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Passion is Bullshit – Cal Newport on Finding Work You Love

Once upon a time, my job was to sell bonds. I didn’t like my job. I spent a lot of time thinking about what job I should do instead. The internet said that people should do what they are passionate about. So I thought, what am I passionate about? And I thought about it some more. But the answers were never that compelling.

There were a lot of things I was interested in, but nothing had that quality of deep and soul consuming fire which sends people up the tallest mountains or dodging bullets to feed refugees. So I kept thinking about it. And then, finally, I read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Now I can tell you that passion is (mostly) bullshit. There is a better way to find work you love.

Why Passion Is Overvalued And Overblown

The myth that passion is the way to find work we love, like any good lie, is built on a grain of truth. That truth is that when someone is innately passionate about something, and it works out it for them, it just makes so much sense. We see someone who was born passionate become successful at what they love, and think by golly that’s the way the world is supposed to work. But we forget that this is like looking at someone who was born with a passion for playing the lottery and happened to hit the jackpot – it doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everyone.

The second reason we over attribute success to innate passion is that we tend to like what we become good at. There are a whole lot of people who did not decide what to work on based on any preexisting passion, but developed passion because they became good at what they did. These people then confuse things by telling themselves and others that they have been passionate about what they do all along.

Cal Newport opens So Good They Can’t Ignore You with Steve Jobs as an example of someone who was not always the quintessential passionate entrepreneur. In truth, Jobs was a bright young man who stumbled into something good and then developed a passion for it only after experiencing some success. As evidence, Newport cites the fact that Jobs was a co-founder at a startup company before starting Apple but abandoned his job without telling his co-founders to spend months at the All One spiritual commune. Not the type of behavior you’d expect from a person who was supposedly deeply passionate about starting a computer company.

Finally, some people just lie about being passionate. They say they love what they do because they’re afraid to admit they don’t. This is a symptom of the fact that our society presumes that to be good at something you must be innately passionate about it. So much so that many people feel it is a mark of personal failure to even admit they do not LOVE their jobs.

For all these reasons and more, passion gets way more credit than it’s due.

Ask Not About Passion But About Career Capital

Instead of trying to figure out what we are passionate about, Newport urges us to focus on acquiring what he calls career capital. For Newport, career capital is rare and valuable skills.

How is this different than the passion-based approach?

First, as a question, the career capital framework shifts the focus of our decision criteria from a question that is centered around “I”, “What am I passionate about?”, to a question that is centered around others, “What is the world looking for that I can become really good at?”

Second, it specifies that the skill must be rare and valuable. For instance, writing words on the internet about books you’ve read is not a rare and valuable skill, so getting good at that is probably a waste of time.

Third, the career capital framework does not demand passion as a prerequisite for trying things. This means you won’t prematurely disqualify things you may end up having a great career in before you have a chance to try them.

Fourth, using the career capital framework makes it explicit that you have to not only identify what skill you want but also acknowledge that you have to get really good at it. Getting good at things is hard. To become genuinely skilled at something you have to get up and do stuff that is tiring and dull and uncomfortable and you have to keep doing it, often for years. Acknowledging this up front helps you make decisions about what you are willing to pursue.*

Finally, the Career Capital approach also provides a safer road-map for getting to where you want to be because as Newport points out, passion can be dangerous. Dangerous because making decisions on passion alone can lead us to attempt things that we are genuinely unprepared for. Passion has lead many people to start businesses armed only with good intentions and no skill or contacts. Unfortunately, this is like jumping out of an airplane without really knowing how to use your parachute. Yes, you are deeply motivated to learn how to open your chute but you only have so much time to do it and the results will be devastating if you don’t. I did this when I started a business without customers. It’s painful, don’t do it.

Career capital is not as sexy as passion. No one is going to put “Develop Career Capital” on a t-shirt or mug. In fact, it’s so economically intuitive as to be banal. But it is a better approach because it both changes the questions we ask and better defines what we’re seeking.

Once You Have Career Capital, Bargain for Control

The final but critical step in Newport’s formula for achieving work you love is to bargain with your accumulated career capital for control and autonomy over what you do.

