Batteries and the road not taken

How do you know whether you chose the right career?

My subscriber numbers are growing, but still not big enough to really justify doing a lot of paywalled posts. So I’m trying to think of something special to give to subscribers in the meantime. And one idea is to do a few more personal posts — diary-type stuff. I’m still experimenting, so let me know if this kind of thing isn’t actually that interesting.

Sometime in the mid-2010s, my friend Peter invited me over to his sister’s house. There, I met his brother-in-law Aram Yang, who was working on a battery startup. He and I had similar physics backgrounds, and we immediately hit it off. I was especially interested in his job, because I really felt — as I still feel — that batteries are going to save the world.

At the time, Aram was feeling a bit frustrated, because his company had hit some snags. But to me, looking from the outside in, he had a kind of life I deeply envied. If I hadn’t gotten clinically depressed and left physics after college, I probably would have gone into clean energy in some form (after realizing that high-energy theory is pretty much mined out, at least for right now). The idea of showing up to work every day, sitting at a lab bench or coding models on a computer, doggedly pursuing the kind of deep breakthroughs that might free humanity from the curse of oil…that really appealed to me. Instead, I had this weird life talking about economic policy on the internet.

But I chose that life because other stuff seemed unsatisfying. In 2005, when I decided to go into economics, I was sitting in my apartment in Japan reading Brad DeLong and Matt Yglesias and wishing I was an economics blogger. I reasoned that any country could have great scientists — the Soviet Union had had great scientists. What really mattered was policy, because that determined whether the science got squandered or used to increase human flourishing.

15 years later, here I am. In some other branch of the multiverse, there’s a Noah Smith sitting at a lab bench figuring out how to make a better cathode, wondering if he should have been an econ blogger instead.

So yes, the grass is always greener. But really, the more interesting question about what kind of career held meaning for me. Every time I thought about what I wanted to do, I kept coming back to the same desire: I wanted to make my mark on the world. I wanted to know that something was different and better because I had been on this planet.

That sounds like a very common, generic thing to want, but actually it’s very subtle and difficult. To really know you made your mark, you have to think about whether the things you did would have happened anyway without you. If you’re a doctor, and you save 500 people’s lives, you have to think: If I hadn’t gone to medical school, would this hospital have hired a doctor who would have saved 501 lives?

This kind of thinking inevitably devolves into a sort of internal recapitulation of the debate over the Great Man Theory of History. Except it’s the Great Man Theory of Your Own Life. No wonder people love to just sort of surrender to the Econ 101 dogma of “wage = marginal product”, and choose to believe that their paycheck equals their contribution to the world. At least, hedge fund traders do. People who make $30,000 a year with a Cornell degree because they chose to work for a nonprofit helping poor people get access to clean water probably aren’t very enamored of that theory.

Bob Barsky, who was on my dissertation committee, used to always warn me against being too grandiose. Of course he meant that with respect to my research questions, but it also seems like a good rule when evaluating your own career. Of course people who chase power and self-importance tend not to be happy; there’s almost always someone more powerful, more important. But maybe just wanting to “change the world” or “leave your mark” is a form of grandiosity as well, because it requires you to be unusual and different and original enough to be able to tell yourself that the world couldn’t have done it without you.

When I asked the Japanese economist Masahisa Fujita what to do with my life, back in 2005, he gave me some very interesting advice. “Just do some stuff,” he said. Find your way through the world, work on what interests you, live the kind of life you want to lead, and then, later, tell yourself that it all meant something. Maybe the secret to career satisfaction — or satisfaction with any other piece of life — is just being able to spin it all into a heroic tale after the fact.

Anyway, the reason I was thinking about this is that one of the big technological developments that I’ve been excitedly blogging about is an announcement of a new, better solid-state battery. The company that developed that battery is called QuantumScape, and one of their senior researchers is…my friend’s brother-in-law, Aram. Their batteries still aren’t in mass production, and they have plenty of competition, but things are definitely looking good.

That’s pretty awesome, isn’t it? I guess some people would look at that and think “That could have been me; I could have been the one to do that.” But I don’t. To be honest, I’m just glad somebody did it.

I’ll do something else! And afterwards, I’ll tell myself that what I did mattered.