A quote to preface this post:

I’m not sure that anyone has a calling. I think, instead, our culture creates situations where passionate people find a place where they can make an impact. When what you do is something that you make important, it doesn’t matter so much what you do.1 – Seth Godin

Don’t chase passion.

I have recently adopted a new rule to help me with my work: don’t chase a “passion”, be a passionate person instead. A subtle change, perhaps, but one that has a huge impact. I do think this is a much better approach.

Most people I know has spent quite a lot of time figuring out what to do in life, or, to put it more practically, what to do for a living. Lots of brainpower are spent weighing one option to another, one career vs another, one business against another, feeling that once they choose something, they will be married to it their whole life.

The mantra goes: choose your passion first, then commit to it. If uncertain, choose anything that allows one to jump ship later.

This approach is not wrong per se. But perhaps being the young and impatient man I am, I cringe at the lack of result this approach yields. As far as I can tell, most that followed this approach eventually resigned themselves to “normal” work and life plans that do not have the same punch as the elusive passion they were after. Take safe jobs, the advice goes, to make it easy to jump ship, lest you find your passion down the road. By itself, I think this is a good piece of advice. The problem starts when we, in waiting for some “passion” to snatch us up, do not fully commit to the job at hand. And this lack of commitment translates to a lack of mastery.

Which brings us to my next point, skill.

I will say this now, in hopes that I will be able to persuade those who think otherwise: skill is the prerequisite of passion.

I truly think it is.

Because if it’s not, it is only by extreme luck that we have awesome people leading in industries like global shipping and trash management, to name a few. It’s easy to think of programming or dancing as passions. But it’s very rare to find someone whose passion is in delivering parcels, or mucking with garbages. Yet people working in these “boring” sectors are constantly passionate, constantly learning2, as proven by their track record. How is this so?

One theory is that as their skills increase, so does their passion. With sufficient skills, one can find passion that transcends the mundane aspects of the work. It is not delivering parcels, it is empowering people to conveniently trade and share. It is not managing junk, it is helping thousands of people live healthier and more environmentally conscious. This is why successful businesspeople often cite aspirations that seemed to have little correlation to their job.

As Cal Newport argued in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, the way passion works is that most of the time, we can’t find it first. Rather, it finds us, as a result from relentless pursuit of mastery in a field or subject. This seemingly reversed thinking actually makes a lot of sense. Think of any successful person, ones that, by conventional yardstick, have found passion in their work. Some names immediately come to mind. From household names like Zuckerberg, Musk, Bezos, Jobs to the less mainstream (but still widely popular) Branson3, Fernandes4, Ma5, and Hsieh6, these people are skilled in what they do. It’s not just passion that carries them up.

So don’t chase passion. Be passionate instead and chase skills.

We began with a quote, so it seems fitting to end this with one as well.

The unforgivable crime is soft hitting. Do not hit at all if it can be avoided, but never hit softly. – Theodore Roosevelt

Work on things you are passionate about, if you can help it. If you can’t, work passionately all the same.

1 From the aptly titled http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2016/05/calling-your-finding.html
2 For example, FedEx pioneered number tracking: customers can enter their packet’s number to check where their packet is. Today, the feature seems a no-brainer to us, but it wasn’t developed until the 1970s.
3 Richard Branson, Virgin Group.
4 Tony Fernandes, AirAsia.
5 Jack Ma, Alibaba.com.
6 Tony Hsieh, Zappos.com.