I just finished Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The title is a little misleading: the book is about a commitment to quality work, but it really addresses the question of how to decide what to do with your life. The conclusion Newport provides is that “follow your passion” is terrible advice and a surefire way to end up miserable. There’s a lot more to the book than I will touch on here (so go read it), but it stimulated some thoughts I wanted to share.
How I “found my passion” by giving up on looking
When I moved to Boulder, the first job I got was as an academic tutor at a boutique tutoring outfit. I’ll admit that, at the time, I thought this job was beneath me, a graduate of UChicago, but it paid well and I genuinely loved helping people. Ironically it was my academic history, grades and SAT scores that qualified me at all, so it was by definition NOT beneath me.
I spent about eighteen months hating my job, routinely missing or being late for appointments, and generally failing to take it seriously. In my mind, it wasn’t a real job, just a stopgap while I found something better.
But I never did find anything better. I remember being so angry at the world for letting me down and myself for not doing better. I saw many of my friends in high-caliber jobs, doing things they loved, and I felt like I had missed my chance. I even went back to New York for a while to try starting from scratch where I’d grown up.
In tutoring, however, I had/have two of the greatest bosses anyone could ask for, who, despite my recalcitrance and lack of consistency, continued to give me students, to work with me, and to pay me better than anything else I found in Boulder.
Eventually, I got fed up with being angry about my life and decided that, if this was the best job I was going to get, then I would just be the best tutor I could be. At least I could be proud of that.
Of course, that’s when things turned around. I distinctly remember my life improving after that decision. I made a commitment to being on time for all my meetings, to be present with my students, to take tutoring seriously and to learn how to be a great tutor. I started learning about the business and offering my ideas on how to improve things. Basically, I made myself care, and I committed to doing a great job at what I had considered a bad job.
The result was that I started to enjoy my work (almost overnight actually) and to make more money. I also got pretty good at tutoring.
Now, I tell people that teaching “is my passion” and I love it so much that, even after I become a partner at a web design company, I continue tutoring on the side. Lucky me, you may say, for finding my passion, except that it’s pretty obvious that my passion for teaching grew out of my dedication to being a good teacher.
Passion vs. Commitment
- If passion is your criteria for value, you withhold your energies until you find “the one (job/partner/workout/diet)”.
- If you instead mold yourself to your circumstances and excel at whatever you are doing, it will reward you with passion.
The main idea is that passion isn’t something that comes from you. It is the reward for hard work, not the justification for it.
Love: Is this the Right Person vs. How Can I Love Better?
I, like many, believed that happiness in love was about finding the right person, similar to how happiness in a job is about finding the right job that matches your passion.
But this led me to wonder in all my relationships if I was with the right person, no matter how good things seemed.
This mindset nearly destroyed my relationship with the woman who is now my wife, and it wasn’t until I made the conscious decision to view my relationship from the perspective of what I could bring to the table, rather than what I got out of it, that it started to be fulfilling to me.
It’s not that I forced myself to be happy about something subpar, but by increasing my contribution to the relationship, I made the relationship better and something I want.
In love, a lot depends on the other person. I was lucky in that my wife was incredibly patient and gave me more chances than I could possibly have deserved, but I know there are partners who would chew you out no matter what, just like there are jobs that don’t give you the opportunity to shine even if you genuinely tried. But I think it’s valuable to adopt the mindset of, “I’m not going to be the reason our relationship breaks down.”
In those cases, just do your best and move on. Just make sure you’re not simply excusing yourself without making an effort.
School: This Just Isn’t My Subject vs. I Have Some Questions
It’s been a while since I was in school, but I work with a lot of students who are in high school. Not all of them see the value of being in school, and unfortunately teachers will respond in kind, unconsciously treating the student differently. I even notice this in myself when I tutor, working with students who are vocal about questioning the value of tutoring.
But if you, as a student, commit to simply doing the best that you can, you will often find that teachers respond as well and meet you halfway, so that a gap that seemed insurmountable suddenly becomes crossable.
The best example I have of this is one of my old students who started at the bottom of the class. Even I had to catch myself in how I talked to her to avoid dismissing her chances. But she put in more effort than any student I’ve ever worked with. She took herself seriously in every session, asked constant questions, and did exactly what I told her. Her ACT score doubled from the mid-teens to the thirties (the max score on the ACT is 36).
A lot of my students blame their academic problems on poor teachers, and while that may be the case, I encourage them to adopt the same mindset I mentioned for relationships: “I’m not going to be the reason I fail math.” Seek out every possible resource and ask a lot of questions.
Fitness: I’m Not Made for This vs. I Just Need to Keep Training
The last area I want do discuss is fitness. I have always been inclined towards endurance sports and actively avoided strength training. I not only believed that I was physically weak, I asserted it to others as a reason not to lift weights.
But I also loved martial arts and there is a definite strength and power requirement to being an effective ninja. So I started researching strength training for karate and eventually strength training in general. It quickly became clear that heavy lifting is key.
So, I started in earnest. At first, I hated it. Just thinking about squats made me cringe. But I kept at it, and eventually, my mind and body adapted. Now, strength training it one of my passions. But again, it wasn’t something I came to because I loved it. I love it because I got good at it.
This is advice I give to all my trainees if they don’t enjoy a particular kind of training. My wife used to hate weightlifting more than me, but now that she’s gained some proficiency in it, she is sometimes the one dragging me to the gym (she’s not passionate, but she actually can appreciate it).
- Passion arises from proficiency.
- If something is hard to bear or feels unrewarding, consider strengthening your commitment to excelling in it rather than moving on to the next thing (and bringing your same mindset).
- Adopt the mindset: “I won’t be the reason this doesn’t work out.” And then earnestly do everything in your power to make that true.