on the topic of music, rather than the content of teaching, helped spark my imagination for what music lessons could be like. I wanted to do something very different from the way I'd been taught growing up.

Maybe another way of pointing at the same thing is that topic/content is not actually the division that makes the most sense to me. Instead, it's something like "psychology/behavior." It's the division between what the job feels like to do, in terms of the emotions, ideas, and stories involved, versus the concrete physical and social activities you perform on a daily basis. The former seems much more important to me than the latter, from a meaningfulness perspective. Behavior is important for your experience, in terms of energy expenditure, risks of injury, and so on. But meaningfulness is often a big component of what keeps people at their jobs, and I just don't think that a focus on "content" would have helped me connect with or anticipate that aspect of my previous line of work.

It feels to me like the meaning element makes an excellent third side of a triangle. Contrasting the content between cases where the results are meaningful to us versus where they are not would be pretty useful information.

I am reminded of a presentation I saw (YouTube? TED?) where a researcher was talking about a series of experiments they had done where the task was to assemble as many toy robots or legos or something as possible. The point was that it was trivial, and any functional adult could do it, and probably efficiently if they were motivated. The key was that in the control group they just put the completed toys away in a bin under the table, but in the experimental group they pulled them back apart right in front of their eyes, and then dumped the pieces in the bin under the table. The group with their work being undone before their eyes consistently produced less in the allotted time, even though everyone in both groups knew that the task was strictly meaningless.

I feel like the same sort of mechanism will affect the content elements of this idea, and that the same mechanism should work in reverse as the perceived meaning of the work increases. Probably worth noting that false meaning that is easy to perceive will also be effective under this model, which explains a lot about some of startup culture's picadillos.

Terminologically, I like topic/content/purpose. Where 'purpose' includes potential results from the job (including pay) and how much you care about and are motivated by them. It could be difficult to split content and purpose, though. E.g. being able to see and talk with the people you're helping could be very motivating, but it doesn't fit purely into either content or purpose.

Having relationships with children that evolve and deepen over the course of years, experimenting with solutions to problems and having the satisfaction of seeing some of those solutions work out

What you describe here is the content of teaching in general. Not just teaching music. Within the topic of music you could have also chosen to become an employee at a record label doing administrative work and you wouldn't have any of those rewarding experiences you describe.

I believe that's the authors point. Your point about incorrectly predicting the content of teaching is probably driven by the authors lack of teaching experience. If an actual teacher was to give a list of the content of teaching I have a feeling it would look much more like what you described.

All this to say I think the essence of the authors point is spot on but there could be some tweaks to the word choice and examples perhaps that would avoid any of the reservations you have.

From my perspective, this is why society at large needs to get better at communicating the content - so you wouldn't have to be good at "anticipating the content." 

The meaningfulness point is interesting, but I'm not sure I fully agree. Some topics can me meaningful but not interesting (high frequency trading to donate money) and visa-versa (video game design? No offense to video game designers).

I bet we agree on the substance, and that any disagreement is probably just a word choice thing. Like, if we could figure out how to describe and predict the “real content” for a given person - the way they would feel psychologically and physically on a daily basis to do the job - then that would clearly be much more useful than just knowing the topic. And we probably can improve at that task as a society. I just think it is a difficult problem (as you point out), and I worry that solving it might seem to some people like all it requires is a small change in mental focus. In my experience negotiating a mid career job change and hearing about the experiences of others doing the same, I am skeptical of how much the job shadowing and such helps.

However, I have gotten quite a few benefits from the line of thinking you sketch here. In particular, just knowing how many hours per week a job (or course of schooling) can be a big help. When I originally considered med school, one of the factors that decided me against it was the 80/90 hour weeks, and lots of reports that med school students/residents who are parents rely entirely on their partner for parenting duties.

If you’re a physics teacher, the content is physics, but the topic is (I assume) some combination of grading papers

"Content" and "topic" appear to be reversed in this sentence.

The post overall seems mostly correct. This also applies to subjects you might study in university - how cool something sounds bears little relation to what you'll actually be doing.

Also seemingly reversed:

A lot of folks, it seems to me, focus a lot on the content

Yup, fixing. Gotta get better at proofreading.

I am deeply impressed; after two decades of career experience, what you wrote seems to me both correct and very important.

