XIII – Don’t Follow Your Passions

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 “Most things in life aren’t innate: individual betterment has little to do with inbred talent. (…) individual betterment requires practice and dedication and, to a certain extent, a healthy obsession. (…) for any dimension of life, for any skill set—be it exercise, ballroom dancing, or guitar playing—you must be willing to drudge through the drudgery to find the joy on the other side. (…) After much practice—many, many hours of practice—whatever you’re doing eventually feels like second nature, which is better in countless ways: second nature always feels more earned, more honest, more real.” http://www.theminimalists.com/natural/

 

‘You should follow your passions!’ How many times have you read, heard or even suggested this piece of advice to others, including yourself?

I have read, heard and done all of the above. When giving myself this advice, it was always in relation to an interest/curiosity I had at the time. I would sometimes give it a try, get bored or find a hurdle and quit. I thought “Turns out it wasn’t my passion after all”. I’d find the next interest/curiosity and give it another 5 minutes before coming to the same conclusion.

I now think otherwise. Considering all I feel really passionate about, I realise they were all things I wasn’t born with, but rather activities/knowledge I cultivated and dedicated a lot of my time to.

 

I have recently finished reading a very inspiring book by Cal Newport called “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” (http://calnewport.com/books/so-good/), where the main message introduced is that ‘Follow your passion’ is not only crappy but dangerous advice.

For one to follow a passion, implies that there is a pre-existing passion. And that is just not the case for 99.9% of people. Most of us have interests, get excited about some ideas and projects but do not have a predetermined passion.

It’s dangerous advice because if you don’t have working capital (this term is introduced and described by Cal Newport as a set of valuable and rare skills), jumping to pursuing your passions can lead to disappointment and even bankruptcy.

Newport gives the example of an office worker who quit her job to start her own business. She undertook yoga teaching certification (1 week course) and opened up her own gymnasium. 6 months later she was living on food stamps. She just didn’t have the required working capital to make a difference in a tough market. She hadn’t spent days and days on end, practicing and turning her limited skills into unique ones.

Michael Jordan became the best basketball player in the world not because he woke up one morning in his teens and thought he’d follow his already existing passionate for basketball. As soon as he could walk he was holding a basketball given by his dad and kept at it every day until he became unique. Mozart’s dad was crazy about music and played for his son since he was born, taught him how to read music before he could recite the alphabet.

In both examples above, I mention the parents because constant feedback while working on an activity is crucial for continuous improvement – Jordan went on to having coaches and Mozart music teachers.

In my case, I became a good civil engineer (I would argue amazing) not only because of the 5 years I studied this discipline and the 10 I worked in it, but also because I had regular feedback from teachers, colleagues, managers, co-workers, clients and an assorted number of stakeholders.

I am now able to call myself a surfer because I can catch, stand and ride a wave, but only because I spent many unsuccessful hours trying to. Because I kept at it when I felt like quitting, because I requested and incorporated advice from others, because I studied others. It is now a passion when it was only an interest and something unattainable not so long ago.

 

I don’t believe we’re born with a predetermined vocation. I rather think we’re likely to become passionate about something only after we work on it repeatedly for a long period of time. We only arrive at a passion after we put in the long hours, conducting all the boring and unpleasant tasks associated with that curiosity/interest.

I also think that passion is not an absolute state. The more I surf, the better I get, and the better I get, the more passionate about surfing I become.

Today, my advice is not ‘Follow your passion’. Today my advice is ‘Promote, prioritise and work hard on something you’re interested in and/or excited about. Keep working at it, ask for and apply productive feedback. Keep working at it when you least feel like it and you just might cultivate it into a passion.’

 

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