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Larry Smith: Why you will fail to have a great career

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In this funny and blunt talk, Larry Smith pulls no punches when he calls out the absurd excuses people invent when they fail to pursue their passions.

- Professor of Economics, University of Waterloo
A professor of economics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Larry Smith coaches his students to find the careers that they will truly love. Full bio

I want to discuss with you this afternoon
00:03
why you're going to fail to have a great career. (Laughter)
00:08
I'm an economist. I do dismal.
00:12
End of the day, it's ready for dismal remarks.
00:16
I only want to talk to those of you who want a great career.
00:21
I know some of you have already decided
00:25
you want a good career.
00:26
You're going to fail, too — (Laughter) —
00:29
because — Goodness, you're all cheery about failing. (Laughter)
00:31
Canadian group, undoubtedly. (Laughter)
00:34
Those trying to have good careers are going to fail,
00:40
because, really, good jobs are now disappearing.
00:42
There are great jobs and great careers,
00:46
and then there are the high-workload, high-stress,
00:49
bloodsucking, soul-destroying kinds of jobs,
00:53
and practically nothing in between.
00:56
So the people looking for good jobs are going to fail.
00:58
I'm going to talk about those looking for great jobs, great
01:00
careers, and why you're going to, why you're going to fail.
01:03
First reason is that no matter how many times people tell you,
01:07
"If you want a great career, you have to pursue your passion,
01:13
you have to pursue your dreams, you have to pursue,
01:17
the greatest fascination in your life,"
01:20
you hear it again and again and then you decide
01:23
not to do it. It doesn't matter how many times you download
01:25
Steven J.'s Stanford commencement address,
01:29
you still look at it and decide not to do it.
01:34
I'm not quite sure why you decide not to do it.
01:37
You're too lazy to do it. It's too hard.
01:39
You're afraid if you look for your passion and don't find it,
01:41
you'll feel like you're an idiot, so then you make excuses
01:44
about why you're not going to look for your passion.
01:47
And they are excuses, ladies and gentlemen.
01:50
We're going to go through a whole long list, your creativity,
01:51
and thinking of excuses not to do what you really
01:54
need to do if you want to have a great career.
01:57
So, for example, one of your great excuses is,
02:00
"Well, great careers are really and truly, for most people,
02:06
just a matter of luck, so I'm going to stand around,
02:11
I'm going to try to be lucky, and if I'm lucky,
02:15
I'll have a great career. If not, I'll have a good career."
02:17
But a good career is an impossibility, so that's not going to work.
02:20
Then, your other excuse is, "Yes, there are special people
02:24
who pursue their passions, but they are geniuses.
02:28
They are Steven J. I'm not a genius.
02:32
When I was five, I thought I was a genius,
02:35
but my professors have beaten that idea
02:38
out of my head long since." (Laughter) Mm?
02:40
"And now I know I am completely competent."
02:43
Now, you see, if this was 1950,
02:47
being completely competent,
02:50
that would have given you a great career.
02:53
But guess what? This is almost 2012, and saying
02:55
to the world, "I am totally, completely competent,"
02:59
is damning yourself with the faintest of praise.
03:03
And then, of course, another excuse:
03:07
"Well, I would do this, I would do this, but, but,
03:10
well, after all, I'm not weird.
03:13
Everybody knows that people who pursue their passions
03:17
are somewhat obsessive. A little strange? Mm? Mm? Okay?
03:20
You know, a fine line between madness and genius.
03:25
I'm not weird. I've read Steven J.'s biography.
03:28
Oh my goodness. I am not that person. I am nice.
03:32
I am normal. I'm a nice, normal person,
03:36
and nice, normal people
03:39
don't have passion.
03:41
Ah. But I still want a great career.
03:45
I'm not prepared to pursue my passion, so I know
03:48
what I'm going to do, because I have, I have a solution,
03:50
I have a strategy.
03:53
It's the one Mommy and Daddy told me about.
03:55
Mommy and Daddy told me that if I worked hard,
03:57
I'd have a good career. So, if you work hard
04:00
and have a good career, if you work really, really, really hard,
04:04
you'll have a great career. Doesn't that, like,
04:07
mathematically make sense?"
04:09
Hmm. Not. (Laughter)
04:11
But you've managed to talk yourself into that.
04:12
You know what? Here's a little secret.
04:15
You want to work? You want to work really, really, really hard?
04:17
You know what? You'll succeed. The world will give you
04:20
