Tag Archive | passion

The Simple Way to Find Your Passion

I’m happy to see that the word “passion” making a comeback. It fell out of favor for a while, and was even ridiculed in self-help circles, because the idea of “following your passion seemed to be a one-way ticket to being a penniless hobbyist living in your friend’s garage.

However, people like Angela Duckworth started remembering that the root of the word passion was in a word meaning to suffer, and suddenly it fit nicely again into the good old Judeo-Christian work ethic. “Passion and perseverance” were found to be the key factors in “grit”, which itself was a key factor in success in many fields.

Great! So we can go back to using that word again. But a challenge still remains:

What is Your Passion?

The problem again lies within the whole idea that passion is just another word for being really into something. Because personally, I’m really into a lot of things.

  1. Marvel comics
  2. Playing guitar
  3. Juggling
  4. Design
  5. Sketching
  6. Philosophy
  7. Yoga
  8. Coffee
  9. Aerial performance
  10. Writing fiction
  11. Information security
  12. My Grandkids
  13. Self-help
  14. Consent
  15. Argentine tango

By really into I mean: at any given moment I could easily immerse myself in any one of those things and lose an hour or two.

But does that mean any of those are my passion? Popular opinion would say no, because none of those things are what I do exclusively, so therefore I can’t be all that into them. Passion is supposed to be all-encompassing, overwhelming, to the exclusion of everything.

In other words, it’s basically a Harlequin Romance. It’s a Disney movie. It’s a Nicholas Sparks novel. It is this one thing, and when it happens, you’ll know it, and it will stay the same forever.

Yeah. Right.

The problem with that particular view of passion is that it severely underestimates our ability to distract ourselves. It’s a vicious cycle: the Judeo-Christian work ethic is all about doing what you should do, not what you want to do – so if you enjoy something, it can’t be work.

Think I’m exaggerating? Tell me if you’ve heard this one: Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. See? The act of enjoying it suddenly disqualifies it from being work, and therefore it suddenly falls into the category of frivolous or, even more damning: wasting time. Or hey, let’s go to the book itself: when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Having been sold some version of this lie for most of our lives, when that thing comes up that we really love, that is our passion, we put it aside, because it can’t be real work. We try to do something that we think we should be doing, and get better and better at following the voices of our elders: stop fooling around and get to work!

A More Realistic Indicator of Passion

Richard Yang, a user interface designer for Sony, wrote about how his understanding of passion changed:

I lived my entire life without understanding what it meant to be passionate. I had always assumed that passion was some inherently magical fuel that successful people were just born with.

I thought I was “passionate” about biomechanics. As a regular person, my definition of passion for the sciences was reading the occasional scientific paper and finding a few classes somewhat interesting.

After being immersed in design for a little while, I found out that I had been wrong all this time. Passion must be discovered. Passion is when you give up sleep, skip meals, and ignore your friends — just to fit a few more design hours into the day.

So if you (like me) are still trying to figure out what your passion really is…well, I can’t help you. That’s the “like me” part. But what I do think is that we can get a bit of a clue by paying attention to our own behavior.

What things have you canceled so you could do something else? Wait, that’s underestimating our ability to rationalize again. Let’s make it a little more subtle:

  1. Pick out something that you like doing. Schedule some time to do it. It’s a date with yourself!
  2. Now, since we’re so good at making up our personal narratives, let’s make up a story: you can’t go. It got canceled, your car broke down, whatever excuse you need – for some reason, you can’t go do that thing you picked out.
  3. Finally, complete this sentence: That’s ok, now I get to –

See how it feels. Do you find yourself (secretly) relieved that the first thing didn’t work out? That’s an indicator that “plan B” likely should have been your intention all along.

Or maybe instead you find yourself saying “Screw that! I don’t need a car. I’ll hitchhike!” If you find yourself entirely dissatisfied with Plan B and going to extreme lengths to still do The Thing, then it’s likely that you’re onto something there.

