The honor of the soundtrack for this article goes to the iconic and haunting monologue by Ewan McGregor in “Trainspotting”(1996) that defined the 90s, together with that “You Never Can Tell” dance in “Pulp Fiction”(1994). The full “choose life … ” monologue starts at 02:38.
By 2007 I had tried out every career assessment tool or personality test there was in the market. Those tests were helpful to some extent, but the overall value was limited, at least for me. Unsatisfied with what was available, I started developing a more effective framework/methodology to find out the key drivers that may explain why I like doing certain things more than others and figure out what would be my best career choice given what I want.
At that time I was on my way out of General Electric (GE). GE taught me everything I knew and I was eternally grateful for an exceptionally enriching professional experience it had bestowed me with. However I found myself gradually leaning toward a direction that would obviously deviate from the trajectory that GE had always designed for me. I was looking for my true self and didn’t want to just fall into a pre-defined category that others presumed I belonged to.
The quest for the ultimate answer to this ultimate question seems like a universal one (unfortunately, the answer is not as easy as … 42). Many of my friends all over the world are searching for it, and many of my classmates in Stanford Sloan Fellow master program are also searching for it. As we walk through 30s, the most productive years of our life, having bounced around several career tracks in the past, many of us were taking a pulse asking:
- Do I really enjoy my current job?
- Is this the right career for me?
- What should I really pursue in my life?
It would not be respectful to address these questions without mentioning the monumental theoretical work by Maslow, who proposed his landmark paper in 1943 “A Theory of Human Motivation”. The famous “Maslow’s Pyramid“, which depicts hierarchy of needs, is well known. I got a taste of that from the Social-Psychology class in my undergraduate days in National University of Singapore. The five layers of human motivations, Physiological-Safety-Love/Belonging-Esteem-Self Actualization, are probably the most widely quoted framework on this subject.
With all due respect to Maslow, I didn’t feel his pyramid was sufficient to explain drivers at deeper levels. His five layers are perfectly correct, and do a good job explaining social behaviors by different social classes in the same country or across different countries, but that’s not the area where most of my peers are struggling. Most people who actually can afford the luxury to contemplate this question, are struggling with drivers/motivations embedded in the top “Self-Actualization” layer, which warrants a much more in-depth analysis. We have to peel the onion even further.
Another often-mentioned deep question is What Gives You Happiness. Harvard’s insanely popular course Psychology 1504 “Positive Psychology” (aka, the “Happiness Course”) has made a name for itself since 2006. However I feel it’s still left much to be answered. The question on Happiness is not the same as the question on What Drives You to Do Certain Things. Health, family time, California sunshine, these are the obvious answers to Happiness and no one can dispute them – which means they are not really particularly useful in solving our puzzle. In a very tacky sense, we need to find out the fundamental drivers that make us choose certain careers over others.
By the way, while I’m at it, I would define happiness as a kind of sensation that you can derive totally independent from any externalities. This simple and beautiful definition leads to many implications, such as that money does not give you happiness (because money is an externality), or that only spiritual enlightenment can bring out true happiness, etc. Another definition I sometimes use, in a joking fashion, is Happiness = Capability / Desire, which is pretty neat and conveniently incorporates psychological expectation. Anyway, the question of happiness is a different discussion all together. Let’s move on.
Also I don’t think discussing How To Be Successful is of much help. Success is an over-rated and excessively discussed topic. Most people tend to associate success with money, fame, achievement and getting up on social ladder. People from different classes and cultures have vastly different views on success and thus most discussions on success have very limited mileage. To me success is to have the freedom to do what one wants to without feeling constrained.
By the same token, I don’t think this topic should be mixed with What Is Your Passion. Passion is closest to Driver, but not quite the same. Passion sometimes borderlines with interests and interests are not necessarily the fundamental drivers at our deepest psychological level. Passion implies that people have a strong urge to do certain things, and I feel many people don’t really have that in them. But everyone has some drivers, even for those with no noticeable passion in anything. Passion is an often over-rated concept, especially in b-schools. In those successful entrepreneurs I’ve known or heard about, patience, perseverance, and tenacity are the three most important attributes. Having passion definitely helps, but I don’t feel it’s a necessary condition of success.
So in 2007 I developed a SIMPLERK method to help myself address these questions. I found it useful in providing me with a consistent guiding principle when making major career decisions. The assessment on myself in 2007 has since withheld the test of time and is still valid today. Over the years I’ve applied the same method on many friends. I think most if not all my friends have found it useful to some extent as well. For some of them, SIMPLERK also revealed something in them that they did not realize before, which came as a surprise with mixed feelings.
Here’s how I use my SIMPLERK method to solve the puzzle, once and for all.