To see why these qualities are critical to having a career you love, imagine what it would be like to be a rock star without them. Yes, you’d be famous, and make a lot of money but if you only had three weeks of vacation per year, and no say over where and what you had to play, you’d probably grow to hate it in the long run.

Now imagine you’re a rock star that gets to decide where and how often you work (within reason), and you’re also allowed to pick most of the songs you play. You’d probably end up hating the former and loving the latter scenario, even though they are technically the same job.

Part of the brilliance of Newport’s framework is that he makes it explicit that our ability to set the terms of how we work can be just as, if not more important than what we do.

Work Past And Future

In 1931 the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that given the rate of improvement in economic productivity, in the future (our present), we would only have to devote a few hours a day to paid “work.” The real problem, he predicted, would be figuring out what to do with all our leisure time.

Keynes’ vision of the future has not come to pass. We still spend a large portion of our lives doing whatever people are willing to pay us for. There has however been a somewhat compensatory shift in focus towards making that work meaningful and enjoyable.

The problem, up to now, had been that no one gave much serious thought to how to intelligently go about finding work you love. Cal Newport’s career capital framework has changed that. Both by reframing the questions we ask and by better defining what it is we’re looking for, Newport gives us the tools to make better decisions and ultimately create more meaningful lives.

 



My Favorite Tools For Escaping Social Media and Taking Back Attention

Social media is addictive. That it’s addictive is not an accident: Social media is built to be addictive. In the same way casinos design slot machines, the companies behind services like Facebook, Tinder, SnapChat, and BuzzFeed spend billions of dollars researching how to maximize your time spent on and continued use of their products. After all, more time on their sites = more advertisements served = more profits – it’s just good business.

But what’s good for Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth is not what is good for our lives. Social media habits can rob us of our ability to concentrate, to get sh*t done and even disrupt our relationships.

The good news is there are new tools that can help you take control of both how you use social media and your ability to focus. After a few weeks of experimenting with a number of these tools, I’ve achieved a level of social media use that lets me get the most out of what good these services do offer while maintaining control over my attention during the most productive hours of my day.

Here’s what I’m using:

Freedom App (Paid) 

An app called Freedom is the best tool I’ve found for taking control of media use and attention. Using VPN technology, Freedom allows you to control when and what you can access, across all your devices. Freedom lets you to block not only apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat but also specific websites, as well.

What really makes Freedom powerful is the level of control it gives you. It allows you to create customized lists of blocked services and then associate those lists with schedules that can be specified to times of day, days of the week and different devices.

For example, I created the above Blocklist titled “SansGmail” to block a number of social media services. I then associated that Blocklist with the below schedule to restrict those services from  6:30am to 8:00pm, Monday through Saturday, just on my phone.

 

By scheduling blocked-out times in advance Freedom allows you to stop relying on your finite supply of willpower to change. I made progress changing my social media use before using Freedom, but this app is what has allowed me to automate those changes to the point that they now feel like a habit

Strict Workflow Chrome Extension (Free)

The Strict Workflow chrome extension is a simple but effective tool for re-training yourself to focus and avoid mindless content while working. The app inserts a timer icon into your browser that will block any websites you specify for a set amount of “work time”, followed by an interval of “break time”, when nothing is blocked. For example, you would set the timer to block Facebook, Twitter and other news sites for a 45 minute work interval, followed by a 15 minute break interval.

After just a few months of using this extension, my ability to concentrate has improved dramatically. That said, at least once a week I still find myself reflexively going to Facebook or Bloomberg and I’m happy that all I have to do is press the timer to cut me off and keep me focused.

Turn Off Notifications (Free)

For anyone who wants to decrease their social media use turning off all notifications is an easy first step. Let’s face it, there’s no reason for your phone to buzz every time someone likes the latest photo of your lunch.

Similarly, moving social media apps from the first page into the depths of your phone can make it easier for you to resist the urge to sign into these services. If nothing else, having to swipe or click through numerous screens will make you more aware of how often, and how much time you spend reaching for social media dopamine hits.

