I read So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, because I heard him on the 10% Happier podcast. What he said about work blew my mind — that follow your passion is terrible advice. Passion does not necessarily lead to the right line of work, it’s more that work leads to a passion for it.
I think about work a lot. Makes sense, since I’m there for the majority of my waking life. Sometimes, my day is not bad at all and other times, I want to win the lottery — so truly, I can always think of something to complain about but if I’m being honest, my lot in life is pretty good. I’ve read pieces on the idea of work, like Toni Morrison’s piece that ran in The New Yorker. Her father taught your job is not your life; your life is the part outside of the job. With this in her pocket, she said she could work for and with any number of geniuses, ding bats, toxic people, and some pleasant people. It didn’t matter.
The New York Times ran a piece in the NY Times on passion and work, which seemed geared to people who feel dissatisfied about their job unless it was meaningful or a calling. That in itself seems like a luxury, because most people have to work to pay the bills and would die to nab an office job where physical labor is limited, there a benefits, and a better than average pay. But in the end, it was about how passion and meaning are confusing or misleading measures for job satisfaction.
Cal Newport said the idea of passion comes later. Steve Jobs always lectured to follow your passion, but Newport points out that he was not remembering his origin story correctly. Right before Apple started getting kicking, Jobs was equally enamored with meditation. It was only when he and his friend got orders for thirty computers did he begin focusing on Apple. Newport reports something like the majority of passions listed by high school students is the arts and sports. That was sobering! Sports as a career has always been presented as delusional to me.
I was once at a book launch in an elementary school in Harlem with two well-known politicians. They went around to each child in this third grade class and asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. (All the kids were African American). Every time a little boy said “basketball player,” these two politicians sighed and shot the kid down with “Many are called, few serve.” Dang! I mean, sure on one hand, I feel like there’s history where they don’t want all little African American boys to become sports starts because not everyone has the gift and cash flow of a LeBron James (Is he a basketball player? Can someone confirm? I’m so bad.) — they want these kids to be upwardly mobile. At the same time, THEY’RE KIDS! Is there really a need to shoot them down and pop their dreams? What do you understand of life in third grade? (Or at my age for that matter.) In third grade, I wanted to become a waitress. That changed. This is just one of the thousands of ways African American children are discouraged that never makes the news (but more on that later).
Anyhoo, I found this finding fascinating because I always presumed my interest in the arts was a passion and I wanted to make my living at it, and I think I’ve always kind of looked down on myself for “giving up.” (Um, though when you’re an aspiring professional actor, what are you giving up exactly?) Newport says passion is derived from putting time in, by becoming an expert by working hard — then the passion kicks in. It doesn’t matter what you pick, as long as you pick something, and bust your butt at it. This is terrific counsel for someone like me who is often wondering if she should take a left or a right. Who the heck knows the next steps in life should be? Nobody. We are all struggling, we are all trying to figure it out.