My dear daughter, you are still so incredibly young. But no sooner than I catch my breath for one moment and puff, you will be quickly wondering: what should I do with my life? What job should I pursue? Should I follow my passion? After all, isn’t what they say “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”?
No, my dear daughter, following your passion is terrible career advice. Focus instead on building rare and valuable skills that offer you autonomy (you take control of your life and create something worthwhile) and relatedness (you feel connected to other people).
Myth #1: You either have passion for something, or you don’t
A common misconception that builds unrealistic career expectations and leads to constant job dissatisfaction is discovering or figuring out your passions and finding a job accordingly. Cal Newport defines this error as the passion hypothesis in his So Good They Can’t Ignore You book:
The key to occupational happiness is first to figure out what you are passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.
That means we are on a perpetual chase to discover that special something that will make us feel passionate. And when passion doesn’t happen or goes away quickly, we find ourselves job-hopping.
There is a Romanian proverb “pofta vine mâncând” or “appetite comes with eating”. This proverb captures the difference between “do what you love” and “love what you do“. What may seem like unattractive opportunities at first can bring passion to our lives if we become competent in those areas. And increased competence leads to increased autonomy.
Myth #2 Passion sparks joy in your career
Another misunderstanding around careers built on passion is that what makes you feel passionate must bring you joy and happiness as a career choice. However, just because you feel passionate about an endeavor, there is no guarantee that effort will become a career or a business you will enjoy. More often than not, fun and enjoyable leisure activities turn into mediocre job chores.
Also, passion is dynamic over time. There are days when you will feel highly passionate and enthusiastic. But can you maintain elevated levels of intense passion day after day? Week after week? Year after year? Probably not, as this process quickly becomes mentally draining and exhausting.
Myth #3 Work on something you love, and money will follow
Barbara Oakley describes in her Mindshift course the “Passion Trap”:
We’re often encouraged to follow our passions by well-meaning people, friends and teachers, especially those who don’t themselves have to suffer the consequences of long term difficulties in getting a job. Friends, after all, often want to make you happy right now. So, they’ll often tell you what they think you want to hear. On the other hand, parents, much like my father, are often only focused on finding a successful career. They can be less concerned about what you feel are your internal passions, especially if they have had a difficult life and know how hard it can be to make a comfortable living.
Try to broaden your aspirations and passions by having a bigger picture of the economic opportunities of today and tomorrow. After all, skills that were in high demand just a decade ago are considered obsolete today. For technical people, that means broadening non-technical skills, such as public speaking, writing, etc. For non-technical people, maybe it would be better to adopt analytical and technical skills. By becoming flexible, you can better adapt and survive the harsh economic competition and volatile job markets.
Now that we know about the passion trap, should we discard passion altogether, never pursue things that we love and enjoy? Perish the thought! Perhaps let’s agree that passion is not enough and we need another concept.
Ikigai is a Japanese concept that describes having a purpose and a motivation in life, a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, and it roughly translates as “a reason for being”, a raison d’être. The easiest way to describe Ikigai is an intersection between:
What do I love? Which talents do I have that I can further develop? What skills can bring me money? What does the world need? What can I do that is useful to others?
Image credit: wikimedia
Whether this Venn diagram is a Westernized version for Ikigai or not, there is no denying that asking yourself these questions is helpful.
What you love and what you are good at are your passion.
What you love and what the world needs are your mission.
What the world needs and what you can get paid for are your vocation.
What you are good at and what you can get paid for are your profession.
At the intersection of your passion, talent, the potential to help others, and financial autonomy, you find your Ikigai.
Or, as Newport puts it, instead of focusing on the passion hypothesis, you need to focus on having a creative skillset, control over your life, and impact in the world by conducting worthwhile tasks. How can you achieve this?
Tip #1 Be strategic in choosing valuable and rare skills
Valuable skills are skills that others are willing to pay for your expertise. Rare skills are skills that are not easy to reproduce or automate.
Scott Adams, Dilbert’s creator, writes that there are two paths to achieve mastery:
1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.
Image credit: Flow Academy
The first strategy (T-shaped) is to have one substantial heavy-duty skill and complement it with superficial or general knowledge of other things. Adams recommends not trying this approach as few people will ever get an Olympic gold medal or make platinum albums.
The second strategy (Pi-shaped or comb-shaped) is far more approachable. In Adams’ case, he combined drawing with writing jokes and business background. An extremely efficient method to create rare and valuable skills is to combine two or more “rather good” skills until no one has your specialized skillset. Most probably, none of your skills, taken separately, is the best as it would be necessary for the first strategy, but this unique combination of breadth and depth will create a high-pay and high-demand package.