It’s not some foolproof method. It’s not “Three Steps to Discover Your Real Passion”, which would have gotten this article a lot more reads.

But it’s a practical tip for making hard times happier. Good luck!

Don’t Stop

Yesterday Petrona put a comment on my post about following passion that I had some trouble with. It’s from Amos Bronson Alcott,

Bronson Alcott from NYPL gallery.jpg

Bronson Alcott

We climb to heaven most often on the ruins of our cherished plans, finding our failures were successes.

I did some further research (ok, I actually just read the wikipedia page, but that counts, right?) and I can understand the comment a bit more in light of his life. He was a family man, like me, with many strong-willed and intelligent daughters (many of you may have heard of one in particular: Louisa May). However, his life was very idealistic and he struggled to bring his vision to life without much success. To quote him again:

“None of us were prepared to actualize practically the ideal life of which we dreamed. So we fell apart.” 

And to me, that’s the difference. Practically. I don’t sit here and think that your following your passion – or, to stay with the theme of the day, pursuing that which you love – is going to automatically make everything fall into place. I know there are those who do believe that (The Secret comes to mind) and I think they, like poor Amos, are writing themselves a prescription for failure.

At the same time, I also completely can understand that even when his dreams failed, Alcott found happiness with his family and probably, at the end of his life, took some satisfaction in daring greatly. It reminds me of another quote from a novel I’m guiltily enjoying, when the protagonist was asking the Goddess of the Roads for some advice:

“What I can tell you is what I tell anyone in your position. When you get lost, and you will get lost, keep going and don’t stop till you hit the end of the road. There will be something there, even if it’s not what you were looking for. And something is always better than nothing, isn’t it?”
Excerpt From: “Kill City Blues: A Sandman Slim Novel” by Richard Kadrey

Wherever you are on the road of love, I hope you keep going. It’s worth it.

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The Logical Fallacy of the Futility of Passion

I am not a tremendously logical man. I wish I was; it's probably part of why statistics thrill me so much. It's taken me a while, but there was always something about the whole If you follow your passion, you're very unlikely to be happy or successful because you'll be financially insecure argument. With the help of some Venn diagrams, I think I've figured out why it doesn't quite make sense to me.


If you look at this diagram, you can see the people who are “successful” (based on the idea of “happy and financially secure” as the measure of success) in the middle. To the left are all the people who listen to conventional wisdom and relegate their passion to a hobby, picking out someone else's dream to pay their bills. Most Americans are unhappy at their work, but a good portion are, so they fill a lot of the “successful” circle.

Then to the right is the much smaller circle of those who followed their passion, and the even smaller slice that are successful in that. Based on the discussions I've had with people on both sides of the “follow your passion” argument, I'm pretty sure this is accurate.

Here's my question: both the “follow” and “don't follow” sides have a lot of people who are not happy or not financially secure or both. What do those people do? They try to find a new job that will make them happy and financially secure (I'm not sure why I keep separating those two things; the argument of the “don't follow” folks is based on the idea that they are inseparable). If the new job doesn't fill the needs – either of enough money or of being a way they can handle spending their time – then they find a new job.

That cycle – of finding a new job until you find one that fulfills your definition of “success” financially – is the same regardless of whether you follow your passion or not. The fallacy with “If you follow your passion you will likely be poor and unhappy” is the implication that not following your passion will make you rich and happy. It just ain't so! Whether you follow your passion or not, if you live in the capitalist system you are going to keep trying to find work that satisfies your needs. That's how the system works.

Let's look at another measure of success, though:


I feel that a reasonable measure of “success” in life is the amount of regret you have at the end. Less regret equals a more successful life – let's stipulate that.

Again, research has shown that four out of the top five regrets of those living in hospice have to do with following your passion, things like I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings and I wish I hadn't worked so hard. Perhaps the most relevant is also the top regret:

I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

Obviously Twain's observation of “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” applies here. I can draw Venn diagrams all day and not convince people one way or another. I will even agree that by choosing to not follow your dreams you do increase your odds of being successful – at least in terms of there being a wider range of occupations to choose from.

