Career Happiness Venn Diagram (Part 1)

I don’t know why, but I love Venn diagrams; if you've ever worked with me before, you probably know this. This past Monday, August 4th, 2014 was the 180th anniversary of John Venn’s birthday so I am going to take the opportunity to finally get this Venn diagram about career happiness of my head. This also helps me close the loop on a short Facebook discussion I had a year or two ago regarding this subject. 

I believe there are four factors that contribute to how happy or satisfied you feel about what you do for a living, and the potential for happiness increases the more these factors overlap. 

  • You love to do it.
  • You do it well. 
  • It gives you financial security or independence. 
  • You believe it makes a difference. 
 This is NOT a Venn diagram. Why?  Because . 

This is NOT a Venn diagram. Why? Because

To see the possible overlap areas of four things you might start by doing this: 

This commonly-seen configuration is not a proper Venn Diagram – a lot of people make that mistake.

A proper four-way Venn diagram is one that shows every single possible combination of those four categories. There are multiple ways to do that, but I like this configuration the best: 

 Heart = Love, Star = Do well, Piggy bank = Makes money, Lightning = Makes a difference (icons from  Glyphish )

Heart = Love, Star = Do well, Piggy bank = Makes money, Lightning = Makes a difference (icons from Glyphish)

These are highly personal or subjective factors, so if you were to find examples for each region in the diagram, it would likely be quite different for each of us. 

First, doing what you love. I don't advocate blindly pursuing only this, and there are many well-articulated arguments why simply "doing what you love" can be a problem ("In the Name of Love" by Miya Tokumitsu at Slate is a great example). However I can't ignore the fact that having some personal affinity for what you do is a factor in finding happiness, and for some people it is the most important thing. For me, I love learning new things, geeking out, designing and making stuff, reading, watching movies, playing games, etc. What you love to do is completely personal and even changes over time. 

Second, what you're good at. I believe this is a function of talent, interest, persistence, and practice; talent, in my opinion, is the least important one, but that's a subject for another time (and there are many others who have already written much about it). When you are doing something you don't feel you're good at for an extended period of time, it can be quite draining emotionally, psychologically, and physically. There's Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule and its criticisms, but however you gain mastery, I think there's a lot of joy to be found when you're able to use your expertise in your career. 

Third, what makes money, in my opinion, should be grounded in reality; the median household income in the United States is about $51,017 per year in 2013. The San Francisco Bay Area, where I live and work, has an insane housing cost problem which contributes to it being one of the most expensive places to live. Even in the land of billion-dollar startup buyouts, the vast majority of people make much more modest incomes. The Economic Policy Institute's estimate of $84,000 a year for a family of four to live on "comfortably" in San Francisco has generated a lot of criticism that it isn't nearly enough; maybe a family can live on that, but I don't think they would describe it as "comfortable". Would I love having one-hundred billion dollars in the bank? Sure, I think a lot of us would, but let's be realistic. For me, an income that enables a good quality of life where you live, manage a household, and save for the future is damn good. 

Lastly, making a difference is about making the world a better place in one way or another, big or small. As I've gotten older it's no longer just about "saving the world" (though finding a cure for cancer or unlocking the key to limitless clean energy would be beyond amazing), but making a positive impact in people's lives in some measurable way. There's a strong argument to be made that doing the most good is possible when it's aligned with what you also know how to do well (read "Confronting My Privilege: Why Africa Doesn't Need My Help" by Katrina Beitz). 

So there's my framework for career happiness visualized as a Venn diagram. It doesn't take into account the prioritization of these factors, but I can imagine extending this model to have some sort of weighting... however there's no need to geek out too much about this right now so why don't I leave it at that for the time being. 

The next step is to find specific examples for each possible combination of these four factors. I've started doing this as a personal exercise, but that's for another post.