Our Niche in Life

A Chinese teacher in Los Angeles named Yang Yang, whom you can see in this video, wrote this on her website:

I believe that we all have our own niche – something so unique and innate to us that we enjoy every second of it and can naturally do better than others. Teaching Chinese is my niche.

I think this is the beginning of wisdom about human diversity — a big improvement over judging people by how “smart” they are, as so often happens. (To a college professor, smart = able to imitate a college professor.) My theory of human evolution emphasizes the need for diversity of occupations. In ancient times, occupational diversity arose because different people enjoyed doing different things.

But I also think Yang Yang is wrong in two ways. First, I don’t think your niche is innate. I think it can be changed. I think we can come to enjoy and excel at many jobs that we do not enjoy at first. This is the other side of procrastination. Just as we dislike doing things simply because we haven’t done them in a long time, we like doing things simply because we did them yesterday. Habits are pleasant.

I also think that where you fall on a pro-status-quo/anti-status-quo (conformist/rebel) dimension is not innate. I think it has a lot to do with your birth order (first-borns are more pro-status-quo), as Frank Sulloway says in Born to Rebel. I didn’t read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother expecting to think about birth order and rebelliousness but that’s what I ended up thinking about.

7 Replies to “Our Niche in Life”

  1. “Just as we dislike doing things simply because we haven’t done them in a long time, we like doing things simply because we did them yesterday. Habits are pleasant.”

    I’m exactly the opposite. Am I just that far down the ‘novelty seeking’ slider?

  2. I thought Sulloway’s work had been totally discredited (outside the family environment, where it is correct)? At least that’s the (very strong) impression I got from reading Judith Rich Harris when she summarizes the conclusions of those who have critiqued his work – both his methodology and looking at other data to see if his hypothesis is borne out. No doubt was meant to be left in the reader’s mind.

  3. D, I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “totally discredited (outside the family environment, where it is correct)”. I have read what Judith Rich Harris said on the subject; I found it one-sided. I believe Sulloway could have done a better job of defending himself from the criticism Harris describes. His legal threats took the air out of the room. A great distraction. In any case, I think the extent to which one does what one’s parents want — which Sulloway says is controlled by birth order — really matters. The smaller the world, the more your parents are the status quo.

  4. My personal observation on talents is that people tend to grow a talent where they enjoy things. For instance, I was a crummy writer, but an enthusiastic one, for about six years (fifth grade to eleventh) before I had a breakthrough and, literally overnight, “got” writing.

    In the autobigraphical book by physicist Richard Feynmann, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynmann!”, he tells a story of an artist he befriends. They make a deal, that his friend will teach him to be an artist, and he will teach his friend to be a scientist. Starting this well into adulthood, Feynmann develops into a very accomplished artist, with seemingly no innate knack.

    So, in short, I agree with you, that our specialized skills are not innate. At the same time, though, the interests that drive us toward certain activities do have an innate root in our personality. As in, my girlfriend could possibly learn to do programming, but she could not learn to do it for the same reason that I do it. Or, a crude metaphor, a straight woman could successfully have sex with another woman, but she won’t be doing it with the innate excitement with which a straight man would do it.

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