However, I think it's pretty obvious that you would also be significantly increasing your odds of falling into that larger blue circle in the second diagram as well. It's a choice; just be aware you're making it.

Me, I think “No Regrets!” is a great battle cry…


Engage with What You Love

If you have headphones, or can play classical music in your environment, you should click on the link and watch this short (about two minutes) video:

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 10.35.24 AM

Even if you can’t watch it, you can tell from the screen shot that this is a conductor who is engaged in what she is doing. Even people who don’t like classical music tend to smile as they watch her conducting, because she is fully present with her entire body – and that’s just in rehearsal. Good conductors are like that; even if they don’t get quite as full-range-of-motion as Alondra de la Parra, it’s because they’ve taken all the energy in their body and put it into their pointer finger, or their wrist, or their elbows (seriously, it seems like every conductor needs to pick a body part that is the point of motion and the rest of their body just kind of flails along).

But not all conductors are good; some just sit up there with “dignity” steadily counting a beat and cuing their musicians. That can be effective, but it isn’t engaging, and frankly it’s pretty boring for everyone concerned. It also has a distinct advantage in the performing arts, at least: passion trumps talent.

Triumph of the Passionate Amateur

I present two cases to reinforce my point:

In high school I played in the rhythm section of a couple of the jazz bands – percussion (not drum set) and piano. Thing is, I was not a very good piano player – relying on basic lessons from when I was 8 years old, faking my way through chords and only having the vaguest idea of scales. Still, I really enjoyed the music – possibly because my first performance was at the end of a week of band camp, playing the piano part of the Blues Brother’s theme on a 12-foot grand piano. That can make an impression on a guy, and I loved when I got to sit in at the Rhodes electric piano for symphonic jazz band.

There was another piano player too, a young woman who had been playing piano since age five. She had many classical recitals under her belt, could sight-read without breaking a sweat, and had precisely correct posture and flawless timing. One day, after a concert where we both had played during different songs, she came up to me in the music room, furious. “I’m so angry at you!” she said. I’ve had over a decade of practicing for hours every day! I’ve had the best teachers and played in huge concert halls! You…you don’t even play half the chords! I can play circles around you!

I was confused, but I nodded. We both knew that was true; it had always been true. “So why are you mad?” I asked, still a little worried. She looked like she either wanted to cry or to slap me.

Instead she flailed her arms in the air with frustration. “Because after the concert last night,” she almost sobbed “my mother asked me ‘Why can’t you play more like that Miller boy? He looks like he’s having so much fun!’

Lesson being: if you perform all the notes but don’t play them (or maybe vice versa) the song and the music will suffer.

Case the second:

A good friend of mine who runs dance workshops in San Francisco was asked to be a performer at an event featuring pole dancers. (Side note: if you are one of those who believes that pole dancing is a sordid and decadent art form solely for exotic dancers, I will remind you that ballet began in the court of Louis XIII and was described as “part burlesque, part acrobatics, filled with outlandish obscenities.” Art is about intent, not content). She is not actually trained in pole work, and as she watched other trained teachers and professional competitors do amazing things on the pole, she started feeling a bit out of place.

Still, she’s a talented improv dancer and a professional, so she went out, grabbed the pole and gave her best shot at an engaged dance. Afterwards, one of the other dancers approached her. “The way you danced,” she said, “you looked like you felt the way I wanted to feel when I first started pole.” She gave my friend her card, and added “Can you teach me how to dance like that?”

Lesson being: what does it benefits a dancer if they learn all the right moves but lose their own dance?

The thing is, I don’t think that it’s limited to the arts. I think it’s part of just about anything that you do: if you do it with full engagement, you will do it better. People are drawn to passionate action, and it’s the place where you can find your own flow. If you haven’t got any idea what that’s like…then I really suggest you start looking, because you’re cheating yourself out of one of the best pleasures of life. It doesn’t have to be a 12-foot grand piano or a steel pole – it could be a game of Minecraft or a well-cooked meal or an authentic letter to a friend.

