Every American in the so-called Millennial Generation can tell you the secret to happiness: follow your passion. On the surface, this sounds almost laughably obvious. Why shouldn’t you spend your one and only life doing what you’re most passionate about? There’s also a sense of privilege in this mindset. This is what we envision when we imagine a first world life—children who can pursue anything that catches their fancy (I guess you’ve just really got to hope that someone in this utopia has a passion for water filtration). For a long time I held this mentality even though my parents were immigrants who desperately wanted me to be an electrical engineer. But as an adult, I can see how the whole passion mindset introduces a whole new set of problems. What if you don’t have a clear cut passion? What if you have one but it’s not possible to make a living from it? Or it’s possible, but you’re just not good enough to make a living from it, no matter how passionate you are? Or maybe the worst of all—what if you have a passion, you pursue it, you’re wildly successful—and you’re somehow still not happy?
Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You is a refutation of the “follow your passion” theory of happiness. Newport’s counter-theory, which is a little less whimsical but struck a cord with me nonetheless, is that you’ll love what you do–whatever it is–once you’re actually good at it. If the skill you develop is rare and valuable (whether it’s computer programming or repairing plumbing), and you eventually become “so good they can’t ignore you”–you will be rewarded with not just financial rewards, but more crucially, more control and autonomy over your work life. (People with rare and valuable skills are able to choose their hours far more frequently than people with commonplace skills). Getting good at something takes a great deal of focus and deliberate practice, hence why the rewards for it tend to be so high. (Whichever philosophy of happiness you could ascribe to, the commonality is that nothing comes easy).
I enjoyed this book (although like most books that revolve around a single, easily summarized thesis, it goes on a bit too long). I’m not saying that everyone must adopt this as their mindset, but it spoke to me, and lately I’ve been striving to implement some of its ideas in my own life. If I were to name my passion, I would say that I like to write (although sometimes I wonder how true this is considering the lengths that I go to to avoid writing). I’ve always known that writing is neither a rare nor valuable skill, and therefore it’s very difficult to make a living from it. For a long time, the passion mindset actually prevented me from writing much. I had it in my head that unless I could devote all of my time and energy to writing, and become financially successful as a result of it, I would be a failure. (Because inherent to the passion theory of happiness is the idea that your passion must be the thing that pays your rent). My actual job was something I did not feel passionate about, and that I viewed as a millstone around my neck, an obstacle to my happiness. I’m starting to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. Can’t my job be something I taken pride it? Why not focus on getting better at it, which would undoubtedly increase my enjoyment of it, and eventually my control over my working life? (Newport calls this the “craftsman mindset”–focus on what you can offer the world, rather than what the world can or should offer you). Can’t writing just be another part of my life–not the way I make a living, not an all-consuming passion, but just something that I do?
I digress. If you’re interested in Newport’s much more focused take on this topic, check out his book, or his blog, Study Hacks.