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Zen and the Art of Investment Banking: When Working Right is More Important than Finding the Right Work

February 14th, 2011 · 52 comments

The Seeker

During the summer of 1998, Thomas was working an entry level position in the IT department of a large London investment bank, his days filled with data entry and the occasional light secretarial work. It wasn’t a terrible job, but it wasn’t great either. “I was constantly unhappy,” Thomas recalls, looking back at this period.

The most recent crop of lifestyle advice literature offers a clear directive to 1998 Thomas: Follow your passion to something better!

“It’s worse to tolerate your job than to hate it because, if the pain is painful enough, you’ll make a change,” Tim Ferriss explained in a recent interview with 37 Signals. “But if it’s tolerable mediocrity, and you’re like, ‘Well, you know it could be worse. At least I’m getting paid.’ Then you wind up in a job that is slowly killing your soul.”

According to this philosophy, Thomas needs to escape the tolerable mediocrity of his banker job before it becomes too late. But here’s the thing, Thomas had already tried that — quite a few times actually — and it hadn’t seemed to solve his problems.

Years earlier, right after college, a young Thomas, who was terrified of becoming a Dockers-clad cubicle jockey, followed a “passion” for cycling and quickly moved up the sport’s ranks to join a professional team. He had a tendency to overtrain, however, and admidst the physical grind of professional-level athletics, his mind turned toward greener pastures.

Quitting cycling, he entered academia, earning two graduate degrees, before discovering that his research was too mainstream to be interesting.

Wanting to try something more reflective and less demanding, he tried traveling to Korea to teach English. But even the lush exoticism of East Asia couldn’t dampen his sense that he was destined for something better.

“Every job I did paled in comparison to some magical future passion-fulfilling occupation,” he recalls.

Needing to pay his bills, he moved back to London, took the entry level Banker position, and remained unhappy.

If stopped here, Thomas’ story would be a cautionary tale of the soul-sapping repressiveness of the working world. But it didn’t stop here. Nine months into his job at the bank, Thomas did something completely unexpected; something that would change his life, but not at all in the way he assumed:

He dropped everything and moved to a Zen monastery, tucked into the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, where he would spend the next two years…

The Monk

The Zen Mountain Monastery sits in the shadow of Tremper Mountain, in the bowl formed by the juncture of the Beverkill and Espous rivers. This is primarily forested land, home to white oaks and hickory, though the rivers support a swath of marshes and meadows that pass through the Monastery’s grounds.

The main building of the Zen Mountain Monastery was built by a Catholic priest back in the 1930s, decades before the Buddhists arrived. The stone walls are made of the local bluestone, mined from nearby cliffs, and the roof beams were hewed from the local oak. Then, as today, regardless of your religion, if any, it’s hard not to recognize this land as God’s country.

It was early in the winter of 1999, that Thomas arrived in this tranquility, a world apart from London’s Square Mile financial district, to become a lay trainee and live among the monks.

“During my entrance interview, when I was explaining why I wanted to practice Zen, and what issues I had been facing in my life, I broke down and started to cry,” Thomas recalls.

Once inducted, Thomas’ days were filled with Zazen, the traditional seated meditation, interrupted only by chores (“work as sacred labor” being one of the core precepts of the training), and long Dharma discourses on mind-bending koans.

Westerners often misunderstand Zen practice, believing that the goal is to clear your mind and reach a blissful state of tranquility. This is a myth. Awareness, not suppression, is at the core of Zen. A practiced meditator is not unburdened by thoughts, he is, instead, hyper-aware of the thoughts flitting through his mind, observing them with detached interest.

“I just had a day dream about a twitter post, and how people might react to it” a  modern mediator might think. “That’s interesting that my mind felt compelled to explore that.”

Put another way, Zazen is a tool of self-inquiry, not escape, and this self-inquiry turned out to be trying for Thomas.