Find it. It’s worth it. And let me know what it is!

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My Last Word on Following Passion

courtesy Joshua Sheldon via Unsplash

Or, “Don’t just do something; sit there!”

Last weekend when I recorded the Love Life Practice Podcast I was able to read the comment that my friend Petrona left rebutting my rebuttal. I actually had to re-record the section, because the first time I read it I kept on interrupting to argue with her points and insist on clarification and jump up and down and occasionally tear at my hair. It was actually kind of funny, and I was amused at myself.

It also made me wonder: why was I so passionate about this? Why did I get so heated up in the discussion? Why did I sit there trying to work out statistical probabilities and Venn diagrams and such when the closest I have ever come to statistics is my Uncle the actuary? Where was this emotional attachment coming from?

I realized: In the argument about whether to follow passion, those like me who follow their passion but aren’t quite as successful as they’d like hear “don’t follow your passion” as “You’re silly, naive, and unrealistic!”. Meanwhile those who are making a living by sacrificing their passion hear “You should follow your passion!” as “You’re stupid, and you’ll be sorry!

Why make someone feel that way? The one thing both sides can agree on is that no one really knows. So why bother trying to persuade anyone els?

So this is the last post on whether or not to follow your passion. There’s no reason for me to tell you to follow yours; I’ll just follow mine.

It did, however, inspire a bit of a poem. This is not my comfort zone; poetry doesn’t normally come out of me. But in this case it came just about fully-formed to mind, so I’ll go ahead and share it.

Follow your passion
or don’t.
It doesn’t really matter.
Your passion follows you.

It knows where you sleep
and whispers to you in the gray pastels
between sleep and wake.

Between now and death
there’s plenty of time
for you to whisper back:
“I wish I had.”


In Defense of Passion

gettoworkdemotivatorThe only thing that drives me as nuts as the bland and whimsical “Follow your passion!” articles that fill personal development blogs is the inevitable backlash of “Don’t follow your passion!” rebuttals. I’ve written on the subject here before, and I swear, I’m not going to go over the same stuff in this post.

Aside from the writings of Cal Newport (who I have both agreed  and disagreed with before) one of the most vocal of the “Don’t!” crowd is Mike Rohe. You might know him from the “Dirty Jobs” series, but lately he’s been in great demand as a speaker, an advertising spokesman, and…well, I don’t even know all of the stuff. But I recently saw a rebuttal he wrote to the whole “Follow your passion” idea and, well…as I said, it can drive me a little nuts. Even aside from the idea of an opera singer turned TV star recommending people pursue “realistic” careers, there were some things that simply cannot be passed over.

Don’t Bore Me With Figures

Today, we have millions looking for work, and millions of good jobs unfilled because people are simply not passionate about pursuing those particular opportunities. Do we really need Lady GaGa telling our kids that happiness and success can be theirs if only they follow their passion?

Not sure if Lady Gaga actually said that, but Mike said she did. Apparently the idea of following a dream – or a dreamer, one of those people who, say, starts a small business – is a sure ticket to the poorhouse. Except I’ll match Mike’s vague “millions” with some actual data:

“Small firms accounted for 63 percent of the net new jobs created between 1993 and mid-2013 (or 14.3 million of the 22.9 million net new jobs). Since the end of the recession (from mid-2009 to mid-2013), small firms accounted for 60 percent of the net new jobs. Small firms in the 20-499 employee category led job creation.” – Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council

“Women will create over half of the 9.72 million new small business jobs expected to be created by 2018.” – Forbes

On the other hand, in those wonderful “secure” fields – you know, the “sensible jobs”:

Technology companies have been the largest downsizers so far this year with several long time stalwarts leading the way. Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Cisco Systems announced the most job cuts, not only among tech companies, but also overall…The industry with the second largest planned layoffs so far in 2014 has been retail, with nearly 30,000 job cuts announced through August. – Huff Post Business

And that brings me to the first point of this re-rebuttal: somebody’s got to have a helluva lot of hubris to think they can tell a high school or college graduate what kind of job will actually be “sensible.” I’m sure there were many excited graduates who called their mothers to say “I just got a gig with Enron!” or “Yep, that computer science degree paid off – but don’t worry, I’m not going to build that silly “twitter” app with my buddies. I got a real job with Cisco Systems!

