Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Does Working Right Trump Finding the Right Work (or Passion)?

We all have hobbies, and some of them we pursue with quite a bit of passion.  It’s been written that Charles Darwin, when he was young, was so intrigued by beetle collecting that when he had to make a choice between spending time with his girl friend or his hobby, he chose the latter – and ended up marrying someone else later in life.  Steve Jobs had a passion for music, especially for artists like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead.  He once had a $100,000 stereo system installed in his home.

Now we’ve all heard the adage to follow your passion.  Yet if these individuals had simply followed their passion, we might not have benefited from their contributions to science and technology, and the world would have been poorer as a result.

I became intrigued with this especially after I read a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, a Computer Science Ph.D.  He pretty much states unequivocally that following your passion is bad advice because career passions are so rare.  He cites studies that show that less than four percent of students who are asked about their passions mention anything related to work.  

Yet many of us probably know people who have decided that they are sick of the rat race, of the boring nature of their work, or that they are simply not interested in their chosen career that they get off the “treadmill” and decide to follow their dream – whether that is having their own business, pursuing a life-long hobby like tennis, playing the guitar, learning yoga, or writing a novel. Perhaps you have considered this yourself.

Newport, however, argues against our adopting this “passion” mindset, but instead suggests that we adopt a craftsman mindset.  For him, the passion mindset is about what the world can offer you, while the craftsman mindset is about what you can offer the world, what value you can create.  It is, ironically, the foundation for creating work that we love.

The craftsman mindset implies that we find those characteristics in the work that we are doing that taps into something that we enjoy, and that makes use of our talents.  Of course there may be conditions when you cannot apply the craftsman mindset (see page 56), such as when:
1.     The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable
2.     The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world
3.     The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

So how do you become a craftsman?  Is it by following the 10,000-hour rule that Gladwell popularized in his book Outliers?  In that book, he cites research, for example, on what it takes to become a chess grandmaster.  Even Bobby Fischer took about ten years to become internationally famous.  But studies show that even among players who spent about the same amount of time – 10,000 hours – some became grandmasters while others remained at an intermediate level.  The answer seems to be that it is not just the time, but what you do with that time.  As Newport reports: “The researchers discovered that the players who became grandmasters spent five times more hours dedicated to serious study than those who plateaued at an intermediate level.  The grand masters, on average, dedicated around 5,000 hours out of their 10,000 to serious study.  The intermediate players, by contract, dedicated only around 1,000 to this activity.”

This seems to be the key – serious study, or as Anders Ericsson and his colleagues said, “deliberate practice.”  This is “an activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance …  (It’s) an approach to work where you deliberately stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance.”

Of course deliberate practice is not always enjoyable.  You are stretching yourself, pushing yourself, and getting feedback from others. However, in a study published in the Journal of Business Venturing and as reported in the Wall Street Journal (January 26, 2015), entrepreneurs who founded a business based on a personal pastime lagged behind other founders initially, but after 45 months they more than caught up.  Perhaps those who did it based on a hobby were not as business-savvy, so they had to do a lot more groundwork at the beginning?  The authors of the study don’t address this but here is what they do say:  “Since they’re working on businesses that are closely related to their pastimes, sure they’re going to encounter some difficulties.  But what our data are showing is that they’re still making progress at a steady pace.  They’re doing something that they enjoy, so it’s not as likely that they’ll give up.  And because they’re doing it for reasons not necessarily related to them making a lot of money or growing a big enterprise, the reasons for giving up are not necessarily the same as they might be for conventional entrepreneurs.”

So some advice to help you with your passion mindset and your craftsman mindset:
First, figure out whether you have the talent in something you are really interested in.  If not, keep it a hobby.  Don’t expect to make a career of it.  If so, put in the practice so that you can become better before you decide to make this into a career.

Second, examine what you are currently doing in your job and figure out what aspects you enjoy the most.  For some, you may discover that you really enjoying developing people.  For others, you enjoy the analytic side.  Can you build on these in your current job?  Once you are in a job, you might discover a career passion.

Charles Darwin did not make beetle collecting into a full-time endeavor, but the skills he learned while on his hobby certainly helped him in his observational skills that led to the theory of evolution.  Steve Jobs did not become a rock star literally, but his passion for music led to the development of the iPod.

Interestingly, Amy Wrzesniewski has conducted research in which she has found that the more experience people have in a job, the more they are likely to love their work.   Newport suggests that “… it’s more important to become good at something rare and valuable, and then invest the career capital this generates into the type of traits that make a job great.”  

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. and Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, 100 (3): 363-406.

Huston, C.  (2015).  First Comes the Hobby.  Then Comes the Startup.  And, Eventually, Profits.  Wall Street Journal, January 26.

 Newport, C.  (2012).  So Good They Can’t Ignore You.  New York:  Hachette Book Group.

Wrzesniewski, Amy, et al.  (1997).  Jobs, Careers and Callings:  People’s Relations to Their Work.  Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 21-33.