"Follow Your Passion," Really?

The process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person. Writer George Saunders

Cal Newport writes in the New York Times about the downside of the advice, "follow your passion:"

To a small group of people, this advice makes sense, because they have a clear passion. Maybe they’ve always wanted to be doctors, writers, musicians and so on, and can’t imagine being anything else.

But this philosophy puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us — and demands long deliberation. If we’re not careful, it tells us, we may end up missing our true calling. And even after we make a choice, we’re still not free from its effects. Every time our work becomes hard, we are pushed toward an existential crisis, centered on what for many is an obnoxiously unanswerable question: 'Is this what I’m really meant to be doing?' This constant doubt generates anxiety and chronic job-hopping.

When the IdeaFestival says "stay curious," what should that mean when it comes to careers? The demonstrable fact that the employer/employee compact that prevailed as recently as 20 years ago has broken down means most of us will do a variety of work over our lifetimes. You may want an employer, but the employer may not want you. And, as Newport suggests, for all but a select few, knowing our passions, wants and drives is just not that obvious. It takes effort and a willingness to pay attention over a sustained period of time because our interior lives generally don't offer up an honest accounting on demand.

The problem, to get really personal, is my passions can imagine wanting to be something or someone else - explorer, ace pilot, astronaut, a studio furniture maker of world renown, and other writers and poets too numerous to mention. What Newport is saying is that most of us our passions, when they're not shining a bright light on our perceived failures, come and go. To do something that matters will take work, and when a competency and purpose has matured professional fulfillment has a fighting chance.

It's the writing that matters.

If you have a spare twenty minutes today, watch the video of Cal Newport shared on the 99U Vimeo channel.


"Many of Us Have Become Experts in Our Heads"

In the following paragraph below, professional facilitator Viv McWaters writes about why he finds games so useful in his practice. While reading the blog entry, I was reminded about why curiosity is so important, and think that McWaters and the IdeaFestival share the same sympathies. See if you don't agree:

Lots of times games are not necessary. Yet time and again, I’m seeing groups playing a different game – with me, and with each other. They are doing and saying what’s expected, using language to obfuscate rather than clarify, staying abstract and safe – and all the while sounding very grown up. In fact, they’re staying safe. They are not stepping to the edge of their knowledge or awareness, they are not taking risks (even when they espouse that they are a real risk-taking company) nor are they willing to be vulnerable....

Many of us have become experts in our heads – we can say what’s needed, we can justify our position.

Touche. It's safe to say that I hold dear to certain ideas that may not bear scrutiny, or self-defeating thoughts reinforced by an internal dialog that rehearses all the right answers to the wrong questions. It's understandable to a degree. We all have value as human beings, and any answer that would suggest otherwise ought to be dismissed. It's the difference, of course, between being wrong and being wrong about the facts.

But those external facts are niggling, aren't they? And if I'm going to go beyond a reflexive defensiveness, If I am going to profit from the experience of others, then a willingness entertain challenging ideas is not just an act of courage, but one of personal development. Scott Berkun makes much the same point in recent blog post, asking: when was the last time you changed your mind about something important?

Perhaps it's a journal that sheds light on a pattern of inaction, or that trusted friend who can challenge your thinking, or maybe you make a point of attending the IdeaFestival next Oct., but it's important to find a practice that regularly exposes you to things that you may not, at first glance, appreciate or like. McWaters believes play can go a long way toward overcoming the privilege we accord our own thinking.

"Staying put," as Mars scientist Nathalie Cabrol says in the video here, risks, if we think about carefully, much more than we may realize. Listen carefully as she connects outer to inner exploration.

Stay curious.


Poets, The Original Systems Thinkers

Poets are the original systems thinkers according to a recent Harvard Business Review piece, which describes the benefits of poetry for professionals. Author John Coleman covers the expected territory about poetry as a creative tool and of the strange appeal of meter to the human mind, but it is the following paragraph that struck me as much more interesting:

For one, poetry teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity. Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman once told The New York Times, 'I used to tell my senior staff to get me poets as managers. Poets are our original systems thinkers. They look at our most complex environments and they reduce the complexity to something they begin to understand.' Emily Dickinson, for example, masterfully simplified complex topics with poems like 'Because I could not stop for Death,' and many poets are similarly adept. Business leaders live in multifaceted, dynamic environments. Their challenge is to take that chaos and make it meaningful and understandable. Reading and writing poetry can exercise that capacity, improving one’s ability to better conceptualize the world and communicate it — through presentations or writing — to others.

While I do not know of any corporations that have poetry officers dropping references to Auden, Dickinson, Kunitz or Robin Robertson during particularly tricky negotiations, I think many businesses could do worse. In this windy age, information is a strange thing. Insights from studies bought at great expense or from those afternoon meetings shuffling to their inevitable conclusions are many times not so much simplifications as banalities. To grasp them is to simultaneously empty them of meaning. 

Not so with poetry. In a post last week, Shane Parrish, writing about former IdeaFestival speaker Nassim Nicholas Taleb, describes 'A Wonderfully Simple Heuristic to Recognize Charlatans." Parrish describes the power of "inversion," or of thinking about a particular problem in a variety of ways. One of those ways is an ancient method indeed, apophatic thinking. It's sometimes referred to as "negative" thinking, and it is particularly effective at recognizing the veiled nature of things by describing what those things are not. In the our context, an entrepreneur might work her way toward an opaque idea by thinking about the qualities she thinks it doesn't have - it's not a product, it's not inexpensive, it can't be licensed. While Parrish suggests elsewhere that "avoiding stupidity is often easier than seeking brilliance," the effect of apophatic thinking, in my view, is much more profound.

As one kind of top-down method, poetry succeeds because we are mysteries, even to ourselves, and fully capable of self-deception about what it is we really want. Its restorative power lies in an ability to comfort self-aware creatures such as us, to soothe and to do so - perversely - by laying bare, prior to the claims of reason and its grasping ally, pretext, to the high ground, to the full panting terror of limitless choice. It is true in this anxious age because from those words we feel something toward the objects of our choosing.

Give The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals a read. Bonus: the poem At Roane Head

Stay curious!


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Oliver Burkeman Video: Open to Failure, Open to Success

Speaking at IdeaFestival 2013, Oliver Burkeman says he approaches the subject of happiness as "a reporter," and suggests - our paraphrase - that it's an openness to failure that invites success. Happiness, similarly, can't be won by a relentless and blinkered positivity, but, rather, an acceptance of the full range of human experience.

Burkeman is the author of "The Antiodote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking."

If you liked that interview you may be interested an slightly more in depth Skype video chat conducted last summer.

To watch all IdeaFestival videos subscribed to our YouTube channel, IFTV. And be sure to follow us on Twitter or subscribe to the blog's feed.

Stay curious!


Try this Simple Method for Thinking about the Future

Here's a simple technique for thinking about the future. If you regularly engage in forecasting on behalf of your company or organization, or just want to think a little more clearly about what might happen, Shane Parrish as Farnam Street suggests this rather simple exercise: speak in the future perfect tense.

Premortems encourage people to use 'prospective hindsight,' or, more accurately, to talk in 'future perfect tense.' Instead of thinking, 'we will devote the next six months to implementing a new HR software initiative,' for example, we travel to the future and think 'we have devoted six months to implementing a new HR software package.'

Parrish lists "avoiding excessive optimism" and challenging "the illusion of consensus" as two of the benefits of the exercise. Give his short post a read!

Stay curious.


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