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Weekly 3: Being useful > Being passionate

Summary: The title of this issue (Being useful > Being passionate) can be misleading. Ideally, you

Idea Journal Weekly 3

September 27 · Issue #158 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: The title of this issue (Being useful > Being passionate) can be misleading. Ideally, your work is useful to others and you’re passionate about it — this doesn’t have to be an either-or choice. 
But being passionate alone is not a winning strategy. Here are a few reasons why.
(~5 min read)

#1. First become useful, then learn to love it
Host of the television show Dirty Jobs Mike Rowe says in an interview that searching for the perfect job by following your passion is like looking for your soulmate – it’s the wrong approach. 
If you think there’s only one person in the world who can fulfill you, then your search for that person is going to be frustrating. Similarly, if you think there’s only one job that can fulfill your passion, then you’re going to spend a lot of time looking for that one job.
Here’s what this misguided process often looks like in practice:
1. First, you identify the type of role or industry that you believe will make you happy. 
2. Next, you create a plan to secure that role. For many people, this involves borrowing tens of thousands of dollars for schooling to get the degree that allows you to get that role. Now you have a ton of school loan debt.
3. And now you have to go out into the world and try to get hired in your chosen field. As Rowe notes, for many people this rarely works out.
Rowe argues that instead of focusing on a single job or career, you should look for opportunity. 
Learn a skill that’s in demand, get hired applying that skill, and get really good at it. Then you can figure out how to love it.
This is the path that the people on Dirty Jobs took. Their jobs include everything from maintaining wind turbines and disposing of medical waste, to excavating dinosaur fossils and researching termites. 
“Many people we featured on that show looked like they were doing something that should have made them miserable, but they were in fact very happy and surprisingly prosperous.”
In fact, dozens of them are millionaires.
As Rowe puts it: “In the end, you still want to end up being passionate about whatever you’re doing — it’s just a question of the chronology that you use to get there.”
#2. There's more to life than being happy
Author and entrepreneur Derek Sivers writes in a blog post that when you’re making important life decisions, you should always consider the following 3 factors:
  1. What makes you happy
  2. What’s smart – good for you in the long run
  3. What’s useful to other people
As Sivers points out, you’ll know you’re on the right path when your decision is at the intersection of all 3.
The problem is that we tend to forget at least 1 of these factors, as illustrated by the below profiles.
The overachiever: smart and useful (not happy)
This is the stereotype of the strict parent who says:
You have to go to the best school, get perfect grades, become a doctor or lawyer, and make a lot of money. What you want to do doesn’t matter – this is what’s best for you and your family.
The smart and useful approach is rational, like a machine.
But if you don’t have happiness acting as the oil, “the friction kills the engine.”
The self-improvement addict: happy and smart (not useful)
This person is always learning, and is obsessively focused on how to be happy and create a perfect life.
What could be wrong with that?
For Sivers, the problem is that becoming fulfilled and successful isn’t a solo exercise: “Ultimately you must be lifted by those around you.”
The “charity volunteer”: happy and useful (not smart)
After graduating from an expensive university, this person spends years “flying to exotic impoverished places to dig wells and thatch roofs.”
But if their time could be worth $200 per hour, and they’re doing work that the locals themselves could be do better for $10 per hour, then their actions are actually a disservice to others.
They have wonderful intentions but poor strategies, resulting in “wasted effort and unused potential.”
The hedonist: just happy (not smart or useful)
For this person, being happy is all that matters.
But there are 2 downsides:
  1. You’ll be full of regret if you only think about today, and don’t prepare for tough times in the future.
  2. If you only serve yourself and not others, you’ll eventually feel unrewarded.
#3. Don’t fall for the passion trap
Author and computer science professor Cal Newport writes on his blog that career advice recommending that you follow your passion can be misleading, and even “dangerous.”
To illustrate his point, he shares the following note that he received from a college career counselor: 
“I regularly counsel students on their career paths and I was having a hard time giving a student guidance today without referencing passion. ‘What are you good at?”’ I asked instead, and she replied that she didn’t know. She doesn’t know because she hasn’t tried enough things.”
The career counselor’s effort to lessen the influence of passion is helpful, but for Newport, the question What are you good at? is no better than What’s your passion?
With both questions, you’re making your career satisfaction dependent on matching your job to some intrinsic trait. If you lead someone to believe that making the right job choice is what matters for career satisfaction, then “you’re setting them up for confusion when they don’t feel immediate and continuous love for their work.”
Instead, Newport’s research suggests that sustainable career satisfaction almost always follows 2 factors:
  1. Building a rare and valuable skill
  2. Using that skill as leverage to take control of your working life
With these findings in mind, when you’re trying to choose a particular job or career, a better question to ask yourself is: What are you willing to get good at?
Here’s how Newport would rework the career counselor’s note from the example above: 
“Pick something that you wouldn’t mind investing years in mastering. If you already have some skills, then it might make sense (though is by no means necessary) to start there, as you already have a head start on mastery, but you should still expect years of deliberate improvement before deep passion can blossom for your work.”
Quote of the week
“One of the great lies of life is ‘Follow your passion.’
I used to be passionate about being a professional basketball player – then I realized I had a seven-inch vertical.
A lot of people talk about passion, but that’s really not what you need to focus on and evaluate and say: ‘Where am I putting in my time?’
When you look at where you put in your time, where you put in your effort, these tend to be the things you’re good at. And if you put in enough time and you get really good … nobody tends to quit anything they’re good at.
Because it’s fun to be good. It’s fun to be one of the best. But in order to be one of the best, you have to put in effort. 
Don’t follow your passions. Follow your effort. 
The one thing in life that you can control is your effort.”
- Entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban in an interview
Other Weekly 3 issues about jobs and careers
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