I’m at South by Southwest Interactive listening to a keynote on doing what you love. The speaker is pacing furiously across the stage, talking a mile a minute, insisting that unbridled passion for our work is the only way we’ll ever amount to anything.
“I want you to ask yourself whether you love what you’re doing,” he commands. “Is the answer no? Is it?! If the answer is no, I want you to stop it. Stop it right now.” A rainbow of spittle sprays into the theater lights. “If you’re not doing it for the love, you’re not doing it! Follow your passion and then—only then—will you kill it.”
He keeps talking about dedicating your life to your one true passion. I shift in my seat as I wonder: am I passionate enough to really kill it? A montage from earlier in the week forms: I’m sitting at my computer, staring at a responsible-looking woman and her Labradoodle in the hero image of BizFilings.com. I’m with two silent, stony-faced marketing executives in a boardroom, explaining a copywriting choice. I’m brushing my teeth at 2 p.m. I’m standing in line at Chase.
Sure, I’d been excited to start my own business. And sure, I’d loved the idea of writing for a living. Yet banal and frustrating tasks—the kind you approach with a groan, not a fist-pump—make up much of my job. So do I feel over-the-moon about my work? I truly like it. I feel good when I get better at it. Passion overstates the point.
Applause, and my thoughts snap back to the auditorium. The speaker basks in his standing ovation. I’m weary as we glue iPhones in front of our faces and file out the door.
Sparks and Currents
When it comes to building passion in work, we often take a just-add-water approach. “Do what you love,” say the self-help gurus we parrot, “and the rest will take care of itself.” Not riding an adrenaline rush? You must be in the wrong profession.
This is like saying that if you aren’t feeling sparks for your partner every day, you should ditch him. Of course, people who’ve sustained happy relationships understand this attitude reflects a shallow take on what love is. Real, lasting passion is about sticking it out through difficult, not-so-sparky times. It’s about doing things to ground the sparks in a strong current.
We should treat our jobs like this, too. Instead of asking “what will make me feel passion?” we should ask, “how can I make passion happen?” The answer is to cultivate a way of living and working that makes passion more likely.
Passion takes practice.
Twirling in the Junkyard
To practice passion, we must first set the proper expectations: Your work, even when you love it, will not always please you.
I went to grad school to pursue my true love, philosophy. I had dreams of sitting in periwinkle fields, effortlessly penning ideas in leather-bound journals. Instead, I spent massive amounts of time underlining ancient texts and painstakingly outlining arguments. You can’t do philosophy without being downright mathematical in your thoughts, and math is not, to put it lightly, my strong suit.
Over time, to my surprise, I somehow started to enjoy the outlines and even the math. They made my papers better. So I relaxed into them. At some point, the process became more than palatable, even meditative.
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek talks about this feeling in the documentary, Examined Life. In one scene, he stands in front of a junkyard, giving a lecture on ecology and ideology. He sweats as he gestures wildly at the trash. “This is where we should start feeling at home,” he says. “This is part of nature! Because what is love? It is not idealization. Every true lover knows this… You seek perfection in imperfection. Find poetry in the real and imperfect!”
Love is not idealization. Find poetry in the real and imperfect.
Doing what we love involves things we don’t love. Learning ballet, I expected to be bounding swan-like across polished wood floors, pink toe shoes glimmering under theater lights. Instead I spent most of my time doing the robot from first to second position. Once I gave up on the romantic ideal of toe shoes, I could relax into the miniscule movements that might eventually earn me a pair. The things I disliked became comforting and rewarding.
If you’re a designer, this probably means learning code and copy. If you’re a content strategist, it might mean cozying up to Excel spreadsheets or becoming fluent in the language of engineers. As in work and the rest of life, passion comes not from idolizing perfection but from embracing what we love in its totality.
Gym Class for Creatives
It’s easier to bleed than sweat, Mr. Motes.
— Flannery O’Connor1
It’s summer in Selma, Indiana, and I’m outside throwing softballs against the barn. I’m practicing my grounders. To make it harder on myself, I throw the ball far to the left and to the right, like my Poppy taught me. I do this for about an hour until I’m so exhausted I have to sit down in the gravel. I feel my heart beat in my chest and watch the heat rise off the corn as I rest. I feel tough and confident, like a 5th-grade girl version of Larry Bird.
