How to Work a Life of Purpose

What is my purpose in work? How can I find a career I love?

I have been reading Hacker News for the last six months or so and a few days ago I stumbled upon a Jeff Haden piece called “Do What You Love? Screw That”. I admit, this title intrigued me. I had been a big fan of finding and doing what I loved ever since my dad turned me on to Richard Bolles’ What Color is Your Parachute? back in high school. The book came out originally in 1970 and thus entire generations (including mine) have grown up thinking that there is always something better coming along that never does and why people quit their jobs. These are all part of the career myths espoused and made popular by lifestyle designers like Tim Ferriss and his 4-Hour Workweek. I drank the Kool-Aid. Who wouldn’t want to do what they love, follow their passion, and have full control of their working life and income? This is the dream, right?

The Passion Mindset

Haden’s article was talking about things I had never heard spoken before: “Telling someone to follow their passion–from an entrepreneur’s point of view–is disastrous,” says Cal Newport. Who’s Cal Newport? “Passion is not something you follow,” he adds. “Passion is something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.” This struck a chord with me as it seemed to echo what Mark Cuban said back in March of 2012 in “Don’t Follow Your Passion, Follow Your Effort” where he says, “‘Follow Your Passion’ is easily the worst advice you could ever give or get. Had Cal read Mark Cuban’s blog or had Mark read Cal’s blog? Maybe it was an “adjacent possible” thing.

The Adjacent Possible

In Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, of which Haden’s article is about, Cal talks about the “adjacent possible”, which is:

A term taken from the science writer Steven Johnson, who took it from Stuart Kauffman, that helps explain the origins of innovation. Johnson notes that the next big ides in any field are typically found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas. The key observation is that you have to get to the cutting edge of a field before its adjacent possible – and the innovations it contains – becomes visible.

I felt this book was a good example of that for me because I was just about to write something similar. It seems this is possible because Cal and I both have similar reading habits and a desire to find out how to do what we love. This book builds on principals from Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Derek Sivers, Daniel Pink, and Reid Hoffman. I will admit that I was a believer in the “passion mindset” and although I thought I was a hard worker, I tended to avoid the mental strain Cal talks about that’s so important to deliberately practice in order to build career capital (these are two terms Cal introduces). This book really does a good job of turning the passion mindset on it’s head while giving you solid, practical advice about how to get the things you want in a job: control/autonomy. The bad news is that it takes a long time, will hurt, and requires a lot of work.

The Law of Financial Viability

Mark Cuban asks, “Think about all the things you have been passionate about in your life. Think about all those passions that you considered making a career out of or building a company around. How many were/are there? Why did you bounce from one to another? Why were you not able to make a career or business out of any of those passions?” Cal asked Derek Sivers this same question in the book, to which Sivers responded with what Cal calls the law of financial viability, “Do what people are willing to pay for…unless people are willing to pay you, it’s not an idea you’re ready to go after.”

By Doing, We Understand

How do you know what college major to pick or what job to go after? How do you know what will make you happy? You don’t, but key lesson here is that any path can make you happy. At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people accepted the Old Testament Torah with the words, “asah shamah” – we will do, then we will understand. Exodus 24:7 says, “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do (asah), and we will be obedient (shamah)!” The Hebrew word asah means to do, accomplish, or observe. Shamah means to hear with understanding or intelligence. Asah Shamah means “by doing, we understand.” When you do good work, passion will follow. You don’t have to understand it before you begin.

I recently had a kind of enlightenment before reading So Good They Can’t Ignore You:

  1. ME: I want to be great, but I don’t want to do anything that’s hard.or takes too long to accomplish.
  2. SUCCESFUL PEOPLE: Doing great stuff is hard and takes a while to accomplish.

I feared that my excuses about being raised in America as a white male with two parents and a mother who did my laundry and cooked my meals may not hold water. I knew that there have been times in my life when I have worked hard and seen the rewards of it:

  1. Wanted to start a band, but had no money to buy equipment, no experience, and could not play an instrument. I used my experience as a writer and my leadership skills to recruit and then learned to play guitar by practicing every night after school.
  2. Wanted to get caught up on back-mortgage to keep from losing the house so I got up every morning at 3AM for 10 months straight to raise the money. I went through 2 flat tires, 2 visits to the brake shop, and got stuck in the snow twice, but we kept our home.