Deleting Apps Method (Free)

Ok kids… time to turn off the Instagram……

Do you remember when your parents would tell you to turn off the TV for the night? I do. And I’ve adopted a similar strategy for tuning out habit forming apps like Instagram. I delete the app every evening, reinstalling it during my approved viewing hours at night, then delete it again before going to sleep.

I started doing this because I became so disgusted at how reflexively I checked Instagram. I realized that just seeing the Instagram app on my screen increased the likelihood that I’d try to open it, whether it was blocked or not.   

Airplane Mode (Free)

When I first started to take control of my ability to focus I used a combination of the Strict Workflow app and my phones airplane mode. Many people will balk at the idea of being completely cut off from their cell-phones. But if you do any kind of thoughtful work it’s more important for your career that you find a way to keep your attention on producing quality then it is to take every call the instant it arrives.

Placing your phone on airplane mode and setting a timer for 30 minutes is a great way to begin practicing attention and deep work habits.

One Day At A Time  

Habits are hard to change. It’s a rare person who can go to sleep one night saying they are going to be different and jump out of bed the next morning a changed man or woman. In reality we change incrementally: Bad habit’s don’t just stop, instead they are modified or replaced with more benign ones – one day at time.

I wrote this post because using these tools to change my social media use and take back my attention has changed my life. Being free of the mindless urge to look at Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is like having a whole other compartment of your brain freed up. I couldn’t be happier with the results and I think you will be too.

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So… have you tried to quit or change your social media use? If so please share your experience in the comments.

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Brett Victor – Building Technology to Human Dimensions & Being Conscious of The Adjacent Horizon

The Humane Representation of Thought from Bret Victor on Vimeo.

 

At almost 1 hour the above talk by Brett Victor is both long and incredibly thought provoking. In it he explains how our current technological landscape utilizes only a narrow band of humanity’s capacity for thought.

People like to talk about where technology is going and what it will do for us but as Mr. Victor demonstrates, technology doesn’t move towards its highest expression by improvements in processing power or market forces alone. Instead it requires people equipped with the intentionality to design technology that work with and across the scope of human capabilities.

 

For me his point about the needs for intentionality in how we design technology speaks to a larger issue in our society. That is, the misguided assumption that outcomes are driven by market forces through a competitive evolution towards their most useful and desirable incarnation. This is naive, many things are shaped almost irrevocably by the design decisions at their beginnings, or to use the technical term they exhibit path dependency. The way that cities are designed is a good example of this.

This is worth talking about because only once we acknowledge this reality that things won’t take care of themselves can we begin to look at the edges of what might have been, and what better future might be on the adjacent horizon, but only with our help. As Mr. Victor eloquently ends his talk:

Humane won’t just happen. This not just like Sussman’s technology that is going to happen because there’s already really powerful forces at play. Humane is never a default. And humane only ever comes out of deliberate and conscious design work. If you do the incremental thing, and just ride the current wave of technology and let technology lead you wherever it leads you it’s going to lead you to a tighter and tighter cage…

 

 



The Secret To Finding Work You Love – The ABP Criterion

Finding work we consider meaningful and enjoyable, in short, work we love, is one of the most important and difficult challenges we face. Important, because the majority of our waking lives are spent at work, and difficult because of the complete lack of attention devoted to the question by our educational system.

Indeed, given how much of our lives are spent working, consider how strange it is that you are infinitely more likely to spend a semester taking calculus, greek, or acting than you are seriously addressing how to go about finding what meaningful work means for you. In this absence of any coherent framework for addressing the problem, it’s no wonder that many people feel lost and depressed as they struggle to find the answer on their own.

The good news is that intelligent people have given the matter some serious thought, and there are tools you can use to dramatically increase your odds of success.  Among the most powerful of these tools is a three word decision rule that, if used consistently, will naturally guide you towards work you truly love.1

The rule goes like this:

A always

B be

P producing

And that’s it; Always Be Producing or ABP for short, is simply a way of saying that the true test of whether you’re making progress towards doing work you love is whether you’re producing.

