Skills Before Passions

The greatest tragedy in life is that sugar is bad for us. The next greatest tragedy is that we’re supposed to know what we want to do with our lives by the time we’re 18. If we’re mature enough to vote and buy cigarettes, we’re wise enough to choose the right career path. Is that how the logic goes?

Let’s look into the mind of an 18-year old kid I once knew. Here’s how he chose his college major:

Which degree has the highest average starting salary?

Chemical engineering.

Did I do well in high school chemistry?

Yep. Straight “A”s.

And the rest is history (with a few twists and turns).

By the end of his second year in college, he was still considered a freshman and had spent half his time on academic probation. So he buckled down and did what any other motivated, hard-working teenager would do: he quit.

Well, he didn’t quit school, but he changed majors. He chose the one that required the least amount of calculus and had the highest graduation rate. “It’s sometimes wise to take the easy way out,” said some other 19-year old prodigy.

We’re bad at predicting the future

If we’re going to spend 50 years in a career, we should enjoy something about it. Maybe we love the actual work that we do. Maybe we get joy from helping or serving others. Or, maybe our job provides the financial support we need to pursue art in our free time. Whatever the case, our work should contribute to our happiness, not detract from it. We’re even told we should “follow our passion” (whatever that means).

This is a big deal — it’s one of the biggest decisions of our lives. Are we really wise enough at 18 to know what we will be passionate about for the next 50 years? Are we just supposed to hope we get it right?

In his book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” Cal Newport argues that we’ve got this backward. That developing and improving skills come before passion. He writes:

“…it’s hard to predict in advance what you’ll eventually grow to love.”

This is a simple statement. And, taken out of context, I don’t think anyone would argue with it. Yet this thought never crosses our minds when we’re choosing our futures.

We think we’re all geniuses, but humans are really terrible at predicting the future. The main reason is there are more variables outside our control than there are within it. We can control our own thoughts, actions, and reactions, but we can’t control anyone else’s. I’m better at picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby than a winning stock.

If we can’t accurately predict the future when we have tons of data points, how can we predict what our “passion” will be in ten years — based on nothing but a hunch?

We enjoy things we’re good at

A few pages later, Newport discusses a study that found:

“…the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.”

In other words, evidence shows that passion follows skill. In the study, the more time the subjects spent doing something, the better they were at what they did. And because they were good at what they did, they enjoyed it more.

This makes sense. When it comes to working, I definitely get more joy from doing things I’m good at. But how are we supposed to know what we’re going to excel at without trying? That’s the paradox.

Why we should play the odds

The way the system is currently designed, most of us pick a loose career path based on 18 years of adolescent wisdom. Then we spend $100,000 and four (or more) years of our life on a degree — all before we ever step foot in the workplace. That’s a huge commitment. And because of the sunk costs, we stick with that decision for the rest of our lives.

But that’s the extreme. Some people know what they want to do early in life. The rest of us just need trial and error.

We don’t know if we’re going to like doing something unless we try it. If we try for a while and realize we’re pretty good, we feel motivated to dedicate more time to it. Then we improve, which makes us like it even more. Or, if we try something for a while and hate it, we move on to something else.

This is how kids discover the sports and activities they enjoy. They try several different things and stick with the ones they like. Most times, the things they pursue are the things they’re good at — or at least good enough where they want to improve. They have to want to practice.

Why can’t this same approach apply to adults? If we try enough new things, the odds are that something will stick.

Keep the good, toss the bad

Although it may sound like it, I don’t think college is overrated. And I don’t regret my path because every decision I made led me to where I am now.

My first career required communication with hundreds of people on every project. I wrote thousands of letters and emails every year for fourteen years. I took pride in my writing, making sure I wrote clearly and effectively. This was my 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell talks about.

That job also required me to manage large teams and resolve conflicts on a daily basis. After my 10,000 hours of practicing these things, I realized I didn’t enjoy them. So I decided to do something about it.

Over the next few years, I read countless books on business, marketing, and psychology. I taught myself to build websites. I created physical products and started eCommerce sites. And I started writing freelance articles for people in my existing network.

I tried tons of new things. In fact, I own a large graveyard full of dead URLs for businesses that I tried to start at some point. I usually pulled the plug without ever sharing them with anyone. Like a child, I would try something new. If I didn’t like it, I’d quit. If I liked it, then I kept working and improving at it.

I had no idea this is the route I would take. And I still don’t even know what I want to be when I grow up. But I think that’s the point — we can’t know, we can only try things. When we get good at something and enjoy it, we double-down on it. Then we cut out the rest. What we’re left with is something we can be passionate about.

We stop trying to predict the future and just learn as we go. Isn’t that life?

I'm Brandon.

I’m a dad who writes about being a dad. When I can find the time between wiping butts and breaking up fights and chauferring and working. 

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