For years, Thomas had imagined living at a monastery to be the “zenith” of his passions — in his fantasies, it held the magical qualities that all his previous jobs lacked. But once he arrived at the Zen Mountain Monastery, he realized that although his surroundings had changed, he was “exactly the same person.” The thought patterns that had caused his previous unhappiness — like and dislikes; anxieties, boredoms and fantasies — had not magically disapeared.

“Hours and hours of sitting on a Zafu [a meditation cushion] with only my thoughts as companions made me super aware of these distractions,” recalls Thomas.

The Enlightened One

At first, Thomas’ realization “that there was nowhere else to run to,” plunged him into despair. The organizing structure of working life, that there was a magical “right” occupation waiting out there to be discovered, had crumbled.

But armed with the tools of self-awareness honed in his Zen practice, he was eventually able to move beyond the despair and toward an important discovery about his relationship to work: “I realized at a very deep level that most of the time it is not the job that is the problem, but me.”

There was nothing intrinsically bad about Thomas’ prior jobs. The problem was his mindset. He was obsessed with the fantasy of a perfect job, and this obsession led him to find fault with the work actually available.

He left the Zen Mountain Monastery with an important understanding: finding the right work pales in importance to learning how to work right.

The Expert

Thomas’ story is extreme, but its basic structure is common. Many young people are in a similar position to pre-monestary Thomas: their ill-defined sense of what work should be leads them to chronic and ambiguous unhappiness with their current opportunity. Instead of seeking out ways to develop their position, they seek out fault, and where obvious fault can’t be found, they generate it.

When I meet a recent college graduate who has reduced a relatively easy but interesting entry-level job into a swamp of misery, reeking of perfectionism and invented anxiety, I can’t help but think of a young Thomas, over-training on his bike, or fidgeting nervously in his Korean classroom, day dreaming about what’s next.

This generates an interesting question: assuming you buy this premise that working right is as important as finding the right work, how does one accomplish this goal?

To find an answer, I turned to an expert. My friend Elizabeth Saunders is a self-styled “time coach,” who helps people who feel guilty, overwhelmed, and unfocused about their work take back control. I asked her to reveal some of the secrets behind her well-regarded Schedule Makeover process.

“I’ve synthesized my methodology into these three concepts: Priorities, Expectations and Routine,” she told me:

  • Priorities require that you make re-energizing activities and people a regular part of your life. “You will not feel satisfied if you are not consistently investing in your top priorities,” she explained.
  • Expectations require that you make peace with how much time the different components of your work actually require. Once you recognize that a project is going to take 8 hours, and put aside this required time, its ability to cause stress diminishes. This also makes it easier to learn your schedule’s limitations, and turn down extra work with confidence (a nice complement, as Elizabeth pointed out, to my fixed-schedule producitivty concept). “In time coaching, I teach people how to see their time as something to invest and not to create stress by having unrealistic expectations that lead to time debt.”
  • Routines require that you have set systems for handling your regular activities in life, including, perhaps most crucially, your daily and weekly planning process. “If you get these planning routines down, you can adapt and adjust to anything that comes your way.”

These ideas aren’t extreme, but their effect can be. Elizabeth has told me many stories of people who, like pre-monastery Thomas, were anxious and miserable with their work,  but who then generated lasting happiness through the type of small, daily, practical changes Elizabeth preaches.

One such story was about an executive who had spent 10 years at a large corporation. Though he enjoyed the stability of the income, he also felt “frustated and confined by what seemed like constant unrealistic expectations.” He had begun to resent his job.

This where standard advice says: change your job! But he decided instead to take control of both his mindset and habits.

“The way that he found happiness,” Elizabeth told me, “had a great deal to do with integrating regular planning into his routine.” By regaining control over his schedule, he was able to gain a clear picture of what work quantities made sense. This allowed him to approach his boss from a position of calm confidence and rework his project load.

A year later, Elizabeth reports that the executive no longer feels like a “victim” of his circumstance. He controls his work flow, and accordingly does what he does well, but also “asserts his right to self care by regularly exercising and taking time to spend with his family.”

