Earn and Enjoy

26th April, 2008

Dear Economist,
The law of comparative advantage suggests people should use their talent, but we’re also told “do what you love”. What if I have no talent for what I love? Is it worth time and effort pursuing a dream career I’m no good at?

Dear Joy,

Your letter is intelligent, but it is also opaque: you do not reveal what your dream career is. Still, a lack of facts has never been an obstacle to economic analysis, so this is no time for methodological scruples. The principle of comparative advantage states that you should focus on what you do best, relative to the standard set by everybody else. You can do accounts and use the money to hire a cook, or do cooking and use the money to hire an accountant; the correct choice depends not just on whether you are a good bean-sheller and a poor bean-counter, but on whether the world is full of better cooks and worse accountants.

There is no conflict between this principle and the idea that you should “do what you love”. Being good at a job means you will earn more; enjoying a job means you will not mind earning less. Decide whether you prefer money or fun.

But what if you are incapable of doing any job you enjoy? Well, your career is not the be all and end all. Economist Andrew Oswald believes we work too hard and under-invest in friendships. So if my career advice is depressing, ignore it and talk to your friends instead.

Also published at ft.com, subscription free.

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