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Decoding Patterns of Success
Posts on Features: Rethinking Passion
June 17th, 2011 · 31 comments
The Minecraft Revelation
Markus Persson got me thinking.
Markus is three years older than me, he’s Swedish, and he’s rich. He made his money in an field not usually known for its wealth-generation: indie computer game development.
Markus’ story starts in 2009, when he quit his job as a game programmer for King.com to build Minecraft, a java-based world building, zombie fighting, mine digging sandbox game. (You probably have to see it to understand to it.)
People, it turns out, really like Minecraft. In January of this year, Markus sold his millionth copy. Earlier this month, sales passed the 2.5 million copy mark. Markus has made somewhere between $30 – 40 million dollars on the project.
Here’s what troubled me about the Markus Persson story. On Study Hacks, I’ve been promoting the idea that you have to be good at what you do before you can expect your job to be good to you. This is why I push myself and others to stop worrying about their “passion” and day dreaming about courageously bucking the status quo. Navel-gazing and conformity-defiance, I argue, is not how people end up loving what they do. Instead, they start by getting good at something rare and valuable, and then leverage this “career capital” to construct — not discover — a fantastic career.
Markus seemed like a good case study of this philosophy. Before he could develop Minecraft, he had to become excellent at game development. Not surprisingly, it turns out he started programming at the age of eight and then after college worked for a half-decade at a game company to further hone is skills.
But here’s the problem: lots of other people are also really good at programming and also build indie games, but are nowhere near as successful at Markus. The implication here is one that I’ve been encountering time and again, in many different settings, and I realize I can’t ignore it any longer: Becoming “so good they can’t ignore you” is a pre-requisite for building a remarkable life, but it’s not necessarily the whole story.
Once you have acquired career capital, you still have to figure out what to do with it, and the best strategies here — the strategies that separate the Markus Perssons from the hordes of other talented game programmers — are not obvious.
I want to explore these non-obvious strategies. In other words, I’m going to assume that my Rethinking Passion series has throughly convinced you that “follow your passion” is bad advice and that you must instead start by becoming good at something. Now it’s time to figure out what comes next.
Here’s my plan: I’m going to use myself as the guinea pig. As I start my new job as a professor, I have a base of rare and valuable abilities to draw on, in that I’m relatively adept at producing cutting-edge research in my field. But so are lots of other young professors. The question, then, is how can I most productively leverage this capital to stand out from the crowd and nudge my career in a more remarkable direction.
Over the next few months, I’ll use my Lab Notes series to report on the efforts I’m deploying. But in the meantime, I want to learn from you. If you’ve found success leveraging hard-earned ability to take control of your life and move it in a remarkable direction, chime in on the comments and share what you’ve learned.
That is, if you can tear yourself away for a few minutes from the sweet new tower you’re building in Minecraft.
(Photo of Markus Persson and his newly formed development company by paulamarttila.)
June 1st, 2011 · 32 comments
Debunking the Passion Hypothesis
For the past couple years I’ve been advancing a controversial argument: “follow your passion” is bad advice.
I’m not against feeling passionate about your work — in fact, I think this is a fantastic goal. But from my experience studying this issue, passion is not something that you discover and then match a job to; it is, instead, something that grows over time along with your skills.
In other words, working right trumps finding the right work.
Over the weekend, I received support for my contrarian philosophy from an esteemed source. In his most recent column for The New York Times, David Brooks laid out an argument that will sound familiar to Study Hack readers.
“If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days,” writes Brooks, “you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself.”
“But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.”
As Brooks elaborates:”College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to.
“It’s excellence…that we admire most”
Brooks argues that you shouldn’t place yourself — your passions, your non-conformity — at the center of your universe. What matters to the world is what you do not what you want — and things worth doing are often “arduous and miserable.”
I love to see smart people like Brooks engage the sacred cows of American career advice. The more we question tropes like “follow your passion,” the more equipped we’ll become to squeeze the most out of life.
The timing of Brooks’ column was fortuitous.
Over the path few months, as part of a secret writing project (to be revealed this summer), I’ve been traveling around New England, meeting interesting people who love their lives. My goal was to find answers to a crucial question: if “follow your passion” is bad advice (as David Brooks and I both argue), what works instead?
Among other adventures, I’ve spent the day with Ivy League-educated farmers, interrogated an entrepreneur who gave away his millions to charity, had coffee with an elite medical resident who was the first in the history of his program to take time off to pursue other interests, toured the lab of a thirty-something Harvard biologist curing some of the world’s deadliest diseases, and met an academic archaeologist who stars in his own TV show.
What I’m trying to say here is that if you agree with Brooks and my thoughts on passion, and you’re interested in the follow-up question of how people really build remarkable lives, stay tuned.
I’m just getting started…
(Photo by gurdonark)
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)
March 9th, 2011 · 26 comments
Not long into the premiere episode of their Discovery Channel series, American Treasures, anthropology professors Jason De León and Kirk French find themselves in the East Texas flatlands, at a run down, dirt road homestead. They’re here to investigate the authenticity of a suit that supposedly belonged to Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame.
