Passion is bullshit. Advice from a few authors.
“I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up” a 50-something teacher once told me with a smile. At the time I recognized the sentiment. I hadn't yet found a path that I could see myself sticking too. However, unlike the teacher, I was only 23. I hear career advice in two categories. The first being generic advice to get a well-paying and stable job. The second being some rendition of the “follow your passion” bullshit-mantra that people like spewing. I find any advice on this “spectrum” wildly impractical. Getting a 9–5 for a decent paycheck, stability or any other capricious reason, seem to hold about as much water as a Trump speech. I fear a life of mediocrity and only feeling alive during brief vacations spent on some generic beach with orange and leathery Germans. On the other hand, what does “follow your passion” really mean? What is a passion and how do I follow it?
After reading a few books that happened to relate to this idea in one way or another, I decided to write this post. I hope it might serve a simple road map, with a few points of interest - as guidance.
Definitions — passion & purpose
What is my purpose? What is my passion? It’s a question that seems to plague most people to an extent. Even people with long-established careers can find themselves wondering if they’re on the right path and whether their pursuits in life are worthwhile. There are people out there for whom this isn’t an issue, however, to me they might as well be extra-terrestrial beings. People with certain skills and talents, who knew from an early age what career to pursue. People who were into sports, music, or history; people who’d forge those interests into careers. However, I’d wager that the number of people who know early on what their life will be about is a minority. Otherwise, most of us would be footballers and ballerinas.
The Cambridge dictionary defines passion as “ a very powerful feeling, for example of sexual attraction, love, hate, anger, or other emotion”. When talking about one’s calling or career choice, it doesn’t seem like people are able to make relevant decisions based on “powerful feelings”. When we’re talking about passion, we’re talking about passion for a certain activity, job or interest. Something we feel a strong and obvious attraction to.
Simon Sinek has written two books on a subject similar to purpose: Start With Why and Find Your Why. Sinek’s definition of a why is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you. The why is the basis of all our actions. In the latter book, he explains a way for individuals to define their own why statement. It should be:
Simple and clear
Focused on how you’ll contribute to others
Expressed in affirmative language that resonates with you.
“To inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that, together, we can change our world.” Sinek’s why-statement.
Though Sinek’s ideas are mainly expressed in the context of organizations, it applies (according to him) to individuals. The why is something deep, intrinsic, unlike what you do or how you do it. He claims that the why resides in the limbic system; the feeling part of the brain. This might reveal the abstract and elusive qualities of purpose.
The concept of ikigai is a similar notion. It is Japanese and means the reason for being. Dan Buettner wrote a book called Blue Zones, where he outlined the places in the world where people live the longest. One of his findings was that a mindset like ikigai was present among all of them. People had a clear reason to get up in the morning. In the book, Buettner suggests you make three lists: your values, things you like doing and things you’re good at. The summary of these lists is you ikigai.
If you’re still on a path of finding your vocation I’ll offer some further advice from writer Robert Greene and his book Mastery. The first thing you can do is thinking back to your childhood. What were your first inclinations? What did you obsess over? What were your distinguishing characteristics? This isn’t a complete roadmap, but people often find strong correlations to their early days and where they’re headed or where they want to go. Secondly, find your perfect niche. Is there an occupation, career or activity that can be your own; a category encompassing your proclivities. Thirdly, he argues, you must avoid the false path. Don’t go into a field or activity for the wrong reasons: money, fame, parental- or peer influence. These motivations might seem desirable at first glance, but don’t lead to fulfillment or happiness. You must also be willing to let go; avoid the sunk cost fallacy. Don’t stick with something because you’ve spent time or money on it (see section on quitting). Lastly, do not deviate from your path, and if you do, you’re always free to return (see section on grit).
The practical view of careers
If you’re practically inclined, I recommend thinking of your career in terms of skill acquisition and career capital. I first read of career capital in Cal Newport’s book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. Cal argues that following a passion is bad advice. First of all, as mentioned before, not everyone has a passion. Secondly, according to studies, interest (doing work that you’re interested in) doesn’t correlate to workplace satisfaction; what you do doesn’t matter. Instead, he insists that it’s better to acquire useful skills that act as career capital to leverage the type of work you want. According to self-determination theory, the most important aspects of workplace satisfaction are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy in the work you do and your time. Competence gives you fulfillment and usefulness. Relatedness connects you to a larger goal and a community.
Finding the one job is unrealistic and a total crapshoot. Instead, focus on getting good at something; learn to love what you do. Become a craftsman — a master. Skills snowball, and the more you acquire the more useful you become. Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic, claims that with every skill you acquire your chance of success doubles. According to him, you can raise your market value by getting good (not masterclass) at more than one skill. Good + Good > Excellent. Granted, this goes against what Newport and Greene advocate, to an extent, but the key is to learn. Learning is a sure way to success if you learn the right skills and apply them effectively.
