I was listening to the Freakonomics Radio podcast yesterday, a rebroadcast of the episode “Think like a child.” If you don’t read these guys or listen to them, you should. They make almost everything interesting and much of it is applicable to career success.

They were talking about the importance of fun at work, and imparted some pretty useful career advice. It pertains to choosing a career, which many seem to think applies only to young people. But there are always those thinking of changing careers, and I know people closing in on 50 who haven’t decided what they want to do yet.

Here is a secret formula for deciding:

Steven Levitt, an economist, said, “When I interview young professors and try and decide if we should hire them. I’ve evolved over time to one basic rule, if I think they love economics and its fun for them I am in favor of hiring them. No matter how talented they seem otherwise if it seems like a job or effort or work then I don’t want to hire them.”

I know. This sounds a bit like “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” which most of us know to be BS. Of course you will work, no matter how much you love what you do. You’ll just love working a lot of the time. Not all the time, but a lot of it. Also, the “what you love” market is usually saturated by people who love the same thing.

But wait! There’s more!

They key is to find something you love that other people don’t love.

So, what you love doing that other people don’t love doing = good career idea.

Levitt says, “Enjoying what you do, loving what you do is such a completely unfair advantage to anyone you are competing with who does it for a job. People who love it go to bed at night thinking about the solutions. They wake up in the middle of the night, and they jot down ideas, they work weekends. Effort is a huge component of success in almost everything.

“And so my strongest advice to young people trying to figure out what they want to do is: figure out what you love, especially something you love that other people don’t love. Everyone want to be rock star or everyone wants to be in the movies, but that’s terrible you don’t want to compete head on.”

Find something only you love, and it would actually be very hard to go wrong.

“If you love ants,” says Levitt, “go study ants. Because no one else loves ants and you’ll have a big advantage over the people who are just studying ants because they can’t think of what else to do.”

Are you interested in physics, urban planning, spiders? OK, it doesn’t actually have to be something nobody else loves, but the fewer people who love it, the less competition you’ll have. Petroleum engineering? Mathematics?

The highest-paying degrees in the US are petroleum engineering, pharmacy, and mathematics, none of which are the most popular majors (those, by contrast, are business administration, general business, and accounting, which smack of being picked out of necessity rather than passion).

And specialist physicians and dentists make more money than anyone else in Canada. But most people don’t want to tend to the sick or look in people’s mouths. So, if you’re passionate about teeth? Lucky you!

It’s not for nothing that Levitt endorses this way of thinking. His dad is Michael Levitt, a gastroenterologist and the world’s foremost expert on flatulence. Granted, I’m guessing the man known as “Dr Fart” doesn’t “love” farts, but he obviously finds the gut fascinating.

And the person Levitt was referring to when talking about ants is his college mentor E.O. Wilson, who was the world’s foremost expert on ants.

Levitt says, “He loved ants more than anything and he became the world’s greatest expert on ants. He had a great career, not just success but joy, he got true joy.”

Another example of someone with a very specific set of interests is Martin Nweeia, a marine biologist, practising dentist, clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and the world’s foremost narwhal expert.

And then there’s Martin Riese, who we talked about earlier this week. Riese is a water sommelier, who is passionate about the taste of different water varieties.

I’m hoping these examples will provide you with some inspiration.

Maybe you’re interested in brain mapping, designing prosthetics, studying feet.

Ask yourself what’s fun, what interests you, then ask yourself how many others feel the same about that thing. If the answer is “not many,” it’s probably a good career choice.

See also:
The secret formula for the perfect cover letter