When I was 4 years old and somebody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I didn’t hesitate to say that I wanted to be a firefighter. I thought that being a firefighter was my calling. If there was an early enrollment for 4-year-olds, I’d have been top of the list.
Lights and sirens running through my head
I don’t want to be a firefighter anymore. It’s not the firefighter that has changed, but me.
I’ve experienced many things since then, and each experience has taught me something new. I’ve become a different man, with a different perspective of the world, and the role I want to play in it. While I was passionate about being a firefighter at the age of 4, I’m not anymore.
If my passions changed so drastically in the last 20 years, what’s stopping them from changing again in the next 20 years?
It seems foolish of me to choose a career on something as volatile as passion.
A DOSE OF REALITY
Most people are trying to find their calling, but I’m not sure that any of us actually have one.
When I look at people who enjoy what they do, it has nothing to do with their calling. Think about the local butcher that gives you the biggest cut or the grocery store manager that never forgets your name.
It’s unlikely that the butcher grew up wanting to be a butcher, yet they like what they do. What’s the secret?
These people have found a place where they can make an impact. They’ve made their work important, regardless of what it is. Instead of focusing on what they do, they focus on how they do it — extremely well.
James Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, paid his way through college in 1851 by persuading his school to let him be the janitor in exchange for tuition. He did the job smiling and without a hint of shame. Each morning, he’d ring the university’s bell to start the classes — already well into his day — and march to class with cheer and eagerness to learn.
Within one year of starting at the school, he was a professor. By his twenty-sixth birthday, he was the dean.
By focusing less on what we do, and more on how he did it, we create opportunities to do work which we love.
HOW TO LOVE OUR WORK
Look at the goings-on of the world today — the environment is on a ventilator, protests and unrest lie around every corner, and unemployment is rising faster than a SpaceX rocket.
I'm not saying that it's the worst it's ever been, I'm saying that it can be better. That we’re capable of more, and that we need more people to do more good work.
To do good work, you’ve got to enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy what you do, you have to force yourself to do it, and that leads to poor results.
Three components make work enjoyable:
- Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people.
- Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do.
- Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important.
These components make work enjoyable because the powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognised for achievements.
For your work to have all three components, you've got to be a master of what you do. If you’re the only person in the world capable of doing what you do, you have complete control over how you do it.
Achieving mastery comes with time on the job, and the acquisition of rare and valuable skills. As you get better at what you do, more people want to work with you, and the opportunities to do important work continue to grow.
I think about it as if I’m building an aeroplane. Each day of work is a new part, and each skill is a new tool. Once built, the plane gives me the freedom to go where I want and do what I want. Day by day the parts increase, and my toolkit grows.
At the start, the building will be slow. But as time goes by, I’ll become a better and more confident builder. Once I’ve built the first wing, I can build the second wing more efficiently. Eventually, the plane will be built, and I’ll have the freedom to go where I want and do what I want.
Ironically, I expect that once I reach that stage, I’d have learned to enjoy building planes, and I won’t feel the need to fly off. I imagine that after spending all that time building and learning about planes, I’ll have developed a passion for them. Only time will tell.
It's not glamorous, but we're more likely to find work which we love by building it slowly than by switching jobs with each new passion. The more I think about this strategy, the more it holds true. But what is true to one may be a disaster to another.
There are times I expect this strategy to fail:
- When you’re doing something that you despise. Not something which isn’t your favourite thing to do, but something which makes you completely miserable. It’s difficult to do something well if you hate every second of it.
- When you’re working with people that you dislike. Your environment is the strongest predictor of whether you’ll do good work or not. If you’re surrounded by people who bring out the worst in you, it’ll end badly.
- When you’re doing work which doesn’t allow you to develop rare and valuable skills. The strategy is based on learning and improving. If you’re unable to do that, it can’t work.
JUST KEEP BUILDING
I’m in the process of changing my career. I was doing something which made me miserable, in an environment which brought out the worst in me. Change was necessary.
As I change direction, one thought has been invaluable.
Lean toward the things that don’t feel like work. If something that seems like work to other people doesn't seem like work to you, that's something you're well suited for.
I’m focusing my time and attention on writing, technology and education. These things don’t feel like work to me. Because of that, I love working each day.
While I may not know when I’ll finish building that plane, doing work which doesn’t feel like work, makes it easy to keep building.