Going with your gut feeling?

On the October Open Thread on my old blog there was a discussion on the topic of passion. Should you follow your “passion” when choosing a career? There was a strong consensus that such advice was severely misguided. Yet, the mainstream harps on and on about passion. This reminded me of a video that recently showed up in my LinkedIn feed, and to which a bunch of morons commented how inspirational it was: Go with your gut feeling by Magnus Walker as part of TEDxUCLA.

Quite frankly, some websites are a cesspool of mediocrity. Well, any popular website is, due to the simple fact that the average person is a moron. However, some sites downright celebrate mediocrity. Quora is a prime example. Another one is TED. But let’s get back to that video of Magnus Walker. Just look at that guy! Yes, he has made it, but due to a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time. It’s great that he’s been making a lot of money, but appearing on stage and telling the average schmuck to follow his gut feeling is severely misguided. Even worse is Joe Schmuck lapping up this nonsense and believing there is something to it. Yeah, Joe, you just go ahead and quit your accounting associate role. Get back to me in 20 years and tell me how far your passion got you.

The knee-jerk response of your typical average moron or Internet marketer is that I’m a “hater” or a “Negative Nancy”. Yet, the underlying problem is survivorship bias. Are all old buildings of a very high quality? Well, the ones that still stand presumably are. But what about those that don’t stand anymore? Is it good advice to follow your gut feeling, drop out of high school, and just move to another country? Take 1,000 such guys, squeeze them in a couple of airplanes and drop them on the coast of Californa — probably a few won’t starve to death. A very small number may even, due a combination of luck and skill, eke out a decent living. Some may even win the lottery, figuratively speaking. The average high school dropout, though, won’t fare nearly as well. But don’t let this deter you, Joe, you go follow your gut feeling now! If you want to follow your passion, you better take a good hard look at the expected outcome. If your passion is statistics, you’ll be a lot better off than if your passion is rock music. Even if you are the next Axl Rose, you still depend on the average moron believing that rock is now again where it’s at so that he’ll buy your records and come to your concerts.

By the way, Magnus Walker most likely glosses over some facts. I think it is safe to assume that he got financial support from his family while he was following his gut feeling, but since this would no longer be an example of the American Dream, he constructed a story that implies that he moved to LA without a job, no money, and no prospects, living off nothing.

16 thoughts on “Going with your gut feeling?

  1. I asked the original question on the old blog, I checked out the book recomended in the comment section and its a decent read.

  2. Quora’s (eerily good) algorithm is the reason you tend to only see stuff in your Quora feed that you already agree with when it comes to political topics. Just skip political topics if Quora is too left-wing for you. If you upvote an answer on topology you get to see more anwers on topolgy/math. If you upvote an answer on world literature you get to see more of that too. One thing I like about Quora is that you get a glimpse in the head of some very clever people. For instance, there’s one guy called Joseph Wang (Astrophysics PhD turned Investment banker turned entrepreneur) who I have bookmarked and once a week I read what he has to say and it gives me interesting perspectives on things. For example, look at this answer to some guy who asked if he should do a Phd in economics after a Master in mathematics in order to become a hedge fonds manager:

    “If you want to be a hedge fund manager, a Ph.D. in economics is pretty useless. Your best bet would be to go out and intern in an investment bank or hedge fund. No one has a deep understanding of the economy, the most you can get is a good understanding of part of the economy, and the way that Ph.D. economists look at the world is not useful for hedge funds.

    What I always find to be useful is to just go to the bookstore or library and pick a book at random. One reason that this is useful is that you end up out of the box thinking. For example, I’m quite fascinated by the economic and educational policy of Austria-Hungary, because I just randomly found a book on the Habsburgs in a book sale.

    You might look at the Wiley Finance books, there are dozens of them. Just pick one at random.

    Picking books at random avoids “herd behavior.”

    The other thing that is useful is to read books on sales and marketing. One other random book that I read was a book on “how do you open up a restaurant” and “how do you run a hotel.” It seems that a lot of running a hedge fund is like running a restaurant or hotel.

    Finally, don’t spend too much time reading books. Find a local business, sit down and observe, and try to figure out how the local economy works.”

    1. I didn’t browse Quora looking for political debate. The reason why Quora is a paragon of mediocrity is because it is full of morons and highly-educated morons. The former have sunk to a level where they can’t even be bothered to use a search engine, so they submit their questions to Quora, hoping that the answer they are looking for will appear in pre-digested form. Easily 90% of questions on that site don’t even need to be asked as they could be answered with a bit of initiative. The worst are highly-educated morons who don’t grasp the limits of their knowledge. In a technical field I am familiar with you come across countless people whose contributions betray their lack of understanding of basic principles.

      Note that in technical fields, your questions can be answered by opening a book or using your brain a little bit. This doesn’t necessarily apply if you are working at the research frontier, but if you are a researcher and ask stuff on Quora, you are probably in the wrong field.

      Of course, occasionally you can come across interesting people on Quora, like, seemingly, Joseph Wang. Those people are the saving grace of that site, and hardly representative.