I am a good example of that. I graduated with a decent number of web design skills, along with several others in my cohort. Two of my best buddies got jobs with companies like Sony, whereas I decided to strike out on my own and freelance. Two years later, yes, I was still struggling – but I’d learned to manage on my own skills, my own grit, whereas both of my buddies had set up lifestyles that reflected their generous starting salaries – and then got bitten hard when they suddenly got laid off when the dot bomb hit. Yes, I get that in my Grandfather’s day – or even my Father’s – you could work for the same company for twenty plus years and retire into comfort (not that Dad’s doing that, he works harder than just about anyone I know). But now? According to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, for “younger baby boomers” born between 1946 and 1964, “twenty-six percent held 15 jobs or more, while 10 percent held zero to four jobs.”

That’s because jobs are changing faster than ever, as well. It’s ironic that as a middle-schooler I was absolutely entranced by the idea of computer programming – I carried around books on BASIC and remembered arguing with my friend Arsenio about how to best make a line-art animation of a TRON figure. With all due respect to my parents…I was told to stop wasting my time, because what kind of career could you get with a little animated computer figure?

They also discouraged my D&D playing, which set me far behind all my lawyer/doctor/professional buddies who play now. But hey, I’m not bitter. How could they know? My parents – and my guidance counselors, and everybody – didn’t know that my most lucrative career would come from web design and digital media – because that career didn’t exist yet.

So my response to people who say Don’t follow your passion! You’ll never make money at it! my response is first: How would you know? Yeah, they may be right – but at least the person would know what it felt like to follow their passion and fail, as opposed to fail and always wonder what might have happened.

It’s a lot better being an unemployed sax player than being an unemployed pipe fitter! – the Commitments

The Worst Thing

Another reason Mr. Rowe gives for his reasoning is his own experience trying to follow his passion, which for a while was to be a fine tradesman like his grandfather. He had what he relates as a revelatory experience.

One day, I brought home a sconce from woodshop that looked like a paramecium, and after a heavy sigh, my grandfather told me the truth. He explained that my life would be a lot more satisfying and productive if I got myself a different kind of toolbox.

Whatever happened to “it’s a poor tradesman who blames the tools”? I read that story and I think “No, what was needed was a different kind of teacher.” People aren’t born knowing how to use tools – that’s pretty much the definition of technology, in fact. Mike has made a career out of learning how to do all kinds of different jobs – you’re telling me he couldn’t have learned to make a sconce if he’d had the right teacher?

He adds,

“Staying the course” only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Because passion and persistence – while most often associated with success – are also essential ingredients of futility.

I believe this is where my head exploded. Because behavioral science has shown that it is exactly the combination of determination and practice (as opposed to some “talent” for, say, woodworking) that most often results in success. But perhaps we should look further back:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. – Calvin Coolidge

No, I’m not saying that following your passion is the secret to success either. I am saying that it is more fun than not following it. Or to quote a sports scientist, “…the only certainty is that whoever says that success is due to one or two things is wrong.”

Too Little, Too Late

The sad part is that I have had people point out that Mike doesn’t completely abandon passion. At the end of his speech, he does give you this:

Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.

Which I happen to completely agree with. But to put that at the end of a long piece with gems like “Thinking of [Follow your passion] still makes me throw up in my mouth,” seems a bit disingenuous.

So follow your passion. Or don’t. The fact is, you’ll figure out how to put food on your table and a roof over your head somehow. And you’ll either integrate your passion into your life in some way that nourishes it – or you’ll bury it because someone told you it was a dumb idea. But allow me to point out another bit of data: the number one regret of those on their deathbed:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

should you do what you love?