It takes the professors all of thirty seconds to disprove this claim: not a lot of suits from that period feature a “Made in China” tag. But this doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm.
“You’re from a moonshine family,” notes French.
“Yep,” drawls the Leslie, the suit’s owner.
“Let’s try some moonshine.”
Soon a stoppered glass pitcher is produced. As Leslie pours the hootch into mason jars, he offers a warning: “Don’t ask about the proof. You wouldn’t drink it if you knew.”
French and De León smile as they take their jars.
Professors De León and French are non-conformists. I define this term, in the context of careers, to describe someone who pushes their work in an unexpected direction with the goal of increasing its meaning and interestingness. Two young, non-tenured professors (De León and French received their PhDs in 2008 and 2009, respectively) spending their summers trekking around America in an old Ford pick-up truck, followed by Discovery Channel cameras, clearly matches this definition.
For fans of this style non-conformity, there’s good news and bad news…
The good news is that this concept has received a lot of attention recently, especially from the community of lifestyle design bloggers. Spurred on in large part by the success of Tim Ferriss, there’s now a whole ecosystem of writers pushing their readers to take their lives in radical, unexpected directions.
The bad news, as I see it, is that this writing often serves to dampen the very non-conformity it aims to support.
Much of this writing presents conformity and non-conformity in binary opposition. Either you reject everything traditional and start a low-cost, web-based cash-flow business, or you’re a conformist drone. I worry that this sharp distinction inadvertently culls out many interesting paths.
Let’s return, for a moment, to De León and French. Their act of non-conformity required them to first become professors: without this expertise they couldn’t have scored a Discovery Channel show. This expertise, however, required quite a bit of traditional striving: to become a professor at Michigan and Penn State, where they’re currently employed, requires exceptional performance, starting as an undergraduate and continuing through graduate school. This is exactly the type of “conformity” that much of the blogging community decries.
When you examine other stories of people doing unconventional, interesting things with their lives, this mixture of conformity leveraged to gain non-conformity is common.
To name another example, consider the popular science writer Jonah Lerher. His lifestyle is decidedly non-conformist. There are no office cubicles or staff meetings in Lerher’s schedule. He lives where he wants (after returning from Oxford, for example, he moved to New Hampshire to write), and is tasked, in his assignments from NPR and Wired, among other outlets, to simply seek out interesting science stories and write interesting articles about them.
This sounds good to me.
But how did Lerher burst into the science writing scene? After studying neuroscience at Columbia he won a Rhodes Scholarship, which he used to study psychology, philosophy and physiology at Oxford University. This was exactly the expertise he needed to write Proust was a Neuroscientist, his critically-acclaimed debut book.
My plea here is for a broadening of imagination when considering interesting directions to steer our working lives. Some of the most interesting, non-conformist opportunities, require a foundation of ability gained through unabashedly conformist means. While some writers, such as my friend Chris Guillebeau, do a good job of separating the spirit of non-conformity from a strict collection of “acceptable” and “non-acceptable” paths, too many others treat traditional accomplishment as the enemy.
As readers we should demand more subtlety and imagination from these conversations. When figuring out how to make the most out of our lives, we shouldn’t accept any philosophy that takes a large collection of options off the table.
Perhaps it helps to remember that De León and French look like they’re having a damn good time.
(Photo from The Discovery Channel)
February 14th, 2011 · 54 comments
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…
Read more »
November 12th, 2010 · 56 comments
The Tragic Mistake
Not long into their interview with public radio host Ira Glass, one of the three college-aged interviewers, a young girl, asks, with a desperate smile etched on her face, how to decide “which of her passions” to pursue.
“Like how do you determine, how…”, she begins.
“How do you figure out what you want?”, Glass interrupts.
“How do you not only figure out what you want, but know that you’ll be good at it?”, she finishes.
There’s a pause. In this moment, when Glass prepares his answer, the young girl’s earlier admission that she’s a pre-med, and doubting her decision to attend med school, hangs in the air. Glass can relate: he too had been considering med school when he stumbled into his first radio internship, after his freshman year of college.
He proceeds cautiously, softly: “Honestly, even the stuff you want you’re not necessarily good at right away…I started working at 19 at the network level, and from that point it took me years. The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come. That’s the hardest phase.”
One of the other interviewers, a young man in a baseball cap, interjects: “Do you think hard work can make you talented?”
“Yes. I do.”
The students let this sink in.
“In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream,” Glass continues. “But I don’t believe that.”
By the students’ reactions, this is not what they expected to hear.
“Things happen in stages. I was a terrible reporter, but I was perfectly good at other parts of working in radio: I am a good editor…I feel like your problem is that you’re trying to judge all things in the abstract before you do them.”
“That’s your tragic mistake.”
The Roadtrip Nation Revelation
This interview is one of many conducted by the non-profit organization Roadtrip Nation, which sends students across the country to interview “eclectic individuals who have resisted pressures to conform.” They seek advice for building an interesting path through life.
