Always Doing What is “Practical” = Boring

Many people like to give job advice along the lines of being “practical.” Choose a major in college that is “practical”. Do internships and pursue work in industries that are “practical.” Being practical often refers to majoring in a field that will get you a job. It’s taking a job that will pay you well and get you further along some sort of practical career path to success. It’s the road most traveled.

The benchmark of practicality is often related to salary, job security, and chance for some kind of success. Acting and writing is not practical. Banking and marketing is. Unpaid work is not practical unless you’re trying to better position yourself for business school, law school, or med school. Practical jobs are steady, pay well, and will lead to other well-paying, steady jobs. The impractical jobs are risky.

Of course, it’s not a bad thing to be practical. But when is being “practical” just another synonym for being “safe”? After all, success does not always come from practicality. Dropping out of Harvard was probably not a safe move, but it worked out well for Bill Gates, Matt Damon, and Mark Zuckerberg. Quitting a stable job to write a novel worked out for JK Rowling. Will Smith turned down MIT to launch his singing and acting career.

Then again, our practical side reminds us that there are just as many (if not more) failed writers, singers, and Harvard dropouts who faded into oblivion by forsaking a more judicious, traditional path. A few years ago, I was at the UPS store in Cambridge when the guy packing my boxes mentioned he had gone to Harvard. He had been a chess champion, dropped out to pursue a career in chess, but failed to make it on the international circuit. Now he was working at UPS to support himself, while writing a book on chess and his travels.

There was a part of me that thought, “Wow, this guy went to Harvard and is now working at UPS and packing my boxes… what a failure.” But as he cheerily stuffed bubble wrap inside my boxes, the UPS guy told me about his travels around Europe, a chess match he had in the Soviet Union, and his hope that his writing would eventually land him a book deal. His life experience sounded far more interesting than anyone I know who had taken the boring old, “safe” route.

I’m not sure I could do what the UPS guy did and shove aside all thoughts of practicality: I think that our perception of success is still too easily determined by job titles and salaries and risk aversion. But there is financial success and professional/personal success, and perhaps we too often focus on the former. So, if we can get around the inclination to link what is practical to some narrow definition of success, then maybe taking the road less traveled won’t seem so risky after all.

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