the opportunity to work really, really, really, really hard,
04:22
but are you so sure that that's going to give you
04:27
a great career when all the evidence is to the contrary?
04:32
So let's assume, let's deal with those of you
04:36
who are trying to find your passion.
04:40
You actually understand that you really had better do it,
04:42
never mind the excuses. You're trying to find your passion,
04:44
and you're so happy.
04:49
You found something you're interested in.
04:51
I have an interest! I have an interest! You tell me.
04:54
You say, "I have an interest!" I say, "That's wonderful!
04:57
And what, what are you trying to tell me? That you — "
04:59
"Well, I have an interest."
05:02
I say, "Do you have passion?"
05:04
"I have an interest," you say.
05:05
Your interest is compared to what?
05:08
"Well, I'm interested in this."
05:09
And what about the rest of humanity's activities?
05:12
"I'm not interested in them."
05:15
You've looked at them all, have you?
05:17
"No. Not exactly."
05:19
Passion is your greatest love.
05:22
Passion is the thing that will help you create
05:25
the highest expression of your talent.
05:30
Passion, interest -- it's not the same thing.
05:32
Are you really going to go to your sweetie and say,
05:35
"Marry me! You're interesting." (Laughter)
05:37
Won't happen. Won't happen, and you will die alone. (Laughter)
05:44
What you want, what you want, what you want,
05:49
is passion. It is beyond interest.
05:52
You need 20 interests, and then one of them,
05:56
one of them might grab you, one of them might engage you
05:59
more than anything else, and then you may have found
06:02
your greatest love in comparison to all the other things
06:05
that interest you, and that's what passion is.
06:09
I have a friend, proposed to his sweetie.
06:12
He was an economically rational person.
06:16
He said to his sweetie, "Let us marry.
06:18
Let us merge our interests."
06:22
(Laughter)
06:25
Yes he did.
06:27
"I love you truly," he said. "I love you deeply. I love you
06:29
more than any other woman I've ever encountered.
06:33
I love you more than Mary, Jane, Susie, Penelope,
06:37
Ingrid, Gertrude, Gretel --
06:41
I was on a German exchange program then." (Laughter)
06:43
"I love you more than — "
06:46
All right! She left the room halfway through his enumeration
06:49
of his love for her.
06:55
After he got over his surprise at being, you know,
06:57
turned down, he concluded he'd had a narrow escape
07:00
from marrying an irrational person,
07:05
although he did make a note to himself that the next time
07:09
he proposed, it was perhaps not necessary to enumerate
07:11
all of the women he had auditioned for the part. (Laughter)
07:15
But the point stands. You must look for alternatives
07:21
so that you find your destiny,
07:25
or are you afraid of the word "destiny"?
07:26
Does the word "destiny" scare you?
07:29
That's what we're talking about, and if you don't find
07:32
the highest expression of your talent, if you settle
07:34
for "interesting," what the hell ever that means,
07:37
do you know what will happen at the end of your long life?
07:40
Your friends and family will be gathered in the cemetery,
07:43
and there, beside your gravesite will be a tombstone,
07:46
and inscribed on that tombstone, it will say,
07:49
"Here lies a distinguished engineer who invented Velcro."
07:52
But what that tombstone should have said,
07:59
in an alternative lifetime,
08:04
what it should have said if it was your highest expression of
08:07
talent, was, "Here lies the last Nobel Laureate in Physics,
08:10
who formulated the Grand Unified Field Theory
08:16
and demonstrated the practicality of warp drive."
08:19
(Laughter)
08:23
Velcro, indeed. (Laughter)
08:25
One was a great career.
08:29
One was a missed opportunity.
08:33
But then, there are some of you,
08:37
in spite of all these excuses, you will find,
08:39
you will find your passion,
08:43
and you'll still fail.
08:47
You're going to fail, because,
08:50
because you're not going to do it,
08:53
because you will have invented a new excuse,
08:56
any excuse to fail to take action, and this excuse
09:00
I've heard so many times.
09:05
"Yes, I would pursue a great career, but I value
09:08
human relationships more than accomplishment.
09:20
I want to be a great friend. I want to be a great spouse.
09:25
I want to be a great parent, and I will not sacrifice them
09:30
on the altar of great accomplishment."
09:33
(Laughter)
09:37
What do you want me to say?
09:39
Now, do you really want me to say now, tell you,
09:41
"Really, I swear I don't kick children." (Laughter)
09:44
Hmm? Look at the worldview you've given yourself.
09:47
You're a hero no matter what, and I, by suggesting,
09:51
ever so delicately, that you might want a great career,
09:56
must hate children. I don't hate children. I don't kick them.
