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The perils of “follow your passion”

This is from the wonderful podcast WorkLife by Adam Grant, where he shares very clever ideas about how to make work rewarding.

In it, he quotes Angela Duckworth:

I like the passion part… but I don’t love the “follow” part. It sounds like it’s out there and you just have to discover it, and if you don’t feel like you have passion for your work, you missed it somehow or you have to keep looking for it, as if it were a whole thing and not something that gradually develops over time and I think that’s actually the better verb, that you should develop your passion, not follow it.

Well, this is exactly what I thought, and lots of vision-minded, caring and thoughtful friend after college, in early-90’s San Francisco. Now, I can see how this story might not have given me the best strategy.

I love people like Adam Grant, because he’s always thinking and looking beyond what’s assumed. He uses the framework of “looking at the data,” but you can also do this by being a more thoughtful observer.

I had to figure out for myself what my story was going to be, and I plucked “follow your passion” out of the air because it appealed to my sensibilities. It was a given; but implied in that was a story (probably gotten from Hollywood movies) that passionate, exceptional people should do special, unique things, and so I should hold out for those unique things, otherwise I’d be subsumed by an uncaring world of mindless automatons. I actually spent years with the hidden idea that there was this one great thing I would do that would make me so happy that it would “remove all my problems”. I really did. It took a long time to realize that you can feel satisfied for many different reasons in work, and you don’t actually know what’s going to make you happy.

And as the podcast points out, happiness can be emergent; it can be generated by giving yourself to something. So, how can you know what will generate it, before you put yourself into something and find out? I now feel that all of life is emergent—that is, the Universe doesn’t “know” exactly what our path is “supposed to be”. There is no one answer; we are life, figuring it out, once again. Through the doing, discovering, and living.

The story that there was this one great “thing” I was meant to do probably kept me from understanding this emergent thing. Now, I actually do spend a lot of my time doing things where I feel quite useful and having a lot of fun (though there are many other ways in which I’d still like to tweak that). But none of it looks like a movie; and it really doesn’t matter if “the world” knows about it. It matters if my world knows about it.

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