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Work • Purpose

The Output/Input Confusion

A very common way to identify what job we might like to do is to set our sights on industries that produce the sort of things we enjoy consuming. We enjoy their outputs – and therefore seek to partake professionally in their inputs.

This means that we’re pretty likely to write off whole areas of the economy, because they’re not obviously connected up with offering up things we enjoy consuming. If I’m visually creative, I’m likely to ridicule the idea of working in the cement industry. If I love nature, I’ll probably dismiss the energy industry as a good fit, or if I love self-expression, I’m probably not going to see the finance sector as an obvious area to look for a job I could love. We associate sectors with their overt outputs and therefore very quickly come to the view that whole fields have nothing very much to offer us.


And yet there can be huge benefit in considering jobs not in terms of how we feel about their outputs, but in terms of how our interests align with their inputs. So when we think of a given industry, we should ask more rigorously than is usual what must in reality be required to produce its goods and services. What will the people working in it actually be doing so that the obvious output can finally emerge? We don’t necessarily need to go on extensive factual missions to find out more, we simply need to use our imaginations so as to make plausible guesses at the many things that must necessarily be going on in a business that will have little directly in common with the final output.

From afar, the shipping industry might sound very far from our interests. After all, we hate the sea and aren’t in any way moved by the sight of large container ships docking in ports. But, in terms of inputs, the shipping industry calls on many skills and interests far removed from its output. It will involve things like motivating international co-operation around long-term projects; explaining trade offs in ways that are realistic and yet bearable to all involved; there will be challenges around taking major decisions under conditions of uncertainty; there will be complex legal and political negotiations in the background; it will be necessary to turn masses of data into easily visualised charts showing who is responsible for what; adverts will need to be commissioned and assessed; conferences will have to be organised and catered for; there will be huge requirements around internal communication. In other words there will be a great many areas of work that are not inherently bound up with sending freight down the Suez canal. So the fact that one might not be especially interested in shipping – the output – might not be any sign that this sector really is the wrong place to be thinking about a possible career.


Or imagine someone who automatically discounts a career in journalism, because they imagine (during a first, cursory glance) that it must be focused mainly on writing and analysis of current events. But if we reflect on the matter, we’ll start to realise that there must necessarily be a huge range of other inputs that accompany the production of the output. Media companies will be heavily concerned with controlling costs, there will be a great need for careful organisation of resources; learning about the interests of consumers will be a key factor in the success of a media enterprise; developing new business models will be critical too. So, even if one is not personally very interested in producing stories about current events, journalism might still provide many openings for the particular kinds of pleasure one is most interested in: organising other people, simplifying complex processes, time management or teaching and learning. These interests don’t leap to mind because they aren’t part of the output picture of the sector but they emerge as vital once we start to think more carefully about the required range of inputs.

What holds for the shipping industry or for journalism holds for many other sectors as well. The inputs will often look quite different from the things we initially associate with an industry. Instead of asking whether the output looks like the kind of thing we enjoy, we should therefore be asking whether our pleasures might be included within the input of an industry. It’s a modest, but hugely liberating move that can usefully expand our sense of where our best opportunities might lie.

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