Do What You Love – No, Wait…

do-what-you-loveYa gotta love the lemmings. Steve Jobs, in a now-famous keynote, set down a challenge for the up-and-coming workers (aka college grads) that has been quoted over and over:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.

It became a mantra: ”Do what you love. Love what you do.” Or, “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” Or the idea that “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.”  Many books were written on it. I also coached many people towards it (you know who you are) and it could be said that my current career path has been something of a “path of love”, or at least of passion. The last time I worked for someone as an actual employee my job was to create web pages making really bad time-shares look really good. “Turd-polishing” was the unofficial job description I gave it, and I walked out one Sunday and never looked back.

Many books have been written on the idea: Gary Vaynerchuk, for example, gives a dire warning:

“If you go and become a lawyer or go to school and do all the things that everybody wants you do to, and don’t do the thing you really love, the real question isn’t what’s going to happen when you’re 23, 27, 31, 36. The question really becomes what’s going to happen when you’re 70 years old and you look back at your life and you’re like, why didn’t I try?”

Barbara Sher and Tim Ferriss also have bestsellers about doing what you love that are slightly more pragmatic, where they suggest that you first find some job that pays the bills and subsidizes your dream. Still, their message is clear: What you love is important.

The Angry Opposition

Of course, it didn’t take long for the pendulum to swing back. With positively nasty titles like “Do What You Love? Screw That article after article talks about just how silly it is to think that what you love can actually support you. In fact, they argue that the idea itself is to blame for things like underpaid workers:

Instead of crafting a nation of self-fulfilled, happy workers, our DWYL (Do What You Love) era has seen the rise of the adjunct professor and the unpaid intern: people persuaded to work for cheap or free, or even for a net loss of wealth. – Miya Tokimitsu

I have to point out that many people who did what they didn’t love and what they were told would pay are also being overworked, underpaid, and let go at a moment’s notice. It brings to mind a bit from the movie The Commitments, when two band members are standing in the dole (the U.K. welfare line). “How yeh doin’?” the band manager asks.

I’m great!” the erstwhile saxophonist replies. “It’s much better being an unemployed musician than being an unemployed pipefitter!

Just as people quoted Steve Jobs as a mantra, a writer named Cal Newport has become the cause celebre for the “Don’t Do What You Love” movement. His book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is a rebuttal to the entire idea. He argues that craftspeople and similar workers learn to love what they do because they do it with care and attention – and that you should learn that, too. Moreover, he sees the whole “love” thing as a wibbly-wobbly lovey-dovey mishmash:

“Who am I?’ and ‘What do I truly love?’—are essentially impossible to confirm. ‘Is this  who I really am?’ and ‘Do I love this?’ rarely reduce to clear yes-or-no responses. In other words, the passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused. . .

Amazed & Effused

I’ve read his book, and I confess I was pretty disappointed. The idea that you should find work that makes money and just keep doing it until you love it seems to me just as silly as the idea that your passion for baseball cards will make you a million. It’s similar to an arranged marriage…then again, statistically, arranged marriages actually tend to stay together longer.

I think there’s more to the whole idea than some Yoda-esque “do. or do not.” There is more, if you’ll pardon the term, gray area to the subject. It depends on how you look at it. I choose to think of the first “Do what you love” as a call to remember that your passions have value. They deserve attention. Make time for them, because as Gary Vaynerchuk said, at the end of your life you probably won’t wish you’d spent more time not doing them.

And “love what you do”? That can be a call to mindfulness, to finding the value of your work (more on that Monday).

Should you do what you love? I don’t know. The answer is almost certainly “It depends.” One thing I’m sure of, though:

You absolutely should not do what you hate.

should you do what you love?

Love & Other Disasters

In episode 30 of the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast there is an interview with sports writer David Epstein, in which they talk extensively about that infamous “10,000 hour” rule. It was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and is based heavily on the work of a Dr. Ericsson from Princeton.

