Should you try to do what you love (a.k.a. your passion) for a living? You get bombarded with this question over and over again in your everyday life. It is on the social media (e.g. people posting about doing what they love and getting paid for it). It is also on the TV (e.g. famous celebrities evangelizing their lifestyles and how they satisfy even their weirdest pleasures). And of course, it is also in the movies and songs (e.g. those influencers that changed the world by pursuing their dreams). In short, doing what you love is about following your passion.
In this article, I will argue against following your passion. And I will argue for another approach – adopting a different mindset, deliberately working on your habits, defining the areas where you are great, and, ultimately, learning to love what you do. In short, defining the passion as the product of your work, rather than defining work as the product of your passion.
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Time to read: 12 minutes (based on 150 works per minute).
Do you ask yourself these questions often: Is that the right job for me? Am I happy at work? Can I be happier? Am I following my dreams? Am I working to make myself rich? Or, am I working to make somebody else rich? Do you see the problem with those questions? They are all outward-looking and usually require things that you cannot control.
Are you tempted by the shops on the other side of the road? Are you tempted by the next cashier lane, which looks like it is moving faster? Maybe you are easily distracted by the new shiny thing (e.g. promotion, a new job offer, lateral transfer, new house, new car, new gadget). This is because your mind is concentrated on instant-gratification or going for low-hanging fruits.
In the following paragraphs I have adapted the philosophy that Cal Newport writes about in his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. By all means, I recommend reading the whole book, but I have tried to synthesize the most important lessons that I got from the book.
Do what you love: Does it work?
But what is the problem with following your passion? Well, it turns out that passions are extremely rare. I know that most of us probably feel like the next Bezos, (Zuckerberg, Jobs, Gates, etc.), or like the next Disney (Docter, Spielberg, Cameron, etc.), or even like the next Jordan (Bryant, Brady, Gretzky, etc.) But the reality is that most of us are not the next big celebrity (if only for purely statistical reasons). Yes, most of these people claim to have been following their dreams and passion, but if you read their biographies carefully, you will see that it took time and their careers have complex origins.
The alternative to doing what you love is loving what you do. Developing passion is a side effect of mastery (i.e. the ability to do your job better that most, maybe even better than anybody else). The benefit of that is two-fold. First of all, you learn to love what you do and, of course, you become better at that. But second of all, becoming better, improving yourself would allow you to spot the opportunities for scaling further and finding the passion in your field. This way you concentrate inward, on the things that you can control (i.e. your attitude and the effort you put into what you do every day).
How to get to love what you do
But how do you learn to love what you do? Cal Newport formulates 4 rules (the first one being “don’t follow your passion“), which I have expanded into 6 steps.
Step 1: Adopt the right mindset
There are roughly two work mindsets: the passion mindset and the craftsman mindset.
If you follow the passion mindset, you focus on what your employer can do for you (e.g. benefits, salary, flexible working hours). You inevitably focus externally, on the small things. “Who am I?”, “What do I truly love?” These questions are often impossible to answer, if only because you yourself change all the time. All this makes you concentrate on what you don’t have, or on what the people around you have. Or even worse, on what people you don’t know have. Can this make you happy? Can this even make you satisfied?
The craftsman mindset if simpler and easier to achieve. You focus on becoming better and you focus internally on yourself. You are born with a certain set of skills that only few other people on the plan have (most probably, if you define your skills even narrower, you will end up as the only person on the plan with this skill set). When you ask yourself, “How can I improve?” and “How can I improve the world?”, this is when you think as a craftsman. You forget to look for how your work makes you look and you start concentrating on doing the job right and improving while doing it.
Building blocks of a craftsman
There are several building blocks for adopting a craftsman mindset:
- Stretch goals (link) – use your strengths and take stretch goals based on them so that you can get even better. For example, if you want to be a great piano player, play the piano. And pick tunes that are progressively harder.