This is less sexy than advising the executive to quit his job to open a surf shop. But it worked.

The New Employee

Returning to the working world after his stay at the monastery, Thomas, like Elizabeth’s client, found new peace in an old setting. He returned to the bank he had left two years earlier. This time, however, he approached his job with a new awareness. Without escapist thoughts of fantasy jobs dominating his mind, he was able to focus on the tasks he was given, without constantly comparing them to some magical “future” occupation. (Having spent hours scrubbing toilets as part of his Zen training, Thomas had a new appreciation for the value of separating work from judgments of whether it’s good or bad.)

This new focus was appreciated by management. Nine months into his job he was promoted. Then he was promoted again and again. Within two years he moved from data entry to being given charge of  a computer system that managed over 6 billion dollars of investment assets. Today the system he overseas manages 5 times that amount.

On paper, this should be a stressful job, but Thomas has found appreciation for its moment to moment requirements.

“I noticed that it does not matter what the task is, if I am focused it is generally pleasant,” he told me.

The Conclusion

Finding happiness in your work is a complicated, ambiguous, confusing process — a process that defies simple answers like “follow your passion” or “reject conformity.”

Thomas’ story, however, emphasizes that when battling these complicated issues you can do so from a simple, solid foundation: the recognition that working right must precede worries about finding the right work. There’s no magic formula to working right (I think Elizabeth’s approach provides a good start, but there’s certainly many ways forward). What seems to be important, however, is making sure that you own your work before allowing the allure of hypothetical dream jobs own you.

“No matter what kind of work I do or where I live in the world, I realized that I am the same person with the same set of likes and dislikes,” Thomas told me. No new job can change these realities. That effort is up to you.

#####

This post is the fourth in my series on Rethinking Passion, which tackles questions concerning the reality of building a deeply satisfying work life. Expect a new post in the series roughly once or twice a month. Here are the previous articles:

(Images from Zen Mountain Monastery)

52 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Investment Banking: When Working Right is More Important than Finding the Right Work

  1. Very thought provoking post. I love that you challenged the common advice of “change your job!” A lot of people think that working on something they are passionate about will make them happy for life, but the reality is that perhaps the key to this happiness is an internal change rather than an external one.

    For students, this can also apply to finding the right major or course of study. For premeds, a lot of them feel that biology or any related major is what they want to study but why then are so many premeds constantly full of anxiety and stressed out? The problem is that so many of us feel dictated by our school work and schedules. As Thomas’ many jobs show, a change of major or career plan won’t alleviate these worries. A commitment to internal improvement can thus bring about more happiness and peace than any external change could ever bring.

  2. Stanley Lee says:

    Cal,

    Your stories today redefined how to find internal peace while separating internal and external expectations and priorities (many of the stress induced from the dream job dilemma usually come from conflicting values between the person and his/her family, friends, colleagues, and social circle).

    Stanley

  3. Twist says:

    When I see a story like this I can’t help but wonder whether the path you advocate and the path you agitate against are dealing with two different questions. Namely that you’re arguing that its not possible to love every minute of work but that passion enthusiasts argue that there’s no point setting yourself on a path for the sake of being on a path.

    For example, personally I would be miserable as an investment banker at a standard firm, not because of the work but because in large part I see the entire industry as “make work” and full of schemes to make money without adding any real value to the world.

    However if I was going to be an investment banker at say a firm dedicated to investing in new technologies to be directed at the developing world, I’d consider business school because that would be a job that matched up with my personal values. The work itself is pretty much the same but the value of the job to myself is drastically different.

    So I feel like you argue that you have to reconcile yourself to the work that goes into reaching a worthy goal which is a very valid point, but that most passion enthusiasts focus on the idea that if the problem is that you don’t approve of the goal of the work you do, there’s an entirely different type of drain.

  4. Martin Messier says:

    Cal,

    Another outstanding post.