But it kind of stopped there:

  1. Wanted to start a successful business, but instead ended up creating a job for myself that wasn’t that stable. I blame a constant search for self-discovery of ‘who I am’ that could have been avoided if the company was a business, not a person. Companies know who they are and just go.
  2. Wanted to write my own app, but after the online classes got hard or I encountered the first hardware obstacle, I immediately quit. I blamed not having a mentor. I will admit that mentors are nice and have helped me in the past learn guitar (a great uncle), business analysis (managers), and SEO (Pangburn). You can’t always buy a consultant or personal trainer though.

Or can you? If that is what is stopping me, then why can’t I just pay someone to help me get over that initial hump of learning the initial pathways?

Deliberate Practice

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You Cal talks about the value of a mentor/trainer in deliberate practice, which is a term coined by Anders Ericson and defined as “difficult practice required to continue to improve at a task,” typically designed by a teacher, “for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” And this notion of deliberate practice is what takes a person above the performance plateau, which gives you the career capital to spend creating the work you love.

Before reading the book it crippled me to even think of taking a hard, fast step towards something because I felt no pressure. My back was not against any wall. Although I had no problems ‘stepping out’ when I needed a car (get a loan!), wanted to buy a house (a mortgage!), or go to school (student loans!). Even though these are huge, life-changing, and decade-long commitments they are made in relative moments. It is only when faced with no deadline, with no urgency – that the endless wandering of thought leads to constant consternation. After reading the book I realized this eternal hand-wringing was the negative effect of the passion mindset.

I was so afraid of choosing the wrong thing and making a mistake that I didn’t do any one thing well. I didn’t take the time to invest in my career capital to become the best I could at my job. Back to my earlier comment about “easy” vs. “hard”: it’s easy to read a book by Daniel Pink, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, or Jim Collins, because they are good writers and they aren’t really asking you to think much. The things they point out are pretty easy to implement and so you feel good doing them, but there’s no meat there. I might as well be reading People magazine.

The Craftsman Mindset

There is a difference if what I am trying to be is the best writer, manager, leader, business analyst, marketer, or product developer I can be. I don’t read SEO tips because they can sometimes be hard to implement, but also because I don’t really care. I’m not passionate about SEO, people just are willing to pay me to do it (the law of financial viability). I know there is more to do with SEO than what I do, but I reached a performance plateau and felt what I was doing was ‘good enough’. To overcome this, Cal says to develop what he calls “the craftsman mindset”, which is working on developing the “value you are offering the world.” Because the things most people desire in a job (autonomy and control) are so rare, they are intrinsically valuable. And therefore in order to achieve them, you must have something equally as valuable, career capital. One of the ways to achieve career capital is through a craftsman mindset. In this way, you can see that it’s all about a change in how you think about work and how small changes (or Little Bets), can make a big difference.

Personal Programming

In the book A New Kind of Science by Stephan Wolfram, he explores how simple rules can lead to complex results. This is how much of the world and our universe works, but it can be applied to our daily lives as well. Call it habit formation or life hacking or whatever, but simple changes to your day to day life can have large, complex changes to your overall life and well being. Our minds control a lot of what we do, but the nice thing about them is that they can be programmed to do what we want. It’s hard to do though, so most people don’t.

If I were to counsel someone like me I would simply say, “Erich, 95% of what you do is automatic behavior. You’ve got to start to take back that part of your life and start to live in the moment. Listen to the sounds around you. Feel what’s touching your skin. Stop and smell the roses. Now take a deep breath and let it all out. You are going to write a new story for your life. You’re going to live with a purpose. You’re going to ask God for help and you’re going to do one thing consciously today and for the next 21 days that you didn’t do before. If you forget one day, pick up again the next day. It’s going to be hard. That’s how you know it’s working.”

