What is “Good Work?”
Stanford entrepreneurship and Design School professor Tina Seelig broke down “good work” into three simple ingredients that I’ve admired and passed on to innumerable young adults: Passion, Skill, and Market.
Passion means that the work is something you love—something you would do for its own sake. Skill means something that you can technically accomplish. And market means that someone will pay you to do the work. To do good work necessarily requires each of these three ingredients.
As Seelig observed, if you’re passionate about doing something, but you’re unskilled and no one will pay you do it, then you’re a fan. Think of a football fan who watches the game every Sunday, but plays little football himself. Watching football cannot become a form of good work (however much he may desire it!).
If you’re skilled at something, but you’re not passionate about it and no one will pay you to do it, then it’s merely a talent. (To be “skilled,” in this sense, means more skilled than the average practitioner. Most everyone is skilled in the art of walking, so “walking” wouldn’t fall into this scheme.) If you’re skilled at doing algebra equations or playing the piano, but you have no love for these skills, then they are mere talents which won’t lead you to good work. [Tutoring algebra, teaching the piano, or performing on the piano at a high level might lead you toward good work—but those are separate skills from just doing algebra or playing the piano.]
Where passion and skill overlap—but where still no one will pay you—you have a hobby. Think of a model train collector, backyard biologist, or rock climbing enthusiast. In such cases, where getting paid to the work is highly challenging or unlikely, hobbies tend to remain hobbies.
When you know what’s valuable to other people and what they’ll pay you for, then you’re identifying a market. Seeing how a cell phone might be improved, a restaurant better run, or health care better delivered are all examples of market thinking. It’s about meeting other people’s needs, not your own.
Obviously, matching market needs with passions and skills is where we’re headed. But we more often find ourselves in two other situations: dreaming about paid work that we’re passionate about, but lack the high-level performance skills (the “dream job” where Passion and Market overlap), and settling for paid work that we can do, but doesn’t light our fire (the regular “job” where Skill and Market overlap). Think of the artist who lacks the competency to produce and sell his work, or the miserable office worker who earns a paycheck but secretly desires to be an artist. Neither path—endlessly pursuing the dream job or consigning yourself to “just a job”—will satisfy in the end.
To do good work, you must find the place where your passion, skill, and the market overlaps.
Good Work Requires Self-Directed Learning (SDL) 2.0
Understanding the passion, skill, and market model is simple; putting it into action is complicated. The first question is, where do I start? When searching for the overlap between passion, skill, and market, should I develop my skills to meet my passions? Force the market to conform to my hobbies? Change my passions?
Let’s consider the idea of SDL 1.0 versus SDL 2.0.
Self-directed learning 1.0 is the love of learning with which everyone is born (and remains within them, despite heavy schooling). When you’re doing SDL 1.0, you might be teaching yourself chess, reading dozens of science fiction novels, or dissecting bugs in the backyard—each for the simple pleasure of the task itself. And SDL 1.0 isn’t limited to childhood or teenage activities. As a young adult, you might passionately pursue college-level psychology, practice an advanced art form, or teach yourself how the tax system works.
As such, SDL 1.0 is mostly concerned with Passion and Skill—less so with Market. If your chess hobby turns into a profitable chess-teaching gig, that’s great. But self-directed learning 1.0 is predominantly about doing (and getting good at) what you love…not making money.
Self-directed learning 2.0 is the financially sustainable version of SDL 1.0.
SDL 2.0 is for people who really love self-directed learning. They love it so much that they want to do it full-time. And to do it full-time, as a young adult, they recognize that their learning must be profitable. It must make them financially independent.
As such, SDL 2.0 starts with a Market need and then finds a Passion and Skill that match it.
For those of you who think that I’m sullying beautiful, pure, passion-driven self-directed learning with dirty money, I ask you: What is the alternative? Taking a job that’s unrelated to your passions and pursuing your hobbies on the side? Waiting tables full-time and moonlighting until you keel over from sleep deprivation? Look at the people around you and ask yourself, which tends to take over: workplace responsibilities or hobbies? Talking about money doesn’t sully self-directed learning; it enables it.
Good work must live in the nexus between Passion, Skill, and Market. And SDL 2.0 recognizes that, as a young adult, you’re no longer (or soon won’t be) under the financial wing of your parents, federal financial aid, or other benefactors. The only plausible way to continue self-directed learning is therefore to reverse the traditional (version 1.0) order of SDL—Passion->Skill->Market—and figure out the Market first. Because without a Market, those science fiction novels and psychology theories won’t pay the bills.