    The questions you raise apply equally to relationships and fitness. Our expectations in these two areas also may lead to dissatisfaction with our current state, when in fact our expectations are the real source of the problem.

    Martin

  5. Study Hacks says:
    For students, this can also apply to finding the right major or course of study.

    I completely agree with this. I’m always surprised by how a change to someone’s study habits, for example, can cause a major change in their affection for their major. It’s hard to enjoy something that’s making your life miserable.

    The work itself is pretty much the same but the value of the job to myself is drastically different.

    I agree that values matter. Zen or not zen, marketing cigarettes to teenagers, for example, is (hopefully) not going to be fulfilling work for most people. On the other hand, however, this observation is accepted enough at this point that I’m comfortable leaving it unsaid.

    The questions you raise apply equally to relationships and fitness. Our expectations in these two areas also may lead to dissatisfaction with our current state

    Good connection. In my own life, for example, I became much happier with my fitness (and much fitter) when I moved away form muscle-building routines in the gym, and toward an outdoor, more free form routine, inspired by mental peace, not bench press weight increases.

  6. Daniel Lock says:

    Cal,

    I love your posts. I’m not a student, but a professional and find your ideas and recent books applicable to my life. I recommend you blog to everyone.

    I love the contrarian theme you take to the kinda drop-it-all-and-change contrarian approach.

    Also love the story you weave throughout.

    Dan

  7. Eric says:

    Your blog is the best I’ve seen. Usually the advice is unrealistic but your’s fits right in with the real world. Thank you

  8. Simon says:

    Cal, it’s like Pirsig says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that you don’t try and make the machine right, you make your own attitude right. And then it doesn’t matter what you approach, as long as you approach it with the right attitude you will be able to solve the problems life throws at you.

  9. Study Hacks says:
    it’s like Pirsig says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance…

    Pirsig certainly exerts an influence here. Focus on Quality!

  10. Rob says:

    Cal, I like this article but something about it isn’t adding up for me. With much respect to you, I’d like to throw out several thoughts. Some of them are addressed directly at the article and some are more along the lines of tangential thoughts.

    If you look at the ideas of the Stoics or Victor Frankl or the principles of CBT/REBT, etc, it seems accepted that you have the ability to make your life a heaven or hell through your thoughts. Still, something seems to be missing.

    You can change your thoughts and consequently your feelings and behavior. You change the beliefs that act as the mold from which those thoughts are cast. But if you dislike broccoli, you can do all the mental gymnastics you want and you’ll still dislike broccoli at the end of the day.

    In Guy Murchie’s the Seven Mysteries of life he has a line about resolving the paradox between free will and predestination that I find fascinating. To paraphrase: “You are free to do what you want but you are not free to want what you want.”

    You can change the way you behave by changing your thoughts but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your desires.

    In a nutshell: How do I or the world benefit by making myself tolerate accounting work (working right) if what I really want to do is care for people’s physical health (doing the right work)?

    A few things about Thomas’s story in particular that tie into this:

    1.
    First, I wonder what Thomas values in life.

    2.
    Just because Thomas tried a few different things and they didn’t work out doesn’t mean that they didn’t have value or bear fruit in some way. In fact, it seems like they were all entirely necessary steps.

    3.
    There is a big difference between the “Follow your passion!” cheerleading handed out by the lifestyle design crowd and the simple idea of following your interests.

    4.
    There is a big difference between A. tolerating mediocre or outright unfavorable situations when you are on a path you care about and B. tolerating unfavorable situations along a path that you do not care about.

    5.
    There is a big difference between A. following “dream jobs” that are more appropriately classified as fantasies (because few people have the raw talent and possibly the staying power of a strong enough desire) such as rock star, athlete, actor and B. following things that you have a genuine interest in.

    6.
    Ultimately, Thomas DID in fact follow something he was interested in: Zen Buddhism. And it made all the difference. Just because it led him in what appears from the outside to be a circle doesn’t mean that it was a circle from the inside. And it doesn’t mean that he didn’t need to follow that path to end up where he did.