- When we are doing this evaluation, we can no longer change what we are, because we have already passed the formation years of our lives. What this analysis reveals, is what you are. Whether you like it or not, you’ll have to live with it. There is no “right” or “wrong” driver. No driver is superior to others. Every driver is reasonable and legitimate.
- The result of this evaluation is probably valid for approximately 10-15 years, after which your priorities may change, depending on individual circumstance or life-changing events (like, winning a lottery or marrying up).
- The below drivers are collectively exhaustive and mutually exclusive, as you may have noticed in every other framework I’ve developed. In my opinion, a list is of little value unless it tries to be collectively exhaustive and mutually exclusive.
- These drivers are at the most fundamental psychological level. For example, some people may say, I want to be creative. Being creative is not a fundamental driver. Why you want to be creative? Because you want to be recognized (R) as being a creative person, or you want to influence (I) people’s lives in unique way, or you want to leave behind a legacy (L) that distinctively has your mark?
- Sexual dominance is excluded from this evaluation for the sake of analysis. Many social psychologists would probably argue that this particular driver overshadows everything else single-handedly, as the mission for any civilization ultimately is to reproduce itself, preserve the best genes and allocate limited resources to ensure the survival of the fittest. Let’s just leave that aside and for a second focus on something more platonic.
2. Drivers: (SIMPLERK)
Stability is a desire to maintain a state of stability, avoid unpredictable, reduce variability in life, seek for a kind of serenity or tranquility. Some people are excited by a bustling life with constant changes and new ventures, but some other people would prefer to have greater control of his/her life and deal with things with well-defined protocols/methods.
Many careers are good venues for Stability, such as government jobs, large corporate jobs, doctors, administrative/staff function jobs, school jobs, etc. They are by no means easier, but usually are fairly stable and you can figure out the rope quickly.
Influence is a desire to influence others’ behaviors and thoughts, to change how people view or perceive certain things, to create a belief or vision that people would follow, to make people do things they would not do otherwise in the absence of absolute power, to will an action that would not take place otherwise, to call to an action that people would respond to. Influence is different from Power (which will be explained later).
Influence can be found in many career choices, such as entrepreneurship (change the world for a better place/make a dent in the universe), designing (architecture, fashion, industrial design), religion founder (Buddha , Christian Rosenkreuz), rebel (Gandhi, Che) bearer of hope (Gandalf, Lawrence of the Arabia), teaching, writing, journalism, media, activist, and Dr. Phil.
Money is a desire for … for lack of a better word, money. I understand the mere appearance of this word in such a context will stir endless debate and controversy, because people tend to believe that Money should never be the end goal, rather it should be a means to the end, or a derivative of the end. Most lecturers teaching startup/entrepreneurship in B-schools would say you should never work for Money but your true passion.
It is not my intention to get into any fruitless and pointless debate about Money’s relationship to other more gloried goals/drivers in life. It is just pretty obvious that Money is a significant factor in making career decisions. Some people care more, and some people care less, but either way it is there. Why young people go to investment banking or strategy consulting? Among other things that may be spiritually or intellectually elevating, let’s face it – it’s Money. So Money has a rightful place in my SIMPLERK framework. I have seen people whose singular goal is to make as much money as they can, regardless of which venture they choose. Having Money in the discussion makes the discussion much easier.
Careers that provide loads of money include investment banking, strategy consulting, law firms, big-four accounting firms, medical doctors, investment (highly dependent on how long you can stay in the game and when do you leave the game), gangster, and pirate.
Power is a desire to make others bent to your will, by leveraging either your social position or organizational position. It is much stronger than Influence. Influence can be achieved forcefully or indirectly, in an amicable manner, and Power is usually achieved in a much more confrontational, direct manner. While both Influence and Power will lead to altered behaviors of the recipients, Power has the additional benefit of feeling unconstrained. Power as a desire probably has the greatest impact to mankind’s history. Dynasties fall, nations rise, civilizations sustain, all these can be attributed to some extraordinary individuals who have insatiable appetite for power.
Careers that lead to Power are government officials (senators/congressmen, President, Speaker of the House, mayors, ministers), founding fathers, military officers, big-corporate jobs, movie directors, spies, super heroes (Batman, Spider Man, X-Men), any senior job in a highly hierarchical organization where people pay more attention to title/ranking than the person him/herself.
Legacy is a desire to leave something behind to the world, to build something that will stand on its own beyond our physical life, to create something that can be carried forward generation after generation.
People who desire for Legacy often donate money to build schools (Stanford), build NPO foundations to tackle issues that no government or corporate can handle (Gates Foundation), create art museums/galleries that provide enlightenment (Getty, Guggenheim), write novels (Romance of Three Kingdoms), develop real-estates, build bridges/dams, etc.