If you explore the full Roadtrip Nation video archive, as I did one recent weekend, you begin to appreciate the nuance and serendipity behind these compelling people and their compelling careers. Amidst this nuance, however, one conclusion is stark: the canonical advice to follow your passion is way too simplistic. As with Glass’s story of toiling for years before finally discovering a niche in radio editing, many of the interviews echo this same theme that passion is not something you discover in a career center.
Its source is more complicated…
Read more »
October 16th, 2010 · 90 comments
The Priest and the Parachute
It began with a joke.
In 1968, Richard Bolles, an Episcopal priest from San Francisco, was in a meeting when someone complained about colleagues “bailing out” of a troubled organization. To remind the group to return to this topic, Bolles jotted a clever phrase on the blackboard: “What color is your parachute?”
The line got a laugh, but as Bolles recalls in a 1999 interview with Fast Company, “I had no idea it would take on all this additional meaning.”
Two years later, Bolles lost his job as a priest and was shuffled into an administrative position in the Episcopal Church, advising campus ministers, many of whom were also in danger of losing their jobs. Noticing a lack of good advice on the topic, Bolles self-published a 168-page guide to navigating career changes, which he handed out for free. Looking for a catchy title, he re-purposed his blackboard one-liner. The initial print run was one hundred copies.
The premise of Bolles’ guide sounds self-evident to the modern ear: “[figure] out what you like to do…and then find a place that needs people like you.” But in 1970, this concept was a radical notion.
“[At the time], the idea of doing a lot of pen-and paper exercises in order to take control of your own career was regarded as a dilettante’s exercise,” Bolles recalls. It was also, however, a period of extreme workplace transition as the post-war industrial economy crumbled before an ascendant knowledge work sector. Uncertain employees craved guidance, and Bolles’ optimistic strategies resonated. The book that began with an one hundred copy print run and a clever name has since become one of the bestselling titles of the century, with over 6 million copies in print.
This story is important because it emphasizes that one of the most universal and powerful ideas in modern society, that the key to workplace happiness is to follow your passion, has a surprisingly humble origin. What began as a quip jotted down on a blackboard grew into the core principle guiding our thinking about work. “What color is my parachute?”, we now ask, confident that answering this question holds the answer to The Good Life.
But when we recognize that this strategy is not self-evident — and in fact not even all that old — we can begin to question whether or not it’s actually right.
And when we do, it’s dismaying what we find…
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September 10th, 2010 · 67 comments
The Ivy League Farmer
Earlier this summer, Julie and I attended a dinner at Red Fire Farm, a 110 acre organic farm in rural Granby, Massachusetts. The dinner celebrated the strawberry harvest and the farmhands had setup tables under a tent overlooking the fruit fields. As we poured our wine, the farm’s owner, Ryan Voiland, stood up to say a few words about this year’s harvest.
Ryan is young, only in his early thirties, a fact he tries to hide with a grizzled black beard. As he spoke, his few words stretched into an enthusiastic dissertation on rain fall and cabbage yields. Eventually, Ryan’s wife, Sarah, took over, leading the group in a prayer to the “earth goddess.” As we sipped strawberry gazpacho, a group of college-aged farm interns formed a song circle in a patch of grass near the chicken coop.
In the comfort of cynical Boston, the event would have felt over the top, but in the shaded fields of Granby, it made sense. When I looked over to the main table, I saw Ryan take in the scene. He was smiling.
What makes Ryan’s story canonical is its start. Ten years earlier, he walked out of Cornell University with an Ivy League diploma in his hand and headed straight into the offices of the Farm Service Agency, where he secured a loan to buy his first farm property. A decade later, Red Fire is a success: it sells organic produce straight to the consumers through farmers markets and a sold-out CSA. When I last visited the farm, in mid-August, they were installing a $200,000 solar array. Ryan loves what he does and does it well.
The Dream Job Trope
Ryan has a dream job — which I define to be an occupation built around a hobby or casual side interest that you enjoy. (Growing up, Ryan loved to garden, so, naturally, he started a farm.)
The dream job is a powerful trope in the job satisfaction literature. For example, here’s the opening paragraph from a popular career advice guide:
“[A] New York investment banker becomes a small-town college chef. A college professor becomes a chocolatier. An entrenched corporate exec…converts to the ministry.”
These are all dream jobs. When Tim Ferriss tells his famous story of an attorney who drops everything to open a Brazilian surf shop, that’s also a dream job, as are most of the examples touted in the perennially popular quit your terrible cubicle job to start a business advice guide niche.
You like to cook? Become a chef! Love chocolate? Open a chocolate shop! Like surfing on exotic beaches? Open a surf shop! And so on.
We’re entranced by dream jobs. When we hear stories like the one that opened this post, we feel a rush of aspiration. Hundreds make a living writing books and blogs about mustering the courage to pursue dream jobs, and millions dedicate their day dreaming to the topic. In this post, however, I want to argue that this is a problem.
The dream job trope isn’t the path to job satisfaction, and it’s not just harmless wistful thinking: it’s instead downright dangerous.
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