Basically, it posits that in order to reach mastery of any cognitively-demanding occupation it requires, on average, 10,000 hours (usually about a decade) of deliberate practice. It’s kind of funny watching the way academics, trainers, personal development writers (mea culpa) and others have argued back and forth about what this really signifies. There’s lots of “But what about X situation?” rebutted with “We never said X! You’re building a straw man!” and more.

Which is fine for academics and writers, but Mr. Epstein’s objection is less theoretical and more direct. The untempered belief in this “rule” has caused it to be applied in situations it was never intended for. What is more, it is actually having the opposite of its intended effect.

Early specialization cuts short a period when young athletes would otherwise sample a wide variety of sports and robs them of the opportunity to stumble upon their best fit, Epstein says. “Though narrowly focused child prodigies fascinate us and garner media attention, it turns out that later specializers are more the norm than the exception,” – The Washington Post

Stumbling Upon Happiness

While it’s also the title of one of my favorite books, it caught my eye when the same verb was used in Epstein’s interview. How many of us give ourselves the chance to “stumble upon our best fit”? Instead, we are often paralyzed by the fear of doing the wrong thing.

Our parents and teachers and mentors often help us in this paralysis by stressing how important it is to choose the right college, the right major, the right partner, sometimes even the right haircut for the school yearbook!

While it’s true that small changes and decisions can have far-reaching implications in our lives, it is the essence of hubris to assume that we know what those decisions are. As Dan Gilbert’s work, among others, has shown we are ridiculously inept at predicting what will make us happy. So what’s a hopeful happy person to do? How can we choose?

Cloudy, with a Chance of Luck

There are very convincing arguments against doing what you love as a career. Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You is one of many personal development folks who will tell you that it’s entirely wrong to assume that the thing you love is going to make you happy. His argument is that it’s much better to use strategies to learn to love what it is you do.

Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.

Personally, I think that idea has some merit – certainly mindfulness practice can turn the most mundane thing into a joy. There are some flaws to that argument, though. I had a job that was fairly lucrative working in web marketing – but we were selling things that were actually detrimental to the lives of the people who bought them. My job was to hide this fact in the advertisement so that we could sell them as fast as possible. Could I ever have learned to love that job? I doubt it.

When it comes to following your passion, though, why does it have to be one or the other?

“The key to strategy… is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory.” — Cavilo, The Vor Game

I like the idea of combining this old TV trope (also known as the Xanatos Gambit, with a principle of Zen archery:

Loose the arrow, and what it strikes you call “the target.”

A good example of this is Edison’s response when someone talked about how he’d failed 10,000 times to find a working filament for his lightbulbs. “I have not failed,” he famously replied. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

I’ve commented a few times that I’m currently at a place in my life where I’m happier than I’ve ever been, especially in terms of my work. Let’s take a moment and look at some of the paths I took to reach this point:

dancer became marine became cook became preschool teacher became multimedia designer became TV engineer became video editor became web content specialist became public speaker became writer.

Along the way I earned a degree in Inter-Arts Technology (Dance), learned Tagalog, gained expertise in some specialized performing arts, led a church choir, traveled to Europe, performed in community theaters, and took up cigars. Apparently, that was my path to happiness. Why didn’t my guidance counselor have a pamphlet for that? What if I had picked one thing – say, preschool teacher – and devoted the 10,000 hours to becoming an expert. Would I be as happy?

It’s a trick question. The answer is “unknown”; we can never actually know the destinations to which the roads not traveled led. The thing is, it doesn’t matter, because we can’t change the past; all we can do is choose what to do next.

The Burden of Choice

That’s where we freeze up. Especially if we’re not happy where we are, then the thought of choosing wrong again and possibly ending up somewhere even worse keeps us from taking steps in any direction other than the one we’re heading. The status quo is always easier than change.