For example, say you think you’d love to work as a Hollywood screenwriter.  The Always be Producing (ABP) rule asks, are you consistently producing (or trying) to turn out screenplays? Or, if say you want to be fashion designer, are you expending time and effort towards creating production quality designs?

The ABP rule states that if the answer to those questions not an unequivocal yes – if you’re not consistently producing – then you’re not doing what it takes to find work that you love.

Using the ABP criterion is that simple. The next time you start daydreaming about work you think you’d love, ask yourself why you’re not already doing it or better yet, just get started.

How ABP Works — Avoiding Psychological Traps

The ABP rule works in large part because it helps you avoid and overcome some common psychological tendencies or “traps”. Traps are detours that take us off the path of discovering what we truly love.

First among these is our tendency to assume the work we love is simply to create the things we like to consume. This a potent misconception because like any good lie it contains a grain of truth.

For example, the fact that you enjoy watching films seems to lend credence to the notion that you should be working in the film industry. The truth is that while it may in fact be an indicator that you could have a fulfilling career in the film business, enjoying films is actually a very weak predictor of what work you’ll love. This is because the experience of actually working to produce something is almost always materially different than you imagine it will be when you consume the end-product.

Take music for example. Many people love consuming it so much that it seems natural that they would love to work on creating music as work. But the act and experience of creating music is much more like sifting through and struggling with bad music than it is like consuming good music. Similarly, while an appreciation of good food is probably necessary for being a competent chef, the act of producing good food involves struggling to control the textures and flavors of ingredients under extreme pressure and is nothing like the act of eating at your favorite restaurant.

The ABP rule overcomes this psychological trap by forcing us to confront the fact that the reality of production is very different than we presume. Thus ABP keeps you from naively assuming the things you love to consume, are the things you’d love to make.

A related but distinct flavor of self delusion is our tendency to think that consuming things related to work we’d like to do is is getting us closer to doing work that we love. This trap is insidious because it feeds off our own good intentions. Our thinking often progresses along the lines of: we want to make progress towards finding work that we love, and what better way to do that than by immersing ourselves in the content of our respective passions?

As an example of this, consider the case of an aspiring film-maker who every night upon finishing her 9–5, plops down on the couch to expand her knowledge of critically acclaimed cinema. It is tempting to assume that the time she spends increasing her familiarity with great films is getting her closer to being a film-maker. But this is a dangerous misconception.

Dangerous because the superficial similarity of what we like to consume, to what we want to work on can lead us to spend time on activities that are effectively opiates. Meaning activities that make us feel like we’re making progress, when we are actually just avoiding the sometimes difficult reality of what’s required to discover where our true passion lies. The ABP rule overcomes this by rightly asserting that instead of sitting on the couch, the aspiring film-maker would be much better served by attempting even a terrible amateur film project.

Finally, there is the trap of assuming we’ve put in enough work and stopping. Especially because work that we love can sometimes feel unexpectedly like work, it’s tempting to assume that one act of creation should be enough and with one project under our belt, all we need to do is wait for the tide to roll in.

Imagine for instance an aspiring writer, he’s set his jaw and summoned the discipline, and clarity of vision necessary to complete a first book. Maybe he even finds a publisher for the book but it fails to take off in the way he expected, and in frustration he concludes that by writing this book he’s proved he wants to be a writer but in this unfair world he just can’t. The world can definitely be unfair. But according to the ABP rule, his conclusion is false; the only way to honestly say you still want to be a writer is to keep producing.

To be clear, the ABP rule isn’t saying you can’t give up. It’s just saying that you can’t delude yourself by blithely assuming that you want to be a writer or anything else, unless you’re actively trying to produce. It’s ok to change your mind about what you want to work on, the world changes, people change. The ABP rule just keeps you from lying to yourself about when you do.

Good decisions come from confronting reality. The ABP criterion is incredibly powerful because it is at it’s core a test of whether or not you’re willing to do just that. ABP works because the demands of production, consistent production, are like a knife that cuts through the veil of bullshit we use to protect our egos. Protect them from the fact that like most worthwhile things, finding what we love may not be easy, may not come quickly, may not be what we expected.




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