It was almost dark. The white Chevy was rattling along the road. I don’t remember who was driving. In the dusk, two road signs emerged. One said ‘Cancun,’ pointing straight ahead, the other ‘Aeropuerto,’ directing to the right. For some reason, we took the right when, actually, we needed to just drive on.
“Sh*t, we have to turn around. And our gas is low.”
In Mexico, there are few exits off the highway. Hence, they have something called a ‘Retorno.’ It’s a U-Turn, right on the highway. But they only show up every few miles.
Not sure whether we’d make it, we kept driving until we found one. We turned around, and, after a 25-mile detour, barely made it to the next gas station.
What’s the lesson here? We occasionally miss the forest for the trees and get lost. That’s okay. But it also means that sometimes, we have to turn around 180 degrees to get to our destination.
Today is about making such a turn, but one that’s much more important than the one I made five years ago in Mexico. It’s a turn that, once you make it, will fix the relationship you have with your passion and your work.
Stuck in Passion…
From 2010 to 2014 I was extremely passionate about entrepreneurship. I also made zero dollars as an entrepreneur. I generated hundreds of business ideas.
There was the lunchbox that heats up your lunch, the site that matches self-made lyrics with self-made beats from different people and the bakery that’s open nights. The vitamin popsicles for babies, the How I Met Your Mother sightseeing tours and of course the restaurant that runs on iPads.
Sometimes, I even took the next step. Like when I asked Milka if they let me resell the broken chocolate that never makes it out of the factory.
What was the problem? Besides passion, I had not much to act from. Always enthusiastic, never productive. I made the same mistake — the only mistake — all people driven solely by passion make:
Seth Godin calls this “thrashing” in Linchpin:
“Thrashing is the apparently productive brainstorming and tweaking we do for a project as it develops. Thrashing might mean changing the user interface or rewriting an introductory paragraph. Sometimes thrashing is merely a tweak; other times it involves major surgery. Thrashing is essential. The question is: when to thrash?”
When it comes to projects, any project, really, thrashing early is a good thing. You argue until every detail is set. Then you work until the deadline comes and ship. Thrash too late and you’ll never ship on time, sometimes not at all.
“The habit that successful artists have developed is simple: they thrash a lot at the start, because starting means that they are going to finish. Not maybe, not probably, but going to.”
There’s only one problem: You can’t thrash your way to your passion.
It’s just an idea we’ve been sold on so much that we never dared questioning it. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport calls it “the passion hypothesis:”
“The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.”
This is a great problem to spend your time on, because you can do it forever. Unlike the user interface design for your food scanning app, it’s unsolvable. There’s no passion meter in our brains that tells us “yup, I’m 7 degrees more passionate about this abstract idea than this one.”
“If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then passion is a form of mental retardation — deliberately blunting our most critical cognitive functions. The waste is often appalling in retrospect; the best years of our life burned out like a pair of spinning tires against the asphalt.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re stuck at work too.
…Stuck at Work
Throughout my four years of passion thrashing I didn’t just not make progress, I also paid another, more subtle, but even more severe price: I was constantly unhappy with what I was doing at the time — studying for college.
“This isn’t what I want to do. I need to find my passion or I’ll be stuck in this career path forever,” I would tell myself. Of course it’s exactly this self-induced pressure that kept me stuck.
That’s what makes the passion hypothesis so dangerous, Cal says:
“The passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.”
The result is Resistance, as Steven Pressfield labeled the invisible force that keeps us from getting things done in The War of Art. Constant Resistance against our current stop in life, against the people we work with and against the jobs we’re tasked with right now.
It happens to the best of us. Sometimes we’ve long found our passion, but are so busy thrashing that we can’t see it. We don’t hear our calling and so no work gets done. Take George R. R. Martin, for example. Brilliant guy, but, talking to Stephen King, he can’t help but admit his capitulation to Resistance:
“How the f*ck do you write so many books so fast? I think, ‘Oh I’ve had a really good six months. I’ve written three chapters.’ And you’ve finished three books in that time.”
This particular manifestation of Resistance is one of its meanest tricks. It tells us we’re the victim. Steve notes in the book:
“A victim act is a form of passive aggression. It seeks to achieve gratification not by honest work or a contribution made out of one’s experience or insight or love, but by the manipulation of others through silent (and not-so-silent) threat. The victim compels others to come to his rescue or to behave as he wishes by holding them hostage to the prospect of his own further illness/meltdown/mental dissolution, or simply by threatening to make their lives so miserable that they do what he wants.”
That way, we can continue complaining about the misery of our current line of work, without really having to do anything about it. “Yeah, work sucks, but…gotta pay the bills, right? I hope I soon find my passion.”
Damn. That’s one giant quagmire we’ve maneuvered ourselves into here. How the hell do we get out of that?
What If You Did the Opposite?
Maybe, like me and my friends, driving on that lone road in Mexico, all we have to do is turn around. Take the retorno. Drive in the opposite direction.
What if, instead of thrashing through different passions, you just picked one and treated it like a profession? What if, instead of moaning at work, you just pretended it’s your dream career?
The great minds we learned from so far think it’s a great idea. And so do I.
Treat Your Passion Like Your Profession…
As we’re thrashing through our passions, we inevitably reach a point of confusion with each one. Welcome to The Dip. At this point, we’ve done all the brainstorming, the convincing and maybe even some planning or other busywork.
But then, we look at what lies ahead…and we poop our pants.
That’s why most of us are serial quitters. It’s like constantly switching lines in the supermarket: with each switch, you lose time and start over, ultimately taking longer than whoever just stuck with their queue. Seth says this isn’t limited to grocery shopping:
“There are queues everywhere. Do you know an entrepreneur-wannabe who is on his sixth or twelfth new project? He jumps from one to another, and every time he hits an obstacle, he switches to a new, easier, better opportunity. And while he’s a seeker, he’s never going to get anywhere.
