Competencies: Skills Can Trump Passion

By on Sep 20th, 2013.

image6How Skills Really Do Trump Passion

Passion simply is not something you can track down, harpoon, and haul home. This may be quite alarming to those who have bought into the myth that Passion is something that either finds you, or you “find” it, then act on accordingly.

Cal Newport gets my vote when he suggests the reverse in his very useful book: “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.”

In sync with this, while I’ve personally experienced a good bit of Passion within my interests and my career, it’s never come lightly. Passion it turns out is not something that “finds you” but more-so something in keeping with Newport’s idea – passion, a lot like respect, tends to be almost always something you EARN. 

This also falls right in alignment with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours being what recreates an outlier. Malcomb partially defines an Outlier as someone who can consistently perform beyond the edge. He’s parlayed his research into the 10,000 hour rule – meaning that volume of focus and dedicated practice to truly master a skill.

So, if Passion is rare, why is that? Contrary to the quip to “Find Your Passion” almost all compelling careers prove out to have complex origins. Their one consistency is the founders of those tend to reject the idea that it will be simple. There is actually an answer around why embedded in social science research. While there are many reasons discovered for high workplace gratification, the notion of matching your job to a pre-existing passion is not among those waiting to be discovered.

What has been found instead: near to the heart of many IS found a passion for a pastime or hobby which raised a new realization. That is, passions that can successfully transfer or convert directly into careers or the earning within work lives, also have to be r.e.l.e.v.a.n.t. to that genre, not just existing.

Here are a few conclusions the science around Passion are turning up:
* career passions are rare (2002 research: Robt J. Vallerand)

* passion takes time to cultivate (Yale professor: Amy Wrzesniewski: distinctions between a job, a career, and a calling. Publication in Journal of Research in Personality)

* passion is a side effect of mastery (TED Talk: “On the Surprising Science of Motivation” by Daniel Pink (book: Drive)

Newport includes in his argument, and I agree, that the Follow Your Passion Hypothesis can be dangerous when swallowed whole. The danger resides in convincing the wrong people there is a “magic” or right job out there for them – simply because they exist and want such. It make their goal to find it vs skill up, qualify, and be identified or sourced for it, or even better, clearly recognize it when it does show up because they ALREADY earned it.

That falls more in the “when” and “maybe” territory. That’s really different than shopping on the belief or hope that very soon can become futile and discouraging.

I’m reminded of the wisdom of Robert Fritz, a musician, composer, and supreme strategist on the underlying psychology of consistent, sustaining success of high creatives.

Fritz encourages creatives to find joy and gratification in every step along the path of creation. The grand crescendo of the “performance” or the completion of a work of art in any genre, business included, is then the dessert, not the primary or only payoff. You win all along – not only at the finale. Best of all, there is no dread of pushing the huge rock of the next creative endeavor startup back up the same mountain yet once again. Just that one, subtle shift in self-management is an almost guaranteed prevention of burn-out or failure to finish the one work of the lifetime.

Locally, the biggest advocate of the concept of cultivating your own passion in Austin is Gudjon Bergmann. Following a courageous transplant of his young family from Iceland out of necessity when their currency crashed, he has quickly become our resident genius in writing A book vs THE book, or YOUR book — in order to actually get published.

Most timely, Gudjon is a living example of publishing again and again and relishing the next round building out of his own endeavors in his mind’s eye even before he complete his (always) currently in process book. If you want a blueprint for publishing (and most any type of step-for-step project success) in usually under 90 days, his new website is a good start:

While I’m a realist around Passion, I’m not a complete skeptic. There really are those of us who somehow truly DO know most often from childhood, or at least early adolescence, what it is that is ours to do this round of life. You recognize them. They tend to carry around little note-taking means to record their (often really brilliant) ideas. Another local resident-in-pursuing-Passion (and realistically cultivating the skills to fully support his) is our very own Gary Hoover.

If you’ve not yet met him, you definitely, definitely know some of his own passion-endeavors: the creation of Hoover’s Online which grew out of his discovery of Forbe Magazines by age 12 in his mid-Western library, which his parents helped support promptly with gifting him with a birthday subscription almost on the spot; Gary still has that first issue, and every one since – all ready many times cover-to-cover.

In followup to selling Hoover’s Online, because he has always, always been a collector and lover of books, he founded a chain of 25 Bookstops – the very first bookstore to have the idea of including coffee shops and pleasant seating for readers. Not only did he build bookstores – on every possible occasion he stayed true to his respect for historic buildings and tried hard to build each he could in that. Or…at least in an historic area in the towns of his choice – all based on the well-researched business odds of finding committed, life-long readers and where they resided.

Once he sold his Bookstop stores to Barnes and Noble, he then took an unfortunate spill right into the lap of another passion of his own: travel. Alas! His timing turned out deadly as he founded a company around that simultaneously with the airline industry almost tanking and commissions on travel sales literally vanishing. Gary’s a noble trooper though so he took his licks. Being a wise man, though, while he had the money, he fortunately thoughtfully indulged another passion and used a piece of it to ensure he’d always have a roof if not a home. He did this by underwriting the funding for a dorm at his beloved alma mater, which I’m pretty sure he actually DOES sleep in at every opportunity when visiting Illinois.

I relate this story to make another Passion point: passion pursuit is making full usage of everything – every learning along the way, not just the fun stuff. Grist for the mill – and interestingly, when you speak with the truly successful, almost without fail they will tell you they learned the most from one of their biggest failures, not the reverse. It’s never what happened, it’s what then grew out of in through their response(s) to that.

There is hope for all of us! That said, here are Newport’s three rules for what we can look to if we don’t happen to have inborn Passion to come to our rescue. He discovered these “rules” through chronicling how (most) people really end up loving what they do:

  1. Don’t follow your passion.
  2. Be so very good they cannot ignore you. (skill, skill, more skill)
  3. Turn down a promotion. (yes…this is a really surprising one – it emphasizes the importance of control)

Oh…yes, there is a bonus one:

4. Think small, act big. (the importance of a unifying mission for your working life – a clear one…and sticking to yours; in confidence tho, not fake bravado)

As to Newport’s (sort of secret) Rule #4: we’ve heard this repeatedly and in many ways. There really does HAVE to be something greater, more encompassing, for a mission to set the tone, the pace, and help generate the remarkable production of the energy and innovativeness of a life & lcareer gratifying purpose to your beingness.

These types of missions require a ready supply of little bets – a topic for another day. But not to leave you hanging, great missions are transformed into great successes primarily as a result of small and achievable projects. They serve for you to explore, realistically and literally, the concrete possibilities surrounding your compelling idea.

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