Where is my life going?

I ask myself that question often. It’s a self-assessment sorts. Am I doing what it takes to get what I want? To be happy and healthy. To do meaningful work.

Do what you love

One day, when I was trying to find the answer to that question, I did the only logical thing I could think of. It’s what anyone would do. Something many of us have done. I started surfing YouTube.

Give me a TED talk, then turn me loose. Lookout world.

It didn’t take long before I stumbled upon Steve Jobs delivering a commencement speech at Stanford University. This talk has gone viral. It’s worth watching, and rewatching. Especially the part where he says this:

“You’ve got to find what you love…if you haven’t found it yet keep looking and don’t settle.”

Exactly! That’s what I was trying to do. I’d never settle. I’d keep searching. I was on the lookout for what I loved. But, how would I know when I found it? Where was I supposed to look? This was going to be harder than I thought.

Passion makes perfect

“Follow your passion”, they say. It’s how you find meaning. As if it’s that simple.

1. Listen for your calling

2. Have the fortitude to follow it

3. Link it to your livelihood

4. Live happily ever after

Apparently I was doing something wrong. I couldn’t get past the first step. I’m an overachiever so naturally I did more than they told me. I wasn’t just listening, I was searching high and low for my passion. Like a little boy who lost his puppy. I hit the streets. Knocked on doors. Hung up signs. They read, missing – Meaning. Answers to “Passion.” If you see it, please call me!

The passion problem

I’ve come to realize that following your passion is actually terrible advice. It’s the worst. The premise is promising. The idea that, if you find work that you enjoy it won’t actually seem like work. I agree.

However, following your passion also suggests that our passion is a stationary target. It’s sitting, waiting for us to find it. When we do, it will be gift wrapped. Better still, it comes complete with an operator’s manual. Open package, read manual, follow passion, be happy forever!

I don’t have to tell you how farfetched this scenario is. You know life doesn’t work this way. I tried it, following my passion. I failed, hard. I had to forget everything I thought I knew and start over. You don’t have to take my word for it.  I’m nobody. I get it.

But, what about Steve Jobs. The man behind the follow your passion speech. Was he following his passion when he began working at Apple? The answer might surprise you. Hint – he wasn’t!

Despite what he said in that commencement speech, Jobs didn’t start out in pursuit of his passion. Neither did the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Then how did it happen? How did these men come to be incredibly talented and uber-successful? How did they rise to the top of their game if they weren’t following passion?

And how in the world do I know anything about it? The same way any of us know anything, the Internet of course.

Do as I do, not as I say

That’s not a typo. I know how the saying goes. But I meant what I typed.

The secret to doing meaningful work is not a secret. It’s staring us right in the face. The answer is in the question. RE: How do I do meaningful work?

You WORK at it!

Passion cannot be found or followed, it must be cultivated. You must work at it, you must pursue it, you must earn it.

Again, Jobs and Hoffman are perfect examples of this fact.

Exhibit A. Steve Jobs

In this incredible presentation, Cal Newport tells us that Jobs wasn’t initially interested in technology or entrepreneurship. “Apple was something that he stumbled into.” He didn’t set out to build Apple into the empire it is today. It [Apple] “was a small time scheme that unexpectedly took off.” When it did, Jobs worked tirelessly to grow it, to cultivate. As it grew, as his impact grew, so did his skills and his passion for what he was doing.

We’d be better off following his lead, instead of listening to his words.

Exhibit B. Philip Seymour Hoffman

If you asked a young Hoffman what he was passionate about, he would have said sports. “Hoffman grew up in a middle-class household near Rochester, N.Y. In high school, he was a clean-cut, competitive jock who excelled in baseball and wrestling.”

If that’s true, how did he become an actor? An amazing one at that. Was he following his passion? Apparently not. He was following his hormones. In high school his crush was auditioning for a play. On a whim he decided to audition, to be with her. He got the part. The rest is history.

Practice, not passion, makes perfect

It’s like Newport said in his presentation, It’s not how or why you start that matters. “It’s what you do once you get going.” That’s how you become successful. Find your passion and purpose. It’s how you’ll come to do meaningful work.

That’s how Hoffman did it. According to Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes, “he applied the same competitive drive he had with wrestling to grappling with roles on stage and screen, steadily building an impressive resume with a stubborn, single-minded zeal for perfection.”

You see, he worked at it.

Newport frames it this way, cultivating our passion is a process wherein we systematically, build up a rare and valuable skill. Then, use that skill as leverage to take control of our life and do work that resonates with us.

How to live a remarkable life

1. Work ethic – it’s called hustle, people! It’s the part that always gets overlooked. Not luck. Not chance. Your willingness to work hard will determine your success. Passion and success increase in proportion to the amount of work you put in.

“You can not expect a really good working life, until you’re really good at something.”

2. Practice – deliberate practice, in fact. It’s a type of extreme focus.

Newport calls it “deep work”. It’s like pull-ups, he said. It’s “easy to understand, but it’s difficult to perform a lot of them.”

To improve our ability to focus, to become better at this type of deliberate practice, he recommends training like an athlete – build up your ability to focus. Start with 30 minute sessions. Do 10 of those before moving on to 40 minute sessions. Then do 10 of those before bumping up to 50 minute sessions.

Hmm. That sounds a lot like the base phase of marathon training. Or how you get stronger. The concept of progressive overload where we systematically add more weight to the bar over time. Try training your mind like you train your body. Connect the dots between the gym and your life.

3. Persistence – Start doing things that you love, in pursuit of your passion. Then, don’t ever stop. It’s resilience. Doggedness. And grit.

A passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.

That is way, WAY better advice than following some ambiguous passion. For the best advice on living a remarkable life, I return to the words of Cal Newport who wrote this,

Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.

What value are you bringing to the world? Are you living a remarkable life? Tell me how you do it. I’d love to know!