    7.
    My take away is that Thomas followed his passion and found a legitimate medium (a mundane job), through which to practice his art/passion (Zen Buddhism). From the outside it looks like he had a boring job, tried a bunch of stuff and then came back to having a boring job. But he is in fact a different person *(see #8 below) than when he started: now he is living something he cares about deeply.

    8.
    Respectfully, I have to disagree with Thomas’ own conclusion that he is the same person. If he was, he would still be tolerating a job he didn’t like.

    9.
    No matter what the outcome had been, it would be hard to argue that Thomas’ life is not much richer for having done the things that he did. But that ties back into what he values in life.

  11. Alex says:

    It has become a little eerie, in the past couple of months, how often you post exactly what I need to hear. I am so glad I found this blog; I’ve been trying to implement your suggestions and even if I only manage a little bit, it really makes a difference in my life. Thank you so much, for this post in particular and the blog in general. Sometimes it just takes a little bit to change everything.

  12. Prasanna says:

    Fantastic!
    Incisive, transformative content.
    I too had been grappling with such a ‘counting to infinity’ or ‘proving a negative’ and realized there is no ‘dream job that will make me happy’ & your article helped me reinforce this and exert that in action.
    Thanks!!

  13. huitseeker says:

    Just wanted to point out a technical issue: in the RSS feed, of the three suggested posts at the end, the first is OK and has a URL with the form:
    http://calnewport.com/blog////
    the second [The Passion Trap] has the invalid URL:
    http://calnewport.com////
    and the third [The danger of the dream job delusion] has the invalid URL:
    http://calnewport.com/2010/11/12////
    (the website also has URLs composed of successions of strange dates similar to the URLs of the RSS feed, but since they are all preceded by “/blog/”, they seem to resolve OK)

  14. Chris says:

    Wonderful post. What could make it even better is to change ‘Southeast’ to ‘Far East.’:)

  15. Luv2Trvl says:

    Rob, I came in here to say basically the same thing that you said, but you said it much better than I ever could. I would like to ditto everything you said. Excellent post and spot on!!

  16. Laurie Calland says:

    Hi Cal,

    Always benefit from reading your posts. LOVE this post.

  17. “He left the Zen Mountain Monastery with an important understanding: finding the right work pales in importance to learning how to work right.”

    In fact, our jobs offer almost nothing beyond financial reward. No job is going to be ‘fun’, its the life that surrounds that job that determines whether or not is it a ‘good’ job. Having something called ‘Passion’ in your life (you allude to it with the Cycling) gives us something no job can offer.

    PS. Do guys working in IT depts of banks call themselves bankers? If so that’s pretty funny.

    What a delightful post. Thanks for sharing this.

  18. RT Wolf says:

    This post reminds me of a book I’m reading called Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix. It defines marriage (or a serious, long-term relationship) as a box and you’re encouraged to find a dream partner and then get into the box. If things don’t work out, there’s nothing wrong with the box or you, it’s the other person, so just go out and find a different person.

    Same idea, it seemed to me, as your job thing. The solution is similar, too–not just find the right person to love, but to love them right, with an understanding of where both your scripts are coming from.

  19. Aaron says:

    Cal, I love reading your blog and consistently find it inspirational. Actually, a year ago at about this time, I considered leaving my comfortable job to go travel, learn Spanish, and volunteer overseas.

    Strangely, this past fall I had this moment of “Oh wow, what did I do to myself?” realizing that I didn’t really need to leave my job to accomplish some of the things I wanted to do in my life. As I began to understand and organize my values, much like Thomas did, I realized that I didn’t need to leave the States at all. It was only a change in my mindset, and in my case, an appreciation of the life I had been living.

    Still, I knew that a great value I had was to volunteer overseas and explore a culture and learn a language, and now, a year later, I’m volunteering with a Microfinance organization in the Dominican Republic.