10:00
Yes, there was a little kid wandering through this building
10:03
when I came here, and no, I didn't kick him. (Laughter)
10:06
Course, I had to tell him that the building was for adults only
10:10
and to get out.
10:13
He mumbled something about his mother,
10:14
and I told him she'd probably find him outside anyway.
10:16
Last time I saw him, he was on the stairs crying. (Laughter)
10:20
What a wimp. (Laughter)
10:24
But what do you mean? That's what you expect me to say.
10:26
You really think, you really think it's appropriate
10:29
that you should actually take
10:31
children and use them as a shield?
10:34
You know what will happen someday,
10:37
you, you ideal parent, you?
10:39
The kid will come to you someday and say,
10:43
"I know what I want to be.
10:47
I know what I'm going to do with my life."
10:49
You are so happy. It's the conversation
10:51
a parent wants to hear, because your kid's good in math,
10:53
and you know you're going to like what comes next.
10:56
Says your kid, "I have decided
10:59
I want to be a magician.
11:01
I want to perform magic tricks on the stage."
11:04
(Laughter)
11:08
And what do you say?
11:10
You say, you say,
11:13
"Umm ... that's risky, kid.
11:15
Might fail, kid. Don't make a lot of money at that, kid.
11:19
You know, I don't know, kid,
11:21
you should think about that again, kid,
11:23
you're so good at math, why don't you — "
11:24
And the kid interrupts you, and says,
11:26
"But it is my dream. It is my dream to do this."
11:27
And what are you going to say?
11:32
You know what you're going to say?
11:34
"Look kid. I had a dream once, too, but -- but."
11:35
So how are you going to finish the sentence with your "but"?
11:41
"... But. I had a dream too, once, kid, but I was afraid to pursue it."
11:44
Or, are you going to tell him this?
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"I had a dream once, kid.
11:52
But then you were born." (Laughter)
11:56
(Laughter) (Applause)
12:01
Do you, do you really want to use your family,
12:03
do you really ever want to look at your spouse
12:08
and your kid and see your jailers?
12:11
There was something you could have said to your kid
12:16
when he or she said, "I have a dream."
12:20
You could have said, looked the kid in the face, and said,
12:24
"Go for it, kid,
12:29
just like I did."
12:32
But you won't be able to say that
12:36
because you didn't. So you can't. (Laughter)
12:39
And so the sins of the parents
12:46
are visited on the poor children.
12:49
Why will you seek refuge in human relationships
12:54
as your excuse not to find and pursue your passion?
12:59
You know why.
13:05
In your heart of hearts, you know why,
13:07
and I'm being deadly serious.
13:10
You know why you would get all warm and fuzzy
13:13
and wrap yourself up in human relationships.
13:15
It is because you are —
13:18
You know what you are.
13:22
You're afraid to pursue your passion.
13:24
You're afraid to look ridiculous.
13:28
You're afraid to try. You're afraid you may fail.
13:30
Great friend, great spouse, great parent, great career.
13:36
Is that not a package? Is that not who you are?
13:43
How can you be one without the other?
13:48
But you're afraid.
13:51
And that's why you're not going to have a great career, unless --
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unless, that most evocative of all English words --
14:02
unless.
14:09
But the unless word is also attached
14:10
to that other, most terrifying phrase,
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"If only I had ... "
14:20
"If only I had ... "
14:23
If you ever have that thought ricocheting in your brain,
14:26
it will hurt a lot.
14:31
So, those are the many reasons
14:35
why you are going to fail
14:37
to have a great career,
14:39
unless ...
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Unless.
14:47
Thank you. (Applause)
14:51
Translated by Thu-Huong Ha
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

Larry Smith - Professor of Economics, University of Waterloo
A professor of economics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Larry Smith coaches his students to find the careers that they will truly love.

Why you should listen

Larry Smith is a professor of economics at University of Waterloo. A well-known storyteller and advocate for youth leadership, he has also mentored many of his students on start-up business management and career development. The most notable start-up he advised in its infancy is Research in Motion (RIM), maker of the BlackBerry.

"What you see in the TED Talk is essentially thirty years of Smith’s frustrations reaching a boiling point," wrote Carmine Gallo in Forbes. “'Wasted talent is a waste I cannot stand,' Smith told me."

More profile about the speaker
Larry Smith | Speaker | TED.com