People love using Japanese terms to explain philosophical concepts, hence I’ve included a second one. I’ve also included the Japanse character in case you want to tattoo it on your lower back. Kaizen translates to good change but has come to stand for constant, continual improvement. It’s a concept used in business and is often mentioned when talking about the successful Japanese automobile industry. Having a Kaizen mindset will help you systemize improvement and skill acquisition. It also leads us to the next subject.
Grit — passion & perseverance
According to Angela Duckworth, and her extensive studies on the subject, the biggest determining (internal) factor in success is a personality trait called grit. Grit is passion and perseverance. Passion, in this context, means a consistency of goals over a long period — I.e. a long-lasting interest. This seems to add a level of practicality to the issue of passion. Rather than being filled with an emotional attraction to a specific career or activity, it’s a consistency of goals and actions. Perseverance means overcoming setbacks, putting in hard work and finishing what you start.
For me, this has been the final piece of the puzzle. I’ve been terrible at sticking with projects and finishing what I start. I’ve always had myriad interests and passion towards projects; even a certain level of consistency in high-level goals. The perseverance part of the equation has been the problem for me.
Grit is an important component to finding your way because it can help predict your success and help you understand your failures.
Talent is a bullshit word. For the purpose of this text, talent means a greater ease in acquiring skills. Duckworth claims in her book that effort is the force multiplier in getting good. In her words, it counts twice: talent x effort = skill. Skill x effort = achievement. Grit is a far better predictor of success than talent. We often see talent as the most important predictor, because it is a powerful societal norm. It also frees us from the responsibility. We regard success as the result of talent, rather than effort, making it out of our hands.
“Our vanity promotes the cult of the genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.” — Nietzsche
There are four essential components to grit: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. Interest is developed over long periods; it’s something that builds up. Granted, some have had “aha” moments, that lead to a long-lasting interest, but most should gauge their expectations. Fostering an interest takes time.
Practice is the part where you get good. It must be deliberate, systematic and goal-oriented. Many casual exercisers face this problem, where they stagnate or lack progress because they don’t have a system for adding difficulty or straining their body progressively. Practice is similar in that you have to be deliberate in your efforts, or you’ll stagnate and fail. Firstly, you must set stretch goals for practice, and let it inform your immediate efforts. Secondly, you must apply concentration and effort. This might seem obvious, but many become too comfortable with their practice. Thirdly, you need immediate and helpful feedback reinforce or help steer your efforts. Lastly: repeat, reflect and refine. Then you can set new goals and move forward.
We’ve touched on purpose earlier. It’s your why, ikigai or vocation.
Hope is important for obvious reasons. You must believe that you can be successful in whatever you set out to accomplish. It helps to surround yourself with the achievements of others — either in person or through mediums like books, movies or the web. Others have succeeded so why can’t you? Cultivate an optimism towards hard work, and let it guide you through rough times.
Whatever your thoughts on grit it has been proven a strong predictor of success in graduating, sales, spelling bees, and army training.
Goals are important. They’re your compass both short- and long-term. The best way to view goals is in a hierarchy. On the very bottom, you have low-level goals. They are your day-to-day actions, like studying for 2 hours or going for a run. Highest in the hierarchy are more abstract goals. They’re similar to your why, ikigai and purpose. To an extent, they inform every other goal. The low-level goals can be exchanged, omitted or even ignored. They’re supposed to be iterated upon. But the high-level goals are supposed to be set in stone.
A top-level goal without low-level goals leaves you without momentum or improvement. You can’t succeed without being active and doing the work. With low-level goals and no top-level goal, you become a headless chicken, doing actions with no unifying theme. There’s no purpose to your actions. They’re directionless and sporadic.
When to quit
Knowing how to stick with something is important, but so is knowing when to quit. Sometimes the best path is giving up, and moving on. Contrary to common belief, winners quit all the time. There’s a saying (often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain), “if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it”. I mentioned the “false path” earlier, with regards to finding a vocation. It also becomes useful in asking ourselves if we should quit our current projects. If you’re doing it for the “wrong” reasons, then do some soul-searching. In the same context, I mentioned the sunk cost fallacy. Just because you’ve spent time or money on something doesn’t mean it is worth persisting. The main reason for this is opportunity-cost. You’ve already lost time or money, but you’re actively losing opportunities to do something else.
You shouldn’t do something for anyone else. Not your parents or your peers. It will only lead to resentment. You shouldn’t persist to prove something to someone, not even yourself.
If it’s causing you suffering and not showing signs of improving, it might be time to quit. Suffering for periods is normal. Struggling is part of the process; you shouldn’t quit solely because of setbacks. Obstacles are what you see when you take the eyes of the goal, etc.
But if the suffering grows too great without signs of a positive trend, consider quitting. Whatever you do in life, you should love it. It might be hard at times, but you know that not doing it would be even harder. If you don’t love it, do something else. Feel free to listen to your intuition. Chances are your gut feeling is the right answer.
For people who need practical career advice: become undeniable. Focus on skill acquisition; become a master or a jack of all trades. For people scrambling in the giant clusterf*ck of passion & purpose: do some soul-searching. Find a path and stick to it. Focus on building up grit; consistent goals & perseverance.