- Get feedback – you always have your blind spot and you always think you are better than you actually are. For example, work with your family and close friends and ask them to provide feedback. Also, ask you colleagues for feedback.
- Practice your craft – there is no way to get better unless you practice your craft (skills, job, occupation). Make time to practice.
- Keep learning – you cannot afford to be left behind, the bar is constantly getting higher. Think about all the people that use their spare time to improve, to get better, where does that leave you? You need to keep studying and expanding your horizons. For example, take a class in something you know nothing about. Set a goal in a field where you have no knowledge.
- Fail fast, fail often – you will fail a lot as you do all these. Make sure you fail fast (e.g. keep the feedback loop open, keep a beginner’s mindset, be brutally honest about your progress). And make sure you fail often – take more and more stretch goals.
Step 2: Track your time
Do you know where you time goes? We established above that you need to make time to practice your skills. You need to make time to work on these stretch goals. But how do you do that?
If you want to do this lightweight, start with tracking your time for a few weeks. Assign every hour of your time to a goal (e.g. promotion, practice, growing) or a bucket (procrastination, TV, social media, friends). The results might be shocking. Be brutally honest with yourself and ask the hard questions. Do I need to spend that much time doing X? Do I need to start spending more time doing Y?
If you want to do this properly (it will take a lot more time), start with defining your Life Roles (link). Then, define the long-term goals (link) that you associate with each role. And then start tracking how much time you spend working on goals for each life role. And finally, start using the Most Important Tasks (MIT) method to prioritize your time (link).
Step 3: Define the valuable skills in your career path
Cal Newport introduces the term “career capital”.
The traits that define great work are rare and valuable.Cal Newport
From Microeconomics, we know that if you need rare and valuable goods you need to have something rare and valuable in return. Career capital is the set of skills that will make you valuable for your current employer at your current position. It is very hard to define them in general. You need to define them for yourself and for your field.
And then, once you have started accumulating career capital, you can start exchanging it for careers perks (traits). For example, freedom. You want to be a freelance blogger who travels the world? Well, guess what you need to have career capital (you need to write engaging content, you need to have an engaging blog, a lot of followers, interesting topics, interesting personality).
So, before you more forward and get to the next level of your career, make sure that you have the career capital for it. The book goes even further – turn down a promotion, until you are sure that you have the career capital to operate on the new level.
Step 4: Do what people would pay you for
Then, once you have accumulated the career capital for the next level, you are ready to move to the next step. Look for evidence that people are willing to pay you for that. Once again, don’t just quit your job and try to become an entrepreneur, unless you have evidence that people will be willing to pay you (i.e. a product that you have already developed is selling well). It is very hard to do that in reverse order
Step 5: Do little bets
In order to expand your career you need to be taking stretch goals and you need to be failing fast. You can do that with little bets. Accept that you don’t know the direction and approach it like a Thomas Edison. After each of his failed attempts, he was saying: “Great! Another approach that does not work.” Now you can concentrate on the rest of the options.
Do experiments – small, bite-sized bets. Design them in such a way that you get instant feedback. There was an HBR Idea cast podcast about that – How to Set Up — and Learn — from Experiments.
Step 6: Innovation
And finally, when you have accumulate enough data from all the previous steps, make a bold move. You are at the cutting edge of your field. You have a feel about everything that is common practice in your field. But you see a direction that is still possible, which nobody is doing. Cal Newport calls this the “adjacent possible beyond”. Then, you do the big jump to innovation.
This is how you acquire a great, professional life mission. This is how you achieve passion as a by-product of hard work and deliberate growth.
In this article, I showed you that following your passion is bad advice. Those famous examples, of people following their dreams, are more complex than they look. A better approach it so adopt a different working mindset – concentrate on the inside, on the things that you can change. Go and give your 100% to do a good work. Define the skills that you need to practice and practice them. Do small bets to expand further. And when you’ve reached the limit – make the bold move and change the world.
What are the next steps?
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