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Dispatch: Rethinking Meaningful Work at the Bluegrass Frat House

April 19th, 2011 · 19 comments

Dispatch is a regular feature in which I meet with interesting people to learn interesting things about creating an interesting life.

My Afternoon at the Bluegrass Frat House

Jordan Tice is 24. In the world of traditional work, this is young. Given that Tice recorded his first solo album while still in high school, however, it’s clear that in the world of acoustic guitar he’s no rookie.

This past weekend, I met up with Tice at the rambling Victorian he shares with a revolving set of fellow musicians. “Welcome to the bluegrass frat house”, he greeted me.

As Study Hacks readers know, I’m fascinated by Steve Martin’s advice to performers, “be so good they can’t ignore you,” as I suspect this axiom holds the key to a compelling life in almost any field. I was drawn to Tice because I wanted to better understand what it meant to live this ideal.

Here’s what struck me about Tice: he’s painfully modest.

At one point in our conversation, for example, he mentioned that while still in high school he began to tour with a well-known singer songwriter. “Jordan, this is a big deal,” I pushed. “I’m sure he knew lots of great, professional guitar players, but he chose you: a 16-year-old.”

Tice seemed uncomfortable at the implication that this was at all exceptional, and the conversation stuttered into silence.

As the afternoon continued, I began to realize that Tice’s modesty is not a personality quirk; it is instead a trait that’s shared by many serious songwriters. “Here’s what I respect,” he explained, “creating something meaningful and presenting it to the world.”

To be arrogant is to assign value to yourself, whereas in the world of songwriting, the value is consolidated in the songs themselves.

There’s something very Greek about Tice’s modesty. When he explains his songwriting there’s a piece of it that he sees as out of his control (he uses the phrase “bubbling to the surface” to describe how he discovers melodies). To be arrogant is to tempt the Muses into abandonment.

“There was this kid I knew at college, who posted a website, and it actually said something like: ‘I’m a composer, educator, and visionary,'” Tice said. “I was like, ‘dude, you’re a fucking tool.’ If you have to call yourself an artist, you don’t know what it means to do it.”

Notice the sharp contrast between Tice’s mindset and the self-centered perspective most of us apply to our work. Driven by the passion hypothesis, we’re terrified that we haven’t found the exact right job. If we’re not excited by every hour of every day, we start to question whether this is truly our “passion.” When we’re not immediately given great autonomy, creativity, and recognition in our work, we begin to deride our jobs as tolerably mediocre and start scheming a dramatic escape into an ill-conceived, one-man start-up.

Performers like Tice, by contrast, are happy to spend their afternoons in a small room in an overcrowded house, dedicating hour after hour to painstakingly improving their technique, all the while remaining ambivalent toward praise. They’re content to let what they produce speak for itself — even if it takes a long time, and a lot of hard work, for their output to find a voice.

To ask Tice whether he’s passionate about playing the guitar misses the point. Contentment in his world does not come from following passion, but instead in deploying it, day after day, in a quest to produce work so good it can’t be ignored.

Lesson Learned: There seems to be something deeply satisfying about turning your focus from what the world can offer you and onto what you can offer the world. This craftsman mindset might provide an effective and meaningful alternative to the passion mindset (i.e., worrying whether a job is your true calling) when navigating your career.

(Photo from Jordan Tice)

19 thoughts on “Dispatch: Rethinking Meaningful Work at the Bluegrass Frat House

  1. Fong says:

    Modesty in a creative field is a difficult line to walk in the professional world. You want your industry to know of your accomplishments and realize your worth to them so that they’ll write you a check twice a month. If you’re so good that no one can ignore you, then there’s less to worry about as your reputation and portfolio preceeds any modesty. The challenge lies in the years and years before you achieve greatness. How does one seem modest yet exude confidence that they can still do the job? Conveyance of passion on its own would seem insufficient.

    In a different cultural setting, such as Asia, this is less of an issue as the culture itself dictates public self deprecation. There are subtleties in diction that can convey mastery with modesty. When it’s expected, the message is clearly received. This does not translate, however, when both the language and the expectations lack the framework for this message. What then?

  2. Mike says:

    Cal, I don’t think this is a good place to draw a line against the passion perspective. Yes, Tice is willing to grind out long hours with little recognition, but that’s because it’s in service to something he’s obviously passionate about and has been for a long time. He’s found that one job that’s right for him, and because it resonates so deeply with him, external factors don’t matter. If he were stuck in an office job, he too might suddenly find his job “tolerably mediocre,” whether he was good at it or not, with or without external validation. Though obviously there’s no way to know, this case study seems to falter in supporting the premise you’re using it to buttress, and at worst blatantly contradicts it.

  3. Rob says:

    I really like this series of articles because you keep bringing up a lot of great ideas and questioning some of the things that others throw around as gospel. I think you’ve done a great job showing that “finding the right work” does not mean “following your passion” or “finding the exact right thing” or “finding the one true path”. You’ve brought science to bear on the discussion and have started teasing apart the various components that could lead to work satisfaction. I agree that “finding the right work” does not mean “following your passion” but I would argue that finding the right work is still the main thing and is in fact the thing provides the right context for “working right”.

