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…
The Astrobiologist and the Surfer
“If I actually sat down and said I had planned any of this, I’d be lying through my teeth.”
So begins an interview with Andrew Steele, the astrobiologist who was launched to scientific fame in 1996 when he debunked the evidence for life on Mars identified in meteorite ALH84001.
As Steele recounts, his transition into astrobiology was unplanned. He had just finished a dissertation on high resolution bacteria imaging when he heard the news that a “geezer from NASA…thought he found life on Mars.” He realized his imaging skills could help settle the question, so he called up NASA and got a piece of the meteorite to test.
“Did it take guts to call him up?”, asks one of the student interviewers.
“Not really. They said ‘whose calling?’. And I said, ‘Dr. Steele.'”
“Did you do that Ph.D. hoping you’d one day change the world?”, the student continues.
“No. I just wanted options.”
“You didn’t know you were going to go into this at a young age?”, the student persists.
“No. No. I had no idea what I was going to do. I object to systems that say you should decide now what you’re going to do. That’s BS. Don’t close doors.”
“People are in a rush to start their lives, and it’s sad,” he drawls, his voice soft with surfer cool.
Merrick had been a successful amateur surfer growing up, but his path took him far from the breaks, through two years of college and a failed stint as a flower grower and a boat builder, before he returned to the sport and started shaping surfboards. The fiberglass skills he picked up in boat building, combined with years of competitive surfing, gave him an edge.
“My designs worked, so I started making them for better surfers,” he explains.
“I didn’t go out with the idea of making a big empire…I set goals for myself at being the best I could be at what[ever] I did.”
The Circuitous Path to Compelling Work
These three interviews, along with many others in the Roadtrip Nation archive, all undermine the notion that you should simply follow your passion, and you’ll immediately be happy. For Glass, Steele, and Merrick, the path was more circuitous. This doesn’t mean, however, that their success is entirely serendipitous. Instead, a pair of related ideas recur in their stories:
- Don’t expect fireworks on your first day. Glass, for example, talked about the importance of forcing yourself to develop skills when you’re new to a job. “That’s the hardest phase,” he said.
- Once you’re good — and only then — start looking for your niche. Glass found editing-driven radio programming. Steele found astrobiology. Merrick found surfboard shaping. In all three cases, they were drawing from a deep reservoir of relevant expertise when they made their moves into the work we know them for today. None of them had identified these specific pursuits at an early age. “I had no idea what I was going to do,” said Steele.
This advice is less sexy than the popular notion that with a little self-reflection you can identify your dream job right away. The interviews emphasize instead that the reality of finding compelling work is ambiguous. (Interestingly, even though their archives emphasize this ambiguity, the manifesto page for Roadtrip Nation exclaims, in contradiction to the insights of their own interviews: “It’s up to you to define your road in life based on what you’re truly passionate about.”)
These compelling careers unfold as follows: You choose something. You work hard at building skills. You fail at some things and respond by shifting your attention to other things that work better. Over time, as you become more valuable to the world and confident in your ability, interesting opportunities finally start to arise. It is here, it seems, surprisingly late in the process, that passion reaches full bloom.
In a telling clip, a group of students sit down with Manny, a lobsterman from Falmouth, Maine. As Manny lounges on the deck of his lobster boat, a Sam Adams in hand, he personifies our daydream of abandoning the rat race to enjoy a life of rustic simplicity. But even Manny, it turns out, can’t escape the necessity of carefully feeling out your path while building competence.
“[It] took a long time to get where I got,” he tells the students. “It’s what I’ve been doing for the last five years. Up here. Measuring lobsters.”
This post is the third 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:
- The Passion Trap: How the Search for Your Life’s Work is Making Your Working Life Miserable
- The Danger of the Dream Job Delusion
(Photo by S. C. Asher )