He never gets anywhere because he’s always switching lines, never able to really run for it. While starting up is thrilling, it’s not until you get through the Dip that your efforts payoff.
Countless entrepreneurs have perfected the starting part, but give up long before they finish paying their dues. The sad news is that when you start over, you get very little credit for how long you stood in line with your last great venture.”
But what’s the opposite of serial quitting? Turning Pro, if you ask Steve Pressfield.
“When we turn pro, everything becomes simple. We now structure our hours not to flee from fear, but to confront it and overcome it. This changes our days completely. It changes what time we get up and it changes what time we go to bed. It changes what we do and what we don’t do. It changes the activities we engage in and with what attitude we engage in them.”
The distinction is so clear that even the choice itself turns into a vivid memory, Steven says:
“I can state absolutely that the term of my life can be divided into two parts: before turning pro, and after.”
What’s more, we’re all pros already. Where? At the very same jobs we now hold and despise so much. How so? Steve made a list:
1. We show up every day.
2. We show up no matter what.
3. We stay on the job all day.
4. We are committed over the long haul.
5. The stakes for us are high and real.
6. We accept remuneration for our labor.
7. We do not overidentify with our jobs
8. We master the technique of our jobs.
9. We have a sense of humor about our jobs.
10.We receive praise or blame in the real world.
Imagine what might happen if you just picked one of your many ideas, just one thing you like, and treated it like your paycheck depended on it. How much more likely would you be to finally make it through the dip — any dip — that brings you closer to your goals? A lot.
You might even start to like your job.
…and Your Profession Like It’s Your Passion
The attitude of a detached professional is in stark contrast that of the passionate amateur. Cal Newport calls it “the craftsman mindset”:
“I’ve presented two different ways people think about their working life. The first is the craftsman mindset, which focuses on what you can offer the world. The second is the passion mindset, which instead focuses on what the world can offer you. The craftsman mindset offers clarity, while the passion mindset offers a swamp of ambiguous and unanswerable questions.”
This mindset is exactly what you teach yourself when you work on your passion like a pro. And with it comes motivation. Lots of it. Daniel Pink knows why. In his TED talk, he explains why the carrots and sticks approach to motivation is dead:
“Our business operating system — think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources — it’s built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks. That’s actually fine for many kinds of 20th century tasks. But for 21st century tasks, that mechanistic, reward-and-punishment approach doesn’t work, often doesn’t work, and often does harm.”
It’s true. We don’t like our jobs if all they do is pay the bills and that’s why we chase passion in the first place. We. Want. More. But what more? Dan knows that too. He proposes a new model, which he calls “Motivation 3.0,” in his book Drive:
“That new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. These are the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses.”
What makes these three elements so powerful? Well…
Besides annual hack-a-thons and Google’s 20% time, companies embracing a ROWE — Results Only Work Environment — really take autonomy to the next level, Dan says:
“In a ROWE workplace, people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time or any time, for that matter. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, and where they do it is up to them.”
What happens? According to Dan:
“Almost across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.”
If you’ve ever played a mind-numbingly simple video game, you’ve experienced the power of mastery firsthand within minutes. Take Tiny Wings, for example:
The only thing you have to do is tap and hold the screen. And yet, the first time you lose, you must get better. To the pro, attempting to achieve mastery feels as natural as breathing, Steve notes:
“The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them. The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.”
The reason purpose overpowers passion is that passion pertains to what you want, while purpose emphasizes what you’re willing to give up for it. Ryan makes the distinction clear:
“Passion is about. I am so passionate about ______. Purpose is to and for. I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this. Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.”
Since purpose knocks out our ego, it allows us to approach our work with a sense of realism, some distance and a healthy dose of intimidation from what we’re trying to do. In a nutshell:
“Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.”
Which One’s the Unlock?
This is it. The foundation of the work ethic we all want so badly. Autonomy, mastery and purpose are what help us push through the dip — and part of the reason why we’ve fallen for the passion hypothesis in the first place. It dangles autonomy and purpose right in front of us, but it hides the most controllable aspect: mastery.
The assistant who masters scheduling may soon join business meetings. If she keeps doing well, she’ll get promoted. Suddenly, she has a team to care for. A task bigger than herself. Autonomy and purpose have naturally followed from mastery.
Wait a Second…
Did you catch it?
While this new model of Motivation 3.0 is built-in when you chase your passion like a pro, there is something else about it worth noting: None of these things indicate the type of work you choose. It doesn’t matter what you work on.
In Cal’s words:
“Working right trumps finding the right work.”
Or, in Seth’s:
“Transferring your passion to your job is far easier than finding a job that happens to match your passion.”
Since no job will magically shower you with passion and motivation can be found entirely in how you work, not what you do, you can find autonomy, master and purpose not just in your favorite job, but in any job. Even the one you have right now. And you can use mastery to unlock those you don’t already have.
As it turns out, turning pro works. Everywhere and always. Chances are, you don’t need a new job. You just have to do the one you have like you really mean it.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
I don’t remember the day, but I remember the decision. “I’m going to write at least 250 words each day.” I did that for six months. Then I wrote 1,000 words every day for a year. And then some more.
It was only when my passion for entrepreneurship degenerated into a daily writing habit that I finally started making progress. What’s more, it allowed me to stop complaining about college and take responsibility. Not just for studying, but for whatever my task is. No matter how menial.
Passion, profession, it all blurs together, because you always see work for what it truly is: an opportunity to get better. That’s the real power of making the P-turn. Unlike me in Mexico, you can turn around whenever you want to.
So why not make it right now?