    ~

    1. To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

    Autonomy - Control over how you fill your time. As Deci puts it, if you have a high degree of autonomy, then “you endorse [your] actions at the highest level of reflection.”

    Competence - Mastering unambiguously useful things. As the psychologist Robert White opines, in the wonderfully formal speak of the 1950s academic, humans have a “propensity to have an effect on the environment as well as to attain valued outcomes within it.”

    Relatedness - A feeling of connection to others. As Deci pithily summarizes: “to love and care, and to be loved and cared for.”

    ~

    2. Working right trumps finding the right work.

    Working Right

    1. Master a skill that is rare and valuable.
    2. Cash in the career capital this generates for the right rewards.

    Finding the Right Work

    Here are 3 qualifiers taken by turning around the 3 disqualifiers listed here (http://calnewport.com/blog/2011/04/04/is-it-possible-to-feel-passionate-about-being-a-tax-consultant/):

    1. The job presents opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
    2. The job focuses on something you think is useful and hopefully good for the world.
    3. The job allows you to work with people you like and limits your exposure to working with people you dislike.

    ~

    3. Once you have something valuable to offer, use it to gain as much autonomy, competence, and relatedness as you can possibly cram into your life.

    ~

    I would argue that finding a skill that is rare and valuable falls under finding the right work. Finding work that will eventually allow you to gain autonomy, competence and relatedness falls under finding the right work too. One thing we haven’t really discussed is finding work that is, at a basic level, suitable to the individual. For example, a jittery, easily stressed out person is likely not going to have satisfaction being an air traffic controller. The work is unsuitable. They would not be doing the “right work” for them. So it’s important to find work that is suitable.

    To frame the discussion in terms of “Working right trumps finding the right work” makes sense if you equate “finding the right work” to “following your passion”. However, you’ve shown that those two things aren’t equal and in fact have given many concrete aspects of right work (some of which you’ve classified under working right). The discussion still seems to be about finding the right work though and I think to frame it otherwise is confusing.

    It seems to me that you must find the right work in order to work right.

  4. SPF says:

    Thanks for these posts! I’m normally just reading along, but recently got into trouble through procrastination in my studies. After years of working towards a PhD, exchanges, scholarships, fellowships and many prizes etc… I lost perspective simply because I expected something great to happen; I thought happiness will sooner or later just happen, but it never did. I think this waiting situation was/is what always hold me back from practicing hard and becoming truly good. Your posts made me realize that there is no such thing as an early end. Thinking about these possible “dramatic escapes” just prevents you from focusing on your work, thereby preventing getting better and happier.

  5. Ryan says:

    A great alternative title for this post: Stop talking about what your doing so that people can actually see it.

    It’s easy for anyone to stand up and yell “Look at how great I am!” but it’s much more satisfying to let your work show how great you are.

  6. Chris says:

    I tend to agree. The question is, can a person build up world-class workmanship credentials and still maintain a healthy balance in their lives? Niall Ferguson, Glasgow-born Harvard professor, doesn’t think so. Here’s a quote from an interview in The Guardian:

    “Ferguson has produced 16 books and five TV series in the last 16 years, and sounds unmistakably proud of his workaholism, so I guess that he thinks work-life balance is basically for losers. “I think work-life balance is a phrase invented at business schools to make workaholics feel they’re doing something about their problem,” he agrees scornfully. “The truth is, there is no balance. You can’t strike a balance. You can’t write a book like Civilization on three hours a day.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/apr/11/niall-ferguson-political-debate-england-america

    I find this discouraging. To put this into perspective for college students, does this mean that ambitious students (premedical, etc.) have to resign themselves to a stressful, draining lifestyle?

  7. Brian says:

    Like this. An interesting perspective I saw on this (if you haven’t already seen it) is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqZAxLqJkzA

  8. Jihan says:

    Hi Cal! Thought you might enjoy the following article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13128701. I’m a “chronic procrastinator” according to one of your previous entries, and instead of being unmotivated and thinking, “I used to be smart,” I now think, “I used to be a hard-worker.” Big difference in motivation and in how I approach things now! It’s not about being brilliant; it’s about how much effort you put into time-organization and studying.

  9. Iszam says:

    Love ur blog. Another great post.

