Passion versus skills, the post-ac/alt-ac edition

As I have mused on how to figure out “what I want to do with my life” (at a really embarrassing, long-past-college age), I’ve run into an apparent debate between two modes of thought: one, with which I’m all too familiar, suggests we follow our passion in our pursuit of a career, and the other mode emphasizes developing our skills, instead.

I am one of those people who’s all-too-likely to think in terms of finding a vocation, “following your passion,” that One (Elusive) Thing I Am Supposed To Be Doing With My Life.  I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs test a few times over the years, and I always get the same results: INFJ. INFJs are apparently suckers for following their passion. The most amusing website I found when looking for information about “INFJ careers” was this one.  It made me laugh out loud, because it described me so very well (and with a touch of ironic humor that I can’t help but appreciate) was this line: “There are jobs, there are careers, and there are callings.  (What INFJ would not like to find their ‘calling’?!)” 

Naturally, then, I turned to thinking about calling, passion, vocation. Quotes I’ve remembered throughout my life drifted back to me. The poet William Stafford offers one view of following your passion in his poem “The Way It Is.”

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

I like this poem because it seems a little more forgiving for us followers of the thread. Even if we don’t know where the thread leads us, it’s still there, guiding us, even if in the background. I vacillate between two readings of this poem: either we are always holding on to the thread, whether we know it or not (and there’s a comforting connection that runs through the winding paths of our lives), or perhaps we ought to consciously hold onto the thread: it’s described as something we are possibly able to explain to others.

Ralph Ellison offers a different approach in The Invisible Man, whose central character describes his own path with these words:

“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!”

Painful boomeranging of my expectations, indeed! If only being onesself or following threads were more explicitly clear in terms of what that meant one should actually do!

In a realm more specific to the job search process, I recently stumbled onto Barbara Sher’s book I Could Do Anything, If Only I Knew What It Was. Sher clearly represents the passion side of the passion vs. skills debate, in which she writes:

“I know what you should be doing. You should be doing what you love. … You do know what you want. Everybody does. That’s why you feel so restless when you can’t find the right track. You sense there’s some particular work you are meant to be doing. And you’re right.” (1994 ed., p. 2-3).

I’m a sucker for this kind of language, especially when she couches it in such familiar terms as these:

“I don’t really care what your skills are. When I was a single mother with two babies, you know what my skills were? I could clean house like a demon, catch a moving bus with my arms full of laundry, groceries, and kids; and squeeze a dollar until the picture of George Washington screamed for mercy. I do not want the career that uses those skills, thank you” (2, former italics in the original, the latter italics added).

I most certainly don’t want the career that uses those particular skills I’ve honed over the past three years of my daughter’s life, either. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, and I love my daughter very much, but I just can’t do the “full-time mommy without something else going on professionally” thing.

Despite apparently knowing clearly what I don’t want, I do fall into the group of people who nonetheless has trouble articulating what, in fact, as poet Mary Oliver would say, I want to do “with my one wild and precious life.”

The skills-based approach to choosing a career offers a different trajectory that’s focused less on following a predetermined passion that’s apparently writ in the stars and there in your blood (please note the undertone of sarcasm there), than on developing skills that you enjoy using. I’m only starting to figure out the connections and contrasts between these approaches, so I offer this one today as an example:

In his New York Times article “Follow Your Passion? Let it Follow You,” Cal Newport faced the enviable choice of accepting a job at Microsoft, going to MIT for graduate school, or living off of the advance from his new book and becoming a writer. Despite the overall unfairness of having to choose among such wonderful options, Newport  offered some useful advice.  Rather than worry about which of these meant he could follow his true passion — a thought-process that would have induced only anxiety at the stakes involved in such a choice — Newport brushed aside the “FYP” (follow-your-passion) advice we’ve all heard so often. Instead, he took a different conclusion to heart: 

The alternative career philosophy that drove me is based on this simple premise: The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job’s specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world.

He explained that he didn’t initially feel that graduate school had landed him in the embrace of his true calling, due to the insecurities of graduate school (with which most readers of this blog are likely all-too-familiar). He became passionate about his job as his competence increased through hard work, and he is now a professor of computer science, presumably passionate enough about his job.

In recent days, I’ve been trying to learn more about this alternate career philosophy in order to get away from the paralysis that can result from worrying about “following your passion.” I picked up a copy of the book Newport cites in his article, Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and have just begun reading it. Newport’s own book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, apparently takes on the passion argument directly and will probably come up in my reading list, as well.

Perhaps these thoughts will be enough to shush the memory of a talk I heard several years back about finding your passion and going after it. The speaker (who happened to be a man, and may not have had to worry about overdeveloped skills of laundry- and child-hauling), said that for years he avoided his calling. Eventually he realized it would be as easy as opening the phone book and putting his finger on the one listing that would change his life forever and set him on his true path. Yes, I remember thinking, I want to open the phone book and find my true passion! (Who wouldn’t!) Immediately, though, the guilt about not knowing which listing to turn to, or much less which letter of the alphabet to start with, coursed through me. I don’t know what my passion is! What if I choose the wrong one because I’m deluding myself? Why does this supposedly simple ability to know what I want elude me? I wondered, my anxiety rising.

For the next few days, I’m going to focus on this skills-based approach, to accept that in one’s lifetime, there may be many passions, which are supported by an ever-expanding set of skills. Just as we don’t have one identity (I’m a mother, a wife, a scholar, a job-seeker, etc.), not all of us will have the luxury of one passion forever. And this is a comforting thought, that with time, perseverance, and the honing of skills, something else will make sense, will become one strand in the thread that I follow, and perhaps one day it’ll all come together in ways that I simply cannot anticipate.

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