    The wonderful thing is, I feel like I am happy here in the DR and I would also be happy back in the States. I had to explore who I was and what I really wanted, and I made peace with myself. In other words, I had to resolve the difficulty that comes with every job, said so well in that silly phrase, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

    Your post rings true to me – it is so important to dig in deep to what your real values (and fears) are in this life. You may not “need to” leave leave the country, but you’re better off “wanting to” explore the world.

    So yes, thanks again for a well-written post full of inspirational content.

    All the best,
    -Aaron

  20. Jason G. says:

    Phenomenal post.

  21. Rob says:

    In fact, our jobs offer almost nothing beyond financial reward.

    Isn’t that a bit like saying “In fact, food offers almost nothing beyond nutrition” ?

    We have a highly developed sense of taste and can appreciate food far beyond its survival value.

    If you are starving then yeah, you’ll eat whatever you can get your hands on (that won’t kill you) just to stay alive. But once you are past the point of worrying about survival, you start to care about what tastes good to you.

    Is work any different?

  22. yonder says:

    Korea is in East Asia, not Southeast Asia. I love this blog, but please get the geography right.

  23. Priya says:

    Thank you for doing this series of posts. They’ve been enormously helpful to me.

  24. paurullan says:

    Great post, thanks for the work!

    This text really feels like a good compendium of what you have been talking for a while and it truly helps to understand the whole.

    «Focus on yourself as the best way to be happy»

  25. jaive says:

    Awesome Post and I love the comments. I think that the story of Thomas illustrates that need for all of us to take sabbaticals or a long break from ourselves.

  26. Tom says:

    This article was interesting simply for its uncanny similarity to my own life… As an undergrad at Oberlin College I “quit” the Chemistry major I thought I was predestined for to pursue a degree in East Asian Studies with a minor in Religion. I even went so far as to spend spring break of my Junior year at Zen Mountain Monastery. Like Thomas, I didn’t stay, but after I graduated headed to Japan to teach English.

    Now, I live in Taiwan, and am getting my MA in Buddhist Studies at a university here. It’s rather unusual for a guy from Utah to be doing what I’m doing, so I don’t usually go out of my way to talk about it to people back home. When I do get put on the spot, I usually chalk it up to “passion” because that’s easy to explain, but the reality is far subtler. Sure, like many people studying Buddhism, I came in with a lot of passion, but over time I’ve found that passion is just as likely to get in the way as much as it is to be a guide. Now, the reason I returned to school and to this field is a seemingly irrational interest in the subject matter: Buddhism is just interesting to me, and that’s good enough.

    Religious studies is unusual because in addition to being intellectually stimulating (at least to some people), what you learn also has the potential to influence how you live your life. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a lot of tedious learning dead languages, and the high possibility of learning that whatever you thought was “true” that first got you interested turns out to be, well, not so black-and-white. I’ve met a lot of people who come into this remote corner of the humanities looking for answers to questions that would be better directed to the teachers at Zen Mountain Monastery, and then being dissatisfied when their studying turns out to be no more than just another “job.”

    Its all too easy to assume that a normal life cannot bring one happiness. Clearly, *how* you do what you do is just as important as what you do, whether that is working as a monk, or working as a grad student. The question both have to answer is how to live that life happily, and what is happiness? They’re hard questions for anyone. The Buddhists have their own set of answers, the positive psych people have some good ideas… Anyway, its all quite interesting in my opinion.

    Thomas’s story had a unique twist in that he returned to find value in the mundane. It seems that he learned an important lesson at the Monastery, and I hope that anyone reading this can learn something too.

    fwiw,
    (similar but not the same) Thomas

  27. Wendel says:

    Cal,
    As a professional scientist in the pharmaceutical business, I can really appreciate the account of Thomas. Even when we think we finally landed that dream job, invariably there comes a time of reflection, expectation, and anxiety that makes you feel trapped and the job becomes foremost a way to make money and less about self satisfaction. As I am finding out, it is important to consider how you approach your work and what were the reasons why you considered it a dream job in the first place. And foremost, happiness comes from within.

