Last weekend, I ascended Mount Taranaki, a stratovolcano in New Zealand.
Scrambling up the oblique edge of this quiescent yet recalcitrant monolith, I employed a ninja breathing technique known as dragon breathing - instead of breathing in the normal sequence inhale-exhale-inhale-exhale, dragon breathing follows the cyclical sequence inhale-exhale-exhale-inhale-exhale-inhale-inhale-exhale. Repeat. Can’t say it worked. Then again, it could be an experience thing. Regardless, it took me just over three hours to reach the top. The outlook was poetically splendiferous, and as the balefire of light that is the sun lay content in its indefatigable lambency, casting its irradiant puissance upon all things below, I transiently escaped from the prevailing cogitations and deliberations of the day and I saw the archipelagos of clouds become the floor of my new horizon and I heard the sibilant endearments of the wind whisper that a reprieve from the turmoil had been earned and I peered beyond my ken, towards the interminable shades of cerulean ocean and perpetual sky, where the world merged, and was one.
View from the summit of Mount Taranaki.
Although my ascetic dedication to dragon breathing didn’t work out that day, it could not dampen my passion for the trek. Indeed, I’ve been contemplating passion for several months now. It seems to me that a good number of people are looking for a passion in life, especially a passion they can live on. There’s certainly no shortage of books out there on the subject. I usually hear the same message repeated over and over:
“Pursue your passion, the money will follow.”
That’s the dream, right? Pursue your passion. I myself believed in this advice over a decade ago.
I now submit that, for most people, this advice sucks - it only leads to frustration.
Pursue Your Passion, The Money May Not Follow
Let’s look at a study on passion.
In 2002, the Canadian psychologist Robert Vallerand and colleagues administered a detailed questionnaire to 539 Canadian university students (1). The questionnaire was designed to answer two questions. The first question was, “Did the students have passion?” The second question was, “If so, what was their passion?”
In answer to the first question, Vallerand discovered that 84% of the students had a passion. Hey, that’s awesome! Most of the students had a passion, so to succeed in accomplishing their dream, all they had to do was pursue their passion, and since they already knew what that was, it was just a matter of execution. Right?
Unfortunately, in answer to the second question, the top five passions were dance, hockey, skiing, reading, and swimming. Clearly, these things are all rare career choices, at least as far as making a living goes - there are only so many professional dancers, so many professional hockey players, and so on needed in the world.
This is a problem. If we extrapolate Vallerand’s findings, the vast majority of university students across many countries are setting themselves up for disappointment if they blindly, albeit courageously, pursue their passion. The cold hard fact is that most people who try to earn a living as a professional dancer or hockey player won’t succeed; there’s simply not enough demand for these professions.
Don't get me wrong - the advice, “Pursue your passion, the money will follow” may work for a minority of people. It's just that for most people, it seems to be poor advice.
Fortunately, there may be an alternative.
Pursue Your Work, The Passion Will Follow
In the book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You (2), author Cal Newport advances the thesis that as far as career is concerned, most people ought to forget about pursuing what they think is their passion. Instead, Newport argues that a person ought to just choose a field that they kind of like or may already be good at, and work hard and smart to focus on the collection of career capital, defined as a set of rare and valuable skills that make you more marketable in that field.
Newport based this assertion on numerous interviews with a variety of successful people. In general, he discovered that successful people did not waste their valuable time seeking out their passion at the start of their career. Instead, they picked a field and worked hard at it - they also worked smart, using a strategy called deliberate practice in which they spent time on activities designed to improve specific aspects of their performance. By working hard and smart, these successful people collected enough career capital that they eventually became "so good they could not be ignored."
Even more interestingly, once each of these successful people had collected enough career capital, they subsequently developed a heightened passion for their work that had not been present before - in other words, they worked hard first and thentheir passion followed; the passion arose out of excellence itself.
This is worth pondering, for it seems that countless people are yearning to discover a singular passion in life that can they can live on, yet the dream forever eludes them. If you are one of these people, stop looking so hard - instead, choose the best option available to you now, work hard and smart to be one of the most conspicuously marketable people in that field, and trust that the passion will follow. It may take years, and that's ok.
In the meantime, I’ll be working on the dragon breathing.
References (1) Vallerand RJ et al. 2003. Les passions de l’ame: On Obsessive and harmonious Passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85(4), 756-767. (2) Newport C. 2016. So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Brown Book Group, Carmelite House.