When it comes to the task of figuring out what you want to do with your life or what kind of work to go into, one of the most common pieces of advice that gets thrown around is:
“Just follow your passion!”
This word, “passion” keeps cropping up again and again, and we’re constantly being told that we just need to find whatever ours is.
No longer should we be relegated to tedious, unfulfilling work in factories like our grandparents had to do – oh no, this is now, by golly, and you can start a business making superhero capes for dogs as long as you’re passionate about it.
…or can you? Is passion all there is to it? And is it really that easy to figure out what your passion is?
My answer to that question is a resounding no.
“Follow your passion,” as inspiring as it is, is pretty bad advice. It builds its foundations on an assumption that everyone has a pre-existing passion they’re born with. It’s like assuming we’re onions, and all we need to do is peel back the layers to figure out what’s underneath.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not an ogre – and for most of my life, I’d have been pretty hard-pressed to tell you what my passion was if you asked me. I just had no idea. And that’s the problem for a lot of people:
- Either they simply can’t identify anything in their life as a “passion”
- or they have several things they feel they’re passionate about, but they keep bouncing back and forth to each one
These problems are especially common for students and people who haven’t yet had much chance to get a lot of experience in their careers – and it’s likely that includes you. Which is unfortunate, because this is also the stage in your life where you’re trying to figure out what to pursue.
Luckily, there’s better advice you can use. Cal Newport, the author of a fantastic book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You (one of my recommended books), summed it up perfectly for me when I asked him what his advice was for choosing a major. He said:
“Pick something you have an interest in and simply work as hard as you can to get good at it.”
This is what you should do. This focus on working to build skills and gain experience is the most effective way to discover what kind of work truly fulfills you.
You aren’t born to do one specific thing; rather, you’re born with personality traits that will draw you to certain qualities of work, and the specifics of the work that holds those qualities has to be discovered through:
- Learning new skills
- Meeting people
- Having experiences
- Creating things
Essentially, your brain needs lot of good inputs and outputs in order to set itself on the right path. Just sitting around thinkin’ about stuff is unlikely to be of much help.
In the book I just mentioned, Newport talks about a concept in the scientific community called the Adjacent Possible.
If you imagine all of our collective scientific knowledge as a constantly growing bubble, the Adjacent Possible is the area just outside that bubble – and that’s where almost all new discoveries are made.
As we make more discoveries, the bubble grows, and so does that area of possibilities. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Steven Johnson states it eloquently:
“The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them.”
This is how you can discover work you love as well. As you continue to learn and do more, and to work with new people, you’ll be confronted with new possibilities and opportunities that weren’t there before.
Additionally, putting the focus on skills and experience up front – rather than passion and enjoyment – will be immensely helpful when you reach The Dip – a concept that the author Seth Godin popularized in his book of the same name.
The Dip is the point at which pursuing a skill become difficult or boring, and that point ALWAYS comes, no matter what you’re doing.
At first, things start out fun; your interest in the subject keeps you motivated, and you’re able to grasp the low-hanging fruit quickly and fairly easily. Soon, though, the progress stops coming so easily, and the initial novelty of the pursuit wears off.
To give an example, beginning weightlifters typically make huge progress on their lifts really early on. Lifters call these “noob gains” and they happen because new lifters are learning to utilize the muscles they already have in ways they haven’t been used before, and because they can’t yet lift enough to really challenge their body’s ability to recover quickly.
Pretty soon, however, most lifters hit a plateau – a point where gains slow way down or even stop altogether – even though they’re still hitting the gym as regularly as before. This is The Dip for lifters and it requires a couple of things to be pushed through:
- Smarter training techniques that take into account the additional recovery time needed at higher performance levels
- Simple determination to keep going – even though the rewards have slowed down
This is the same for any skill you’re pursuing. Once the excitement wanes and the easy levels have been conquered, you have to get smarter about your skill development and – most importantly – have the grit to keep going even though it might not be fun.
That’s because once you do push through the dip and start achieving true excellence, things usually start to get a lot more fun and interesting. At this point:
- You’ve mastered enough skills that you can start to create and do things that are truly better than what most others can do
- You have enough experience and work under your belt that people trust you, and will start to seek you out with interesting proposals
This has been my experience, and I can tell you that I’m definitely not alone in my belief that pursuing skills and experience is far superior to trying to find your passion.
Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Maveriks, wrote a blog post a few years ago that really crystalized this idea for me. Here’s how the post ends:
“Let me make this as clear as possible:
1. When you work hard at something you become good at it.
2. When you become good at doing something, you will enjoy it more.
3. When you enjoy doing something, there is a very good chance you will become passionate or more passionate about it
4. When you are good at something, passionate and work even harder to excel and be the best at it, good things happen.”
So stop trying to find your passion through introspection or Buzzfeed quizzes or whatever. Identify an interest you have that has the potential to be useful to others, and pursue it with all the smart training and sheer determination you can muster. Good luck.