  28. Natalia T says:

    I really loved this post for the exact reason you mentioned at the end: it defies the idea to just “follow your passion”. Too often I have a gut feeling that my “gut feeling” is wrong, that I need to stick it out and re-arrange myself to my habitat, not the other way around. It’s not a cop-out, it’s a path to a different success.

  29. Gary says:

    “You can change the way you behave by changing your thoughts but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your desires.”
    Only a Zombie has thoughts without desires. Well, we can have logical, or mathematical thoughts that are without desires (except the desire for a solution and the desire to think a logical thought) but generally thoughts and desires are intertwined.
    Part of Zen training is to work with your desires, to become aware of them and to practice letting them go when they get to the point of being unhealthy. Therefore the Zen chant – Desires are endless, I vow to stop them. There is a whole literature on Zen and desire. I would read Mark Epstein if you are interested.

    “First, I wonder what Thomas values in life. “
    I presume you are referring to the investment banking. There are many parts to investment banking. One could be working with pension fund investments which albeit indirectly, does help pensioners manage their lives. Investment banking could be replaced with something like being a prisoner of war. The response to that situation depends on the person. See Victor Frankl on that.

    “Respectfully, I have to disagree with Thomas’ own conclusion that he is the same person. If he was, he would still be tolerating a job he didn’t like.”
    Thomas’s point is a bit more subtle. You are correct in that he did change. However he is saying that at any particular point in time, when faced with choices between jobs or situations, it is not the different job or situation that will determine the outcome but the person and the person’s attitude. And, the more the person is able to work with themselves the more pleasant the response will be.

  30. mg says:

    True happiness starts from within.

  31. Frank says:

    I, for one,

    I am liking how you are fleshing out the “story of work” in this and previous posts. So how does not following your passion correlate with failing at some things and shifting into others that work better? It seems to come together as a bigger picture – listen to yourself when you don’t like what you are doing, but push through the hard parts and remember that passion comes from competence and challenge

  32. TC says:

    Wow, Cal. This is exactly what i was looking for. I’ve read so many self-help books for months and I think this article resonates with me tremendously. I’m currently a medical student and I’ve been feeling like I’ve made a huge mistake going into medicine. I majored in biology and psychology and explored becoming a physician. I had great experiences helping out at a free clinic which made me feel that I found my calling. I worked at an optometry office to see if I’d like that better instead. I even tutored because I thought teaching might suit me better. After a while, I decide to go for medicine since that was what I originally wanted to do.

    When I finally started, the first two years of book work have been draining. Learning the details of biochemical pathways and pathology, I felt like I was being drawn away from aspects of medicine that I love, which is the people. Unfortunately that doesn’t come till 3rd and 4th year during clinical rotations. I’ve thought about quitting many times, but reading this I realize that I haven’t been very honest with myself. Part of the reason I haven’t been passionate about being here is because I haven’t put in enough time to master the material. I’ve spent most of it being disgruntled at the disconnect between my didactics and real clinical relevance. I’ve day dreamed about rewinding time and becoming a nurse or dentist instead. But I don’t think it’d matter if i went the nursing or dental route. I’d be the same ol’ me with trying to justify why I wasn’t happy with where I am instead of focusing on mastering the nitty gritty details. After going through undergrad and now med school. I’ve often treated academia as a means to end instead of appreciate the opportunity to learn and see the world a little different. I’m going to try to be more aware of my delusions from now on and work with a counselor. Thank you again for this great post and the interviews you’ve done.

  33. Sri says:

    Hey Cal,

    Have you read this book? “The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal” by Jim Loehr, Tony Schwartz. The stories are all about people who lost their passion and happiness because they worked wrong in ways that screwed up all other areas in their life and drained them of all their energy – physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual (i.e. values).

    Then they began to work right with help. They defined their correct values to answer their problems, changed their belief systems so that they worked in ways that allowed them to keep everything from health to attention span to relationships to their values high on their priority list, following the correct approaches. And the quality of their life and work shot up like it never had before.