Experience is a desire to experience as many things/adventures in life as possible, to carpe diem, to live one’s life to the fullest, to leave no regret before leaving this world, to be able to claim “I’ve been there, done that”. A lot of people travel around the world, try out different jobs, make new girlfriends/boyfriends in each new country, always appreciate new thrills that come his/her way and never get tired of them. They seem to be drifters, moving from one thing to another, sometimes without apparent logical rationale. I find this desire much more common in the western cultures than in the eastern cultures (which are usually more utilitarian-driven).
Jobs that provide rich experience (can be in terms of physical environment, people interact with, or the contents itself) include corporate auditors, corporate road warriors (who get rotated to a new assignment every few years), certain government officials on rotation assignment (elite squad or diplomat), missionary workers, event management (wedding planner, travel agencies), restaurant critics, sailors, bar owners/tenders, performance acts, groupies, etc.
Recognition is a desire to be recognized by either peers/family members, or people you know, or even people you don’t know. There are three layers of recognition: 1) being appreciated as in possession of certain skills; 2) being recognizable by having a personal brand that is associated with certain positive image/perception; 3) being recognized as better than many peers who are in the same business/profession, or as simply the best, the most awesome one, the one. Recognition is in some way connected to vanity, though vanity conveys much more negativity. Recognition is also related to a strong desire to express one’s self. (Though I think there might exist one category of special individuals whose sole desire is just to express him/herself, regardless how that is perceived/recognized by others. Gao Xingjian made that point in his acceptance speech for 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature, echoing the voice of George Orwell in his 1946 essay “Why I Write”).
Careers that provide Recognition include sales, traders, investment professionals (Buffett, Schwartzman), artists (Van Gogh, Pollock), poets (Pink Floyd, Dylan), rock n’ roll stars (Led Zeppelin), writers (Murakami), directors (Kubrick), movie stars/actors (Tom Cruise), super-models (Adriana Lima), professional athletes (Jordan, Bryant, Maradona), talk-show hosts (Fallon, O’Brien), and Kardashian sisters.
Knowledge is a desire to explore the unknown world, to advance mankind’s frontier of intellect and knowledge, to figure out the answer to the ultimate question in the universe, to look for perfection and harmony that usually bear no meaning to day-to-day life.
People with such desire and derive happiness from such accomplishment, can be found in SETI scientists, researchers, professors, astronauts, code-breakers, inventors (Tesla), theoretical mathematicians, string theorists, and Stephen Wolfram.
- The use of SIMPLERK is very simple. After fully understanding the definition of the eight drivers, identify a few that resonate with you most. Choose a career that does the best job in fulfilling all your identified drivers at the same time. Such a career may not be within reach to you right away and it might take a few stepping stones to get to it, but at least you know what it is. Sometimes such career may not even exist. Then you will need to invent it and find a platform that can carry it. The best jobs that the ones you create for yourself anyway.
- I’ve tried SIMPLERK on many friends who are also on the quest looking for their meaning of life. The exercise has produced a surprisingly large variety in answers, which is pretty intriguing (to find out what my friends truly want and see that they all have different drivers) and at the same time demonstrates the robustness of this framework.
- Empirically most people identify 2 – 4 drivers from the above list of 8. It suffices to say if there is only one driver the person is not thinking wide open enough; if there are more than 4 drivers then the person has not quite figured out what he/she really wants.
- It seems that what drives us has a lot to do with our family background, the environment in which we’re brought up, and the way our parents educate us when we are young.
- There is actually one more step to facilitate the finding of the drivers. In 2007 I quitted GE to work on a website full-time on my own to develop an ajax-based interactive tool. The tool provided much-needed scientific rigor into this framework and sort of helped testers figure out the drivers subconsciously (borrowing some ideas from Myers-Briggs Test). In late 2007 I went back to Beijing to join a VC-funded company as its CFO and discontinued the development of the website. Not sure where the codes are now, nor do I really care. I’ve found having beer in a noisy dive bar turns out to be quite effective, as well. The best part of SIMPLERK, and the most fun part, lies in its delivery, discussion and comparing notes. This writing cannot do its justice in that regard, but it’s a start.
- For your reference, my main drivers, in descending order of significance, are: Influence, Recognition, and Money.
- Since 2007, I have been using this SIMPLERK framework as a compass to guide me through every career transition, from a corporate career in GE to CFO in China, then to an entrepreneur in the Bay area after Stanford. It’s done a very effective and adequate job explaining my every move, and it also explains why I would not fancy a career in VC just yet. I’ll be happy to share some personal thoughts on this in person.
- I’ve always wanted to complete this article. The end of my Sloan days feels like a right moment to synthesize everything. Hopefully my friends feel the same and find some value in SIMPLERK as well.
Everything written so far is just a prelude. The fun part of the conversation only comes when we start applying SIMPLERK on ourselves and people around us, or figures we’ve heard about (say, Bill Gates or Mayor Bloomberg). You know where to find me.