The obvious missing part is money; I know people who have meaningful and enjoyable jobs, but can only afford them because their partner pays most of the bills. I am not sure about the exact relationship between "enjoyable" and "well paid"; on one hand, it would make sense to be a tradeoff, on the other hand, there are many jobs that suck and pay little. Still, we should pay attention to make the tradeoff consciously (taking a better paid job that sucks but has a perspective of early retirement; or taking a worse paid but enjoyable job because those eight hours a workday actually contribute a lot to the total quality of life) rather than by mistake taking a job that pays less, has an attractive topic, but the content mostly sucks (the video game industry seems to be a popular example).

I wonder whether there is a job out there that would be enjoyable for me and is actually paid well, but I will never figure it out, either because I have never heard about it (or never considered it seriously), or because I am deeply mistaken about its content. This sounds horrifying, and not completely unlikely. I wonder if there are some "job content advisors" that could help me with this.

One complication is that the job content can change significantly over years, both within the company, and within the entire industry. My experience is with software development. In the same company, at nominally the same position, my job content has in few years changed from "develops new features in one project, together with other experienced developers, learns new stuff" (enjoyable) to "does maintenance and plumbing in multiple projects, working alone but reporting to multiple managers, attends lots of meetings" (not enjoyable). Also -- not sure whether this is true about the industry in general, or just my bubble, -- the job content in general seems to be moving away from "works on a well-defined project, mostly undisturbed" (enjoyable) towards "does whatever managers decide is the highest priority today, with tight deadlines but lots of interruptions" (not enjoyable). So the career that felt like the right choice 20 years ago, does not feel so now.

Curated. I like how this post makes a conceptual clarification and turns it into practical advice, or perhaps it captures practical advice into a neat conceptual distinction–in either case, I think it's very neat when you can do that. While I suspect that quite a few people make poor career decisions for exactly the reasons described in this post,  I'm motivated to curate because I really like the mental motion of the post more than I expect the concrete advice to be important for people reading it.

The curation is also partially for the good discussion on this post. I like AllAmericanBreakfast's great comment where he cautions that estimating the content of an occupation is hard, and similarly ryan_b's on the importance of meaning/purpose.

The Wait But Why article "Life is a Picture, But You Life in a Pixel" makes this same point and is what caused me to start explicitly focusing on evaluating jobs this way years ago.

A good read: https://waitbutwhy.com/2013/11/life-is-picture-but-you-live-in-pixel.html

try to figure out how to get your government-issued laptop with 16 gb of RAM to handle downloading, analyzing, and uploading 5 gb .csv files (spreadsheets) with millions and millions of rows using R” (answer: it’s hard).

Have you considered using Dask instead?

Thanks, but I have hardly any experience with Python. Need to start learning.

diveintopython3.net should be a good introduction if you already know another programming language.

A very good point.

I'd add the caveat that a key issue in a job is not the just the content, but who you interact in. eg a graduate student job in a lab can be very interesting even if the work is mindless, because of the people you get to interact with.

The importance of emphasizing "activity" versus "topic" or "industry" is very important when considering jobs. However, in advising students and talking with many people, I find that a lot of people genuinely are motivated by just being in a certain industry. It makes them happy to know they are a part of an industry they love, even if the job activities are not very good for them or especially rewarding. That cost is offset by the benefit of being in "the industry" or sometimes by having coworkers they like.

The career guide book "What Color is Your Parachute" makes these distinctions and is superbly useful at helping you determine your indifference curves.

When I went to work in a bookshop, I expected the content to be "take the money, give the book". It was so much more than that. Had I thought about it like "ensure the easy and comfortable way to take the money and give the book", I'd have had a better handle on it. The missing ingredient was the realisation of my own responsibility for the end result (and also luck doesn't hurt.)

Good idea, think I will.

Replace "content" with "process" and this makes sense to me.

"content" and "topic" are not synonymous, for me of course.
But "topic" is like the headline and "content" is the text below it.
So both deal very much with the subject matter.
But also you use "content" synonymously with "topic" informally.
In a pars-pro-toto/totum pro tarte-way.
So this whole article feels super-confusing.

This piece is smart and thoughtful.
There are few 'jobs' where the topic = content. When you study to become and Engineer, your job content has a chance of (at best) being fractionally related to engineering. That's possibly more true for lawyers (if you stay with the practice of law) and definitely more true if you learn a skilled trade (carpentry, etc.)
I'll happily add this lens to my own thinking and my responses when I am asked this kind of question in the future.

"lack of major negatives like unfair pay" - oh it's alright then, the job I have in mind has no such menial additions as pay at all)))