    It’s really so well related to what this article is about, I seriously suggest you get a copy and read it. I totally agree with what this article says — the lack of passion and what not is only a symptom of the real problem — that there are things seriously wrong with our beliefs, values, the way we work, having low energies (phyiscal, intellctual, emotional and spiritual) and problems relationships or listening to cynics who seem to radiate negativity about screwing up in all these dimensions. A job usually is wrong when it screws you up in all these areas, but look deeper and you see that most often we are the ones who mess things up because we don’t work right. That requires a LOT of deep thought and observation and sometimes we need experienced help.

    There is no such thing as the perfect life – it’s about living your life right. When you fail to observe that you’re living wrongly and try to find the “perfect” life for you, you’re guaranteed never to find it, because that concept of perfection never exists. It’s treating a symptom but not the disease. The big thing is that you learn the art of living correctly knowing the reality and then you see that you automatically have the right life without seeking for it.

  34. Sri says:

    We’re not just talking about jobs, but the same thing can be applied to life. Here Zen sounds very similar to the Bhagavad Gita here which I read recently – Arjuna can’t fight because he believes it’s the wrong life for him and he’d rather be a hermit. But Krishna says the philosophy says that there is no such thing as the right life when you are in fact living wrongly and tells him that no matter what life he leads, as long as he is living wrongly he will always be in despair. It is about living right according to the right values and principles that actually works, because the concept of a “perfect life” as he dreams doesn’t exist and he’ll never find the right life when he lives wrongly.

    The result is that Arjuna’s myths are busted and he now gets back his passion and his life as a warrior. And he’s better than ever because now he’s living his life correctly instead of seeking for another perfect life somewhere else.

    The whole point is that when we feel we are in the wrong life and we want some other life we feel is the perfect one, is only a symptom of a disease — and the real disease is that we are living wrongly and so wherever we go, we always find that other life also to be not the perfect one. Paradoxically, the correct life is found by living life correctly.

    We really need to question the passion theories out there because no one seems to observe whether it’s making them work right and live right. Mostly it makes you work and live wrong because it’s based on IMAGINARY CONCEPTS and fancy dreams and not real life experience. Like I have a guy who thinks a touring musician has only fun everywhere because he gets to see new places and meet new people — when he read the biography of that musician he realized how stressful touring is because you have to deal with unfamiliar food and languages as well as the rigours of travelling. The solution then is to eat well, learn to sleep while travelling, get to know a few languages and meditate to relieve the stress. Giving up music is not the right idea because that leads to another empty life.

    So long as living wrongly is the problem, it doesn’t matter which job you have or what life you lead, it will never be the right one. I’m not speculating any of this because I’ve seen too many people get into the “wrong life” situation because of living wrongly. They try for a new life, new job, whatever…but so long as they work wrongly, the problem is not solved.

  35. Sri says:

    “Happiness, love and passion come from within” — that’s the fundamental thing that nearly all spiritual traditions teach. They all teach you to live right first and foremost, because they know that if you live wrong and believe the wrong things — wherever you go you’ll run into discontent.

  36. petrina7 says:

    Cal Newport – you are an amazing person! Pls keep the writing and research up. I recently had an epiphany of sorts at the office re finding happiness in the workplace, thanks to a senior partner. The keyword that kept cropping up was ‘mindset’ and yes, changing the mindset towards anything we have together with ‘focus’is key. i’m oh-so-ready to carry out the steps you’re talking about to creating the life i want for myself. No more restlessness, no more indecision, no more fidgeting about, wondering if this is right for me or not.

  37. Ramkumar says:

    Focus is indeed the way to go about loving whatever you do.
    Literal sense of the word “love” causes confusion and ambiguity as it connotes the emotion or feeling. Focus is not an emotion or a feeling but it is a different state of mind closely meaning striving to understand something. Glad that this blog-post helps me to learn from the experience of others who have been there, done that.

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