On Obtaining Wisdom

There are times when thoughts and ideas learned over years of study begin to coalesce around a central theme. This is where wisdom is born and it only comes with time. Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.” One thing I’ve learned is how fast I can learn.

Here’s a typical example from my working life: someone has a problem they can’t solve or implement. They bring me in to review, recommend, and implement the change. I normally don’t know anything about the company, product, service, vendor, or technology being used, but I almost always figure it out. I read the manual, I contact the vendor, I ask questions. It hurts my brain. I’m straining, but it’s like deliberate practice. It makes me stronger and I gain career capital.

Deliberate practice hurts my brain. It’s physically painful for me to learn. I’ve heard that the brain has no feeling of pain so I’m not sure where it’s coming from, but it does hurt, at least for a while. Cal says in his book that the feeling tends to last for about 10 minutes, then subsides. He gets over this pain through a mental exercise of setting a time limit on the study to no more than an hour. This seems to help, but it might not work for you.

The conditions in which I can learn do seem to be limited, though. I tend to be better under pressure, when there’s a time limit, someone watching me, or the fear of not getting paid. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a home or business and had zero idea on how to fix their issues, but by the time I leave I’ve learned and fixed the problem. The client is happy and I am relieved. What I can’t seem to do is learn the things I want to learn. Why? There is no pressure and the reward is dubious at best. Take programming for example. I’ve tried to learn programming several times over the years. I’ve done some BASIC as a child and some Visual Basic.NET and JavaScript in college, but so far all I have managed to learn is HTML and CSS. I’ve dabbled in Actionscript for Flash animation and Objective-C for iPhone apps, but not made much past “Hello World”. Why?

The Value of a Mentor

Beyond lack of pressure there was no real reason, no project, and no goal. But the biggest reason is the I had no mentor. The only reason I learned HTML and CSS is because I had a mentor to teach me and a reason to use it. I would make web pages on shared computers at school and at work to make static Intranet sites. I’d use them to publish newsletters. Eventually I started making web pages for friends and family and eventually started a web design company. NOTE: This is where the similarities to Cal Newport start to get coincidental. We both have an interest in computers and writing, and like Cal we both had bands in high school and started a web design company. We both studied the same topics in this book, but he wrote it first (of which I am thankful).

I was drawn to web design because its roots are in publishing and I had been publishing my own signs, letters, and news for years before I ever made my first web page. CMS blogging platforms like WordPress kind of take the work out of publishing and tools like Twitter and email make it easy to share your ideas. Everything is just so easy. Everything but learning and doing that is (aka work). At the bank I used to laugh hysterically when my manager would talk about a new position being created, “because somebody has to do the work.”

What I’ve Learned

If you’ve read this far then you might be interested in what I’ve learned so that I can share it with you. While I was busy paying the bills providing IT services, web design, and business consulting services to clients and employers, I was seeking out the relationship between work, mind, body, and spirit. I wanted to know how to find purpose in life, how to align that purpose with work, how to do what you love, how to be happy, and how to have an impact on the world. This is what I’ve learned over the last five years:

I learned from Amway and 30-Day Challenge resources like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich that all things begin with a thought. David Allen’s book Getting Things Done said you can’t manage your time, only your actions. Stephen Covey said to begin with the end in mind. Thoughts guide your actions and intention sets direction. Measure what matters and inspect what you expect. Dave Ramsey says a goal has to be written down and have a deadline (pressure). Mark Cuban says passion comes from effort. Rick Warren says in The Purpose Driven Life to have an attitude of gratitude. Be thankful for what you have and more will be given. Good things beget good things. Those who have much, more will be given. Ask and you shall receive. The world is full of abundance, not scarcity. It’s a big Blue Ocean. Choose your story. Change your thoughts, change your outcome. What you tell yourself matters. Smiling makes you happy. Standing tall makes you feel strong. Your body can influence how you feel just like your words am influence how you think. If you can change your thoughts, you can change your story, and you can change your life. Do the work and you can earn the value needed to have the life you want.

What’s your Story?

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