Aug 08, 2014 1 Min Read

Ever play the game, “Would You Rather”? This party game is simple: everyone has to choose one out of two given options, and is not allowed to answer “neither” or “both”.

Just like the game, Larry Smith plays a lot of interesting scenarios in our heads by putting many contrasting situations against each other.

In his 15-minute TED Talk, titled Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career, Smith starts with a bold statement: “I want to discuss with you this afternoon why you’re going to fail to have a great career”.

Capturing the audience’s attention, as well as their laughter, he expresses his frustration with people not following their passions.

A professor of economics at the University of Waterloo, Smith also doubles as a mentor to many of his students, giving advice on career development. Initially giving the TED Talk on the request of his students, he never expected to garner over two million views.

In a later interview on Forbes, he comments,

“I’ve heard the excuses so many times I can’t stand it anymore. Since the excuses were real, I think they resonated with people watching the TED Talk because they recognise the excuses.”

A variety of excuses

In his talk, Smith goes through a list of excuses he has heard throughout his career, given by those who are unwilling to do what they really need to do in order to have a great career.

It’s a matter of luck

Excuse No. 1: “Well, great careers are really and truly, for most people, just a matter of luck, so I’m going to stand around, I’m going to try to be lucky, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have a great career. If not, I’ll have a good career.”

Countering the excuse, Smith says, “Those trying to have good careers are going to fail, because, really, good jobs are now disappearing. There are great jobs and great careers, and then there are the high-workload, high-stress, bloodsucking, soul-destroying kinds of jobs, and practically nothing in between.”

I’m not a genius

“Yes, there are special people who pursue their passions, but they are geniuses. They are Steven J. I’m not a genius. When I was five, I thought I was a genius, but my professors have beaten that idea out of my head long since.”

Instead of claiming our title as geniuses, we call ourselves, “completely competent”, something that will not help us gain a great career.

Not weird enough?

“Well, I would do this, I would do this, but, but, well, after all, I’m not weird. Everybody knows that people who pursue their passions are somewhat obsessive.”

Commonly heard by those who are not ready to pursue their passion, people who come up with this excuse choose to substitute their pursuit with hard work instead.

Smith lets us in on a little secret: you are definitely bound to work hard. However, he doubts the choice of hard work without passion. “The world will give you the opportunity to work really, really, really, really hard, but are you so sure that that’s going to give you a great career when all the evidence is to the contrary?”

Only an interest

Moving forward, Smith brings us to the excuses of another kind of person – those with only an interest.

“Passion is your greatest love. Passion is the thing that will help you create the highest expression of your talent. Passion, interest – it’s not the same thing.”

Using a romantic relationship as an analogy, Smith says, “Are you really going to go to your sweetie and say, ‘Marry me! You’re interesting.’ Won’t happen. Won’t happen, and you will die alone.”

“What you want, is passion. It is beyond interest. You need 20 interests, and then one of them, one of them might grab you, one of them might engage you more than anything else, and then you may have found your greatest love in comparison to all the other things that interest you, and that’s what passion is.”

An interest is not what will propel you towards your great career. Passion is.

Playing out another “Would You Rather” scenario, Smith compares the tombstone of an engineer who invented Velcro, and the tombstone of the alternative life of that same engineer, saying: “Here lies the last Nobel Laureate in Physics, who formulated the Grand Unified Field Theory and demonstrated the practicality of warp drive.”

“One was a great career. One was a missed opportunity.”

Either, or

Smith finally brings us to the last excuse on the list: those who make unnecessary sacrifices.

“Yes, I would pursue a great career, but I value human relationships more than accomplishment. I want to be a great friend. I want to be a great spouse. I want to be a great parent, and I will not sacrifice them on the altar of great accomplishment.”

Scoffing at this excuse, he questions his audience. Do you really want to use your children as a shield? Giving another pair of situations, Smith paints our future.

One day, when our kid comes up to us and tells us of their dream of becoming a magician, how will we answer them? Will we be able to tell them to go for it, just like we did?

All these excuses stem from only one thing: fear.

“And that’s why you’re not going to have a great career, unless – unless, that most evocative of all English words – unless. But the ‘unless’ word is also attached to that other, most terrifying phrase, ‘If only I had…’”

I end this with a question for you: would you rather tell your future kids about the dreams that you have pursued, or the dreams that you have left behind?

(Photo source: Anthony Easton)
Sarah chose the former option as her answer, and is determined to find her passion in order to make it come true. You can tell her your choice at sarah.tan@leaderonomics.com


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