The problem is that the idea of “right or wrong” in terms of choices suffers from an imperfect metaphor. As Sean West put it in a recent podcast (well worth checking out!),

People see it as 360º of options and if they pick the wrong one then they’re heading in the wrong direction. But it’s not really 360º of options, it’s more like a starting line with a bunch of arrows pointing forward. You’re going to find that one thing leads to the next. Pick one and start.

So yes, you should do what you love. You should also do what you don’t love in a different way to see if you can learn to love it. You should do that thing you never thought you’d like on the off chance you’re wrong. You should do that thing you did when you were little to see if you still like it, and you should do that thing you have to do in both mindful and mindless ways to see if it changes have to to want to. Do all the things. Or as many as you feel like.

Every one, even the ones that seem like a waste of time, will have taught you something. If you fail, you’re being given a chance to practice losing gracefully and building resilience and keeping on. You’re becoming a Renaissance person! Go you!

I’ll close with a quote from one of the most influential writers I’ve ever read. I cringe at that, sometimes, but this particular quote has served me well, and perhaps it will inspire you as it inspired me:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert A. Heinlein

always be loving


Recently a very talented illustrator friend of mine posted on his Facebook page that he had gotten a client based on an offhand sketch he’d made on the back of a napkin in a restaurant. He declared that the lesson learned was “ABD: Always Be Drawing.”

Gray speaks at Ignite Madison 2014

Of Pancakes and Daughters…

I ran into the same lesson this week when I got word on Tuesday morning that my proposed Ignite Madison talk was accepted after all – and needed to be ready by 2pm Wednesday afternoon. Keep in mind I’d put in my proposal weeks before, and after being rejected the first time, the idea had simply been put in the “oh, well” section of my brain.

Suddenly it was moved to the “RIGHT NOW!” section and I confess I panicked at first. Then I found an essay I’d written several years ago, and it resonated. That essay, it should be noted, had also been rejected. I proceeded to ignore the wise advice of the Ignite team (“Start from scratch!“) and spent a frustrating hour or so trying to fit the large square peg into the round hole.

I wised up, mind you, and did end up starting with a blank sheet. That old essay was barely recognizable as the fertile ground from which the final Ignite talk grew. Both the material and the exercise of writing itself gave me the material I needed to make it work.

It All Comes Down to the Present Tense Verb

One of my regular haunts is Medium, where there was an article today on How to Be a Writer.” The site indicated that it was about a seven minute read, and I chuckled even as I clicked the link, because I was imagining what it is that really should be there.* It shouldn’t be a seven-minute or even a seven-second read. It should be about .07 seconds, and after you click the “How to Be a Writer” link, you should get a page with one word:


That’s it, really. All of the Pressfields and LaMotts and Kings and other writing coaches are basically saying the same thing. It all comes down, in the end, to giving up on all the things that keep you from writing, from all the things that you think you need to do before you write, and just writing.

You can take that last sentence, put in whatever verb you like, and it applies. There is knowing how, there is wanting to, there is wishing for, but in the end Yoda had it right. There is only do. Or do not.

“Stop Trying to Be Happy. Just Be It!”

That was the advice of a friend of mine when I was discussing with her some of my “life hacks” I’d changed to try and improve my happiness. Of course, it’s not that easy – there are all kinds of reasons people aren’t happy, from chemical imbalances to the many pervasive ways our culture convinces us we need more STUFF to be happy.

At the same time, there does come a point where what she said is exactly right. If you want to be happy, you have to be happy – not wait for someone or something to make you that way. The more I think about it, the more I think it applies to everything, including love. What if we took my cartoonist friend’s mantra and applied it?

Always be loving.

What kind of seeds of love, of kindness could be stored up? What kind of skills would we develop for those times when love is most needed? What kind of interactions would we have if we started every one – yes, every one – with the thought “How can I do this in a loving way?

I don’t know the answers. But I think it’s a worthwhile question…

 * By the way, it is a great article,
well worth the 7 minutes,
whether you’re a writer or not.