Tip#2 Be deliberate in your practice
K. Anders Ericsson, in his Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise book, defines deliberate practice as working on tasks of just manageable difficulty. You become comfortable with being uncomfortable but not having too much discomfort that you will give up. Being in the zone or enjoying the flow of skills you already mastered is revigorating, except real growth happens when you stretch and push yourself just beyond the uncomfortable edges of your limits. It would be best if you were very specific in your actions and state your goals clearly. Become input-driven rather than output-driven.
Create a sustainable framework for self-improvement by following the questions I wrote in a previous article:
What are my biases, my blind spots? What am I missing? Am I focused on the right thing for me? Can I test some changes? Can I start x/y/z for 5-10 minutes, for 5-10 days, and see how it went? Can I ask others for their advice, opinions, and insights?
Tip#3 I think I can. I think I will.
Like in the little engine that could story, Ericsson mentions self-belief as a critical motivational factor:
a belief that you can succeed. In order to push yourself when you really don’t feel like it, you must believe that you can improve and — particularly for people shooting to become expert performers — that you can rank among the best.
You do not need to fake it until you make it. You believe it until you become it.
The equation of career success is a spiral as you end up learning to enjoy the process of getting better and better.
Start with an eager heart and mind. Believe that what you are doing is worthwhile and achievable.
The method of continuous learning and improving becomes extremely satisfying and self-reinforcing: the more you learn, the better you become.
The better you become, the more you enjoy the process and the increased recognition of peers.
The more you enjoy the process, the more you learn, become passionate about the topic, and believe in your newly acquired skills.
I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
can happen to you.
As Dr. Seuss formidably put it, the brutal truth is that you will traverse periods of ebbs and flows more ebbs, poetically known as the Valley of Despair from the Dunning–Kruger Effect.
Image credit: wikimedia
Not all endeavors you will pursue are due to have success, as most times, you will fail, discouraged, and stuck in a pit of gloom. Know, dear daughter, that perhaps no matter how hard you try, you will never achieve mastery levels in a specific career path. It is yet another fact of life.
Ask yourself, as Drю Seuss said:
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?
Sometimes it is far better to turn around and drop the things that keep you small.
And sometimes, knowing about Tip#3 (the belief that what you are doing is important and achievable) and that the pit of gloom is ahead of you gives you time to rethink your approach, strategize, and organize. Mainly, it gives you time to realize that you need to …
Tip#5 Embrace the boredom
In his Atomic Habits book, James Clear describes a conversation with an elite baseball coach. Clear asked the coach:
What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else? What do the really successful people do that most don’t?
He mentioned the factors you might expect: genetics, luck, talent. But then he said something I wasn’t expecting: “At some point, it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.”
So, you see, dear daughter, the trap of passion? Maybe you believed some people merely have boundless reserves of passion. That is not true. Successful people feel the same lack of motivation and dis-passion as everybody else. The significant distinction is these people still act even when they don’t feel like working, even when their motivational state does not match their schedules.
“The greatest threat to success is not failure, but boredom“, writes Clear. Why is that? Perhaps because future rewards are not that as attractive as the current rewards. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. We are pre-programmed to live in the “right now”, right here” zone, seeking immediate rewards. We need to adapt this Stone-age neural circuit to the distant deadlines of the modern world. So, create a schedule and stick to it, no matter your mood.
As Chuck Close said, “inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
As a mother myself, I found great inspiration in what English artist and sculptor Barbara Hepworth told about the years when her four children were young: “I had to have a very strict discipline with myself so that I always did some work every day, even if it was only ten minutes. It’s so very easy to say: well, today is a bad day. The children aren’t well, and the kitchen needs scrubbing…”
Regarding finding time, even if for ten meager minutes, there is a story that Andy Puddicombe notes in his Get Some Headspace book. He asked a meditation student to write down why she would skip a 10-minute meditation session. The student found the exercise valuable, as every time she went to write excuses, she discovered the explanations notably weak and she started her meditation practice instead.
As Oakley says in her Mindshift course, “sometimes your natural passions can fool you. It is important to take a strategic as well as a passion-influenced approach to your learning.”
My daughter, you cannot afford to ignore the skills that enhance your ability to get or create the job you want. Use the framing effect by reframing how you perceive passion: you do not stumble upon a passion but actively develop a passion instead. Improving the skills and confidence in a new hobby or venture demands time. So, be prepared for the Valley of Despair and weeks of boredom.
There is an eternal conflict between our internal passions and the external needs of the workforce. Accept this struggle and strive to find meaning, passion, competence, and financial independence in your future career.
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