A reader recently reached out to me and asked:
It would be identifying my own passion. How do I figure out what is that thing that would really make my life meaningful or pursuing that gives me a sense of fulfillment? I would really like to hear your views or personal experience on that subject.
This is an important question that a lot of people struggle with, so I thought I’d share my thoughts in this article.
In his excellent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (1), author Cal Newport explains what he calls “The Passion Hypothesis”:
(…) to refer to the popular belief that the way to end up loving your career is to first figure out what you’re passionate about, and then pursue it (a strategy often summarized with the pithy phrase, “follow your passion.”)
The more I studied this hypothesis, the more I noticed its danger. This idea convinces people that 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.
If you’ve been stuck looking for your passion a long time, you can probably relate to all the confusion, overwhelm, and frustration it brings with it. But if the passion hypothesis isn’t helpful, what are you supposed to do instead?
Newport suggests you forget about finding your passion and instead start working on becoming so good they can’t ignore you.
Instead of relying on the passion hypothesis, you should develop a “craftsman mindset”. Newport writes:
In a 2007 episode of the Charlie Rose show, Rose was interviewing the actor and comedian Steve Martin about his memoir Born Standing Up (2). They talked about the realities of Martin’s rise. In the last five minutes of the interview, Rose asks Martin his advice for aspiring performers.
“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ . . . but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ ”
In response to Rose’s trademark ambiguous grunt, Martin defended his advice: “If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’ people are going to come to you.”
This is exactly the philosophy that catapulted Martin into stardom. He was only twenty years old when he decided to innovate his act into something too good to be ignored.
“Comedy at the time was all setup and punch line . . . the clichéd nightclub comedian, rat-a-tat-tat,” Martin explained to Rose. He thought it could be something more sophisticated. It took Martin, by his own estimation, ten years for his new act to cohere, but when it did, he became a monster success. (…)
If you’re not focusing on becoming so good they can’t ignore you, you’re going to be left behind. This clarity is refreshing. It tells you to stop worrying about what your job offers you, and instead worry about what you’re offering the world.
This mindset–which I call the craftsman mindset-allows you to sidestep the anxious questions generated by the passion hypothesis—”Who am I?”, “What do I truly love?”—and instead put your head down and focus on becoming valuable. (1)
I love this piece of advice because it aligns perfectly with my experience.
Whenever I’ve tried to think my way to my passion, I’ve always ended up stuck and confused. The times I’ve made progress is when I’ve focused in on one thing and developed enough expertise that people naturally wanted my help.
And ironically, this is where passion has shown up. Because when you get so good at something that you are making a difference in people’s lives, you can’t help but feel it.
So, don’t worry about how to find your passion. Instead, focus on becoming so good they can’t ignore you.
In other words, don’t ask what the world can do for you, but what you can do for the world. This way, you’ll be in a much more empowered position to find meaningful work.
At this point, you may be thinking something like “OK, I get it. That all sounds good. But I still don’t have a clue where to get started! I mean, WHAT should I get so good at that they can’t ignore me?!”
So, let’s have a look at how you can set yourself up in the best way possible to offer your unique strengths to the world.
The most useful advice I’ve come across for doing this comes from the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t (3). In it, the author, Jim Collins, describes a framework called:
This concept is based on an ancient Greek parable that states: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
In the parable, the fox tries every strategy it can think of to catch the hedgehog. But no matter how much sneaking, pouncing, racing, and playing dead it tries, the result is always the same. The hedgehog curls up into a ball, and the fox gets his nose full of spines.
The moral of the story is that it’s much more powerful to know how to do one thing perfectly, than doing a lot of things decently.
You can find your hedgehog, your ONE thing, by making three separate assessments:
Your hedgehog sits pretty where all these areas overlap:
Let’s take a look at each of these areas separately:
According to Collins, if you are going to do great work, you need to have a passion for it. In this article, I’ve toned the first circle down from passions to interests to help you avoid overwhelm. In my opinion, an interest is enough since it can blossom into a passion if you get really, really good at it.
To figure out what belongs in this circle, you can ask yourself questions like:
Next, you need to consider what strengths and skills you currently possess. This can be a bit tricky since they’re usually so natural to you that you don’t even consider it a strength or skill. Here are some helpful exercises:
Finally, you need to combine what you love to do, and what you’re good at with the needs of the world. Ask yourself:
Note that having only two of the areas overlapping is a problem:
Finding your hedgehog usually requires some pretty hard work and deep reflection. But when you find it, you have a very powerful position to start working on getting so good that they can’t ignore you.
And that’s a pretty damn beautiful place to be.
If this article has got you thinking, it’s time to get out your journal and get to work. The world is waiting for you to offer your unique strengths to it. How will you become so good we can’t ignore you?
Goutham, for the excellent question that inspired this article.
If you have a question you’d like me to answer, drop me a message. I look forward to hearing from you!