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

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