  10. Declan says:

    Cal, I gotta say while your craft philosophy is appealing it’s really not the whole story. One common denominator I’ve found in successful people(measured by accomplishments and job satisfaction) is that they spend at least 50 percent of their time on self-promotion and marketing and projecting an image networking etc. (yes, a fair bit of ass-kissing as well). I was a graduate student at harvard and completed a PhD and had a lot of friends across various departments. Some were VERY craft oriented as you define it –but guess what? They were NOT the ones to necessarily get the best jobs after graduation. Rather, the most successful ones were the students who paid a great deal of attention to all of the social aspects of becoming successful, ingratiating themselves to the most influential professors, building websites advertising their research or work( a task some of us thought was totally gauche and a waste of time). I was more on the craft side of things and I have to say, I’ve somewhat changed my point of view on the matter. I think fashion design offers a great corrective to your whole philosophy. Designers who ascend to the position of creative directors of major houses(Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford, etc..) are rarely those who have the best craft skills in design. Indeed many great tailors and pattern cutters or textile designers who produce high quality work with a meticulous attention to detail labour in obscurity for the the length of their careers. Instead it’s those designers who are great about communicating ideas, develop strong, appealing and dynamic public personas who are promoted through the ranks. A certain degree of originality counts for a lot, but it’s useless if you don’t put the work into advertising your originality.
    For example, your thread about your rapper friend –no offence, he may have worked really hard, but he still wasn’t very good. And frankly, has he really become a successful rapper? An attention to developing your craft can only get your so far. You have to be obsessive about how your project your image as well, and what kind of impact that’s making. While your rapper friend had decent skills he wasn’t projecting anything memorable or new –he should have concentrated more on his image. The music industry is the same –is Kanye West the greatest rapper? Or Jay-Z? Or is Jack White the best guitar player? Definitely not. And I’m not denying that these guys spend a lot of time honing their skills –in many ways they do conform somewhat to your craft-based philosophy. But they spend at least as much energy if not more on self-promotion. I think the danger of overemphasizing craft is that it’s going to leave a lot of people wondering why their efforts are not being recognized and why they are not attaining the success they feel their hard work deserves.

  11. Neuroscientist says:

    It’s interesting that people like Tice, who is living an interesting life, think of themselves as some sort of agents for the higher power — especially in creative processes (where some great songs just “bubble to the surface”). Like Tice, many people think they don’t have much power over what they think, what comes to their mind, what they are motivated to do, what gives them intrinsic pleasure.

    Your point of view is great. If you devote some time to develop valuable skills, passion will follow. But I think the problem most people face in this dilemma is that they can’t find the motivation to develop the mastery in the first place. They are miserable about what they are doing. They start picking it up, get distracted, struggle to keep it together, and eventually stop. They find it too miserable in the process of being good at something. And like people I previously mentioned, they feel like they just can’t control what comes to their minds and what makes them happy. They either find it or don’t find it. So they are on the quest for passion because they have not yet found that thing that would give them intrinsic pleasure to continue working hard.

    I think both winners and losers can feel the same lack of power over their mentality. And in order for the losers to apply your advice successfully (deliberately shifting your focus from extrinsic rewards to intrinsic ones) they require that power to jump in and maintain that desirable state of mind long-term. I think the next question is how?

  12. Panda says:

    @ Declan

    Maybe the self-promotion is necessary to achieve success only After they’ve attained a certain skill level. It can’t go the other way around, no one likes an arrogant self-promoter that can’t deliver.

    I agree without self-belief success is extremely difficult. I remember the book Overachievement (by John Gray, PhD) and the successful people studied there had boatloads of confidence.

    However, what we see may only be the end product. We know certain arrogant people in our lives who turn out to be overcompensating for insecurity. These people “who are so good we can’t ignore” are secure because of their mastery of their craft.

    I remember in Outliers (by Malcolm Gladwell), he used the example of the Beatles in Hamburg (before they were famous), they went through the deliberate practice of 10k Hours because of that stint in Hamburg.

    Hm, maybe Declan’s comment struck a chord w/ me since I was one of those “I’m too good to self-promote” types back in high school. Perhaps its more of a case of potential (talent) VS nurture (grit, deliberate practice. performance mindset). There are many who have potential but don’t open themselves to opportunity.

  13. Panda says:

    Hi Cal,

    If you haven’t read it already, this short article about the 5 primary motivations by Josh Kaufman might interest you:

    http://personalmba.com/business-not-really-about-money/

    Like you, he espouses craftmanship. Here’s the last paragraph:

    If we have a choice in determining our primary motivation, it seems that the Craftsman’s ethos has the most to offer: it may eventually lead to power, status, pleasure, and world-changing achievement, but it frees us from the perception that our self-worth depends on any of these things. That’s a remarkable combination.

  14. Devon says:

    This rings true.

  15. Nwokedi says:

    Being content with allowing your work to speak for itself is one of the best ways to remain ignored. Ask your local startup company!

  16. maxwellthedog says:

    I think there is another element to his modesty that you might be missing. In my work, I get to meet many very talented investors who have made themselves, and their clients, quite wealthy. The best are quite modest about their success– both in the past and going forward (believe it or not, it’s true). The reason for this is that along the road to their fantastic success, they have all had many, many failures. The markets will humble you faster than you can imagine, and pride is quickly curtailed (or blown up, as the case may be).

    I would bet that Tice has seen many talented musicians fail. He has probably even run into commercially successful ones who have hit a slump, or lost popularity, or even lost their way. I would think a musician’s life has a measure of fear that their talent is only temporary, or their success fleeting. Not unlike success in the financial markets (or in a lot of venues).

    My point is, to achieve success, you end up taking risks both big and small. Some of your risks will not work out in your favor. And when you see others try the same path and fail, it makes you very humble about your success indeed.

    If you don’t learn that lesson along the way, you will learn it eventually…

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