  3. I find that “follow your passion” is good advice, as long as:
    a) you are consistently *really* good at what you do, i. e. you can prove it time and again
    b) you have a USP in your field of endeavour that others cannot really challenge
    c) you can turn this occupation into money to reliably pay your bills
    d) you enjoy advancing your skills and adapting your horizon, even if it’s hard and doesn’t seem “fun” or “passionate”

    Ar least that’s the way I did and it turned out well both artistically & financially.

    The core problem to guard against with the “passion” advice is, that you might be so highly passionate about it and so invested in it that you are in danger of getting “tunnel vision”, i. e. not really paying sufficient attention towards everything else that’s going on around you . Life and mastering one’s own life after all is so much more (health, fitness, style, friendships, relationships, sex, recreation etc.), than just your occupation/calling which you are so deeply passionate about, that it might easily overtake most of your waking time…

    1. Schopenhauer has something interesting to say about your second point (very roughly paraphrasing): the reason successful artists are paid so much is that their time in the limelight is limited. Thus, they receive capital and interest at the same time. He goes on to state that many artists erroneously believe that the financial remuneration they receive is merely the interest, and thus squander it, without thinking ahead, believing that the goose will keep laying golden eggs.

      The main issue is c). Thus, if you don’t have family resources to draw from, you are arguably a lot better off if you moonlight in your passion, whatever it is. Mind you, this was good enough for some of the greatest minds of the past. Yet, today we have tens of thousands of would-be artists and authors who live off welfare and produce little of significance. On top, those people refer to themselves as “independent authors” (“freier Autor” in German), conveniently neglecting to state the fact that the main source of their income is financial support from their parents or spouse, or the government.

  4. Well but if your gut feeling says to you, that it’s better to not listen to your gut feeling, because many people before you failed, isn’t that listening to your gut feeling? Every decision is made by our gut, sometimes we just don’t recognize it as gut feeling. You always listen to your gut, the brain is not the decision maker, it just tricks you into thinking that it is.

    1. I wasn’t aware that one could have an internal argument with their gut, akin to assessing two different positions intellectually. Joking aside, you make some rather strong claims but don’t provide a convincing argument. How does it take into account that you may take your initial emotional response into account and actively decide against it, for instance when greed clouds your judgment for a moment when being presented by an investment opportunity. Then you force yourself to reassess it once you can think more clearly, and decide that you rather not risk your money? Besides, there is an entire branch of inquiry that is built upon the notion of not following your emotions but instead to critically assess the evidence. It is called science. You know, it is that kind of thing that is being aped in the humanities and related disciplines.

    2. Compulsive behaviour and gut feeling are two different things. Selling everything and go to L.A. to become an actor is not gut feeling, it’s stupid, naive and compulsive behaviour. But that’s not what Magnus Walker want to say to us.

      I’ve studied engineering – from a rational point of view it’s a very good decision, but it felt wrong to me, my gut feeling said go and do what you want to do (become an entrepreneur). Now I don’t say that I want to be a billionaire, I just want to make a living with my own company.

      Not everybody can be a famous actor, but everybody who wants to make a living as an actor can do it (although you might won’t be financially successful).

      In summary:

      “I will be a world famous actor who makes a ton of money!” -> childish, stupid, naive behaviour
      “I want to somehow make a living as an actor.” -> gut feeling

    3. The “gut feeling” of wanting to “somehow” make a living as an actor is an indication of stupidity beyond measure. No, the average actor will not be able to make a living. It’s a typical winner-takes-all market. Do some basic research before posting.

  5. “Going with your gut feelings” is a good approach when you need to make quick decisions on things and it does not involve a long term course of action. If your intuition is matched by appropriate experience and training, this might work out pretty well. The problem is people make a few lucky guesses and become convinced they should go with their feelings in all cases, in place of looking at the evidence. This is when disaster occurs.

  6. I did the whole jump ship and go to LA thing and pretty much found a lot the same (i.e. the untold help, and illusions of many of those success stories) and have had to get real with the practicality of music for a living, and the bigger picture with finances etc etc etc

  7. Thanks for this reflection on the relation betwen passion and life choices. It interests me a lot as I’m still in my 20s. I’ll surely have a look at that Walker dude video.
    Once I read in nice blog by a guy named Cal Newport that “following your passion”, in the way people usually understand that advice, was completely wrong; passion wasn’t to be found deep within your “heart”, tastes or feelings, but rather in your hard work. The more you excel at something, the more you love it. So passion kind of comes after whatever you decide to do in your life. At least that was what I understood from him.

  8. This topic reminds me of that article by Mark Manson about quitting your day job and travelling the world.
    The more I think about it the more I can’t list the amount of things I see wrong with it. Basically a personal account that somehow promises the same thing will happen to anyone else who decides to jump off a cliff and survive.

    1. Independence porn was pushed by many PUA gurus once the seduction industry imploded, all trying to follow Tim Ferriss’s footsteps.

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