If you grow up playing a lot of sports, the importance of practice is drilled into you. “Practice makes perfect,” your coaches repeat as you hurl free throw after free throw. Even those of us who didn’t grow up playing sports instinctively accept this.
We recoil at the idea, however, that “creative” work might be bound by rules similar to, say, wrestling. And yet, research has shown that this is, to some extent, the case. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it this way:
The more a job inherently resembles a game—with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback—the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development.2
In other words, taking a sports-like approach to work makes us enjoy it more, by helping us get into a sports-like state of flow—the feeling that you’re so involved in something that nothing else seems to matter, or even exist. Workers who regularly slip into flow report feeling much higher job satisfaction and happiness than others do.
You can get into flow doing almost any activity, no matter how good you are at it, no matter how mundane the task. Only two things are required: the activity has to have a clear goal and a challenge. You need to be really plugged in and focused; what you’re doing must stretch your body or mind. You won’t achieve flow while multitasking or surfing the internet but you might, odd as it seems, while doing a content audit or cleaning up comps.
A graphic designer I know is especially good at this. He shows up at work earlier than I do, then pumps out multiple versions of his designs—regardless of how much he likes the assignment—before lining them all up on a board for his teammates to evaluate by midday. Rinse, repeat. When he gets stuck, he takes a break. Rather than watering down the artfulness of his work or mechanizing it, this athletic approach actually improves it. He sprints through the week and produces interesting work on a schedule while seeming to truly enjoy it. Watch him at his desk and you’ll see he’s not only focused, he’s immersed.
If you want to have passion for your work then do what your coaches told you: set challenging goals for yourself every day, work hard to achieve them, and evaluate how you did at the end. Structure it in a way that makes absorption possible. Do it, in other words. Then do it some more.
If your Nerve deny you—Go above your Nerve.
— Emily Dickinson3
I’ve known I wanted to be a creative writer of some sort since I was a little girl. Before I could read, I remember nabbing books from my grandparents’ crusted 1950s Friendly Zoo Animals encyclopedias, scooting an old wood chair into the middle of the kitchen floor beneath the brightest light, and then pretending to read while my family ate their fried chicken and potatoes. After I learned to write, I would scribble poetry and songs out the eyes and ears of common warthogs and giraffes in those same encyclopedias. “Tiffy’s gonna be a writer someday,” my Nanny—whose parents made her quit school at 8th grade so she could take care of her siblings—would beam.
But my high school years came and went and, save mandatory school papers and an occasional literary outburst in the margins of a P.G. Wodehouse novel, I barely wrote a thing. Same with college. I pretended I was too busy focusing on my real courses to do anything creative, but in reality I was too terrified to write.
More than once, I vowed to start writing, trekked to the library late at night, then sat paralyzed in front of the computer while the papers of prolific English majors poured out of the printers. I’d slouch home at 3 a.m., fear hardening into defeat. I’d never be even an ounce as good as the writers I admired. Plenty of people whose parents never went to college don’t become writers. Why try?
Years later grace came, as it often does, in the form of people who love me. “You said you wanted to write. Send me something next week,” they’d prod. Then, after two weeks had passed with no writing, “Tiff, where’s that thing?” Then the final straw from my husband, “Stop being a wimp. Write, Tiff.”
I had a writing phobia. I needed to systematically desensitize myself to it. So I signed up for a class.
The first day of “Personal Essay for Publishing,” I was relieved to find that my fellow students seemed as terrified as I was. We went around the table, apologizing for our lack of talent until our teacher made his introduction.
“You know that feeling you get, when you’re completely panicked in front of a blank sheet of paper or have no idea what you’re going to write about?” Emphatic head-nodding around the table. “That’s how I feel about six hours out of every day. Complete terror. The whole point is to write through that. Stand on your head, do your Vipassana, fall facedown on the grass—do whatever you need to get your mind out of panic mode. Just keep writing.”
Every day I wrote furiously, pounding away at the keyboard during my commute from San Francisco to Palo Alto. I belched out one thousand words a day. After a week of this, I read over my essay—only to find that it was completely incoherent and embarrassing. The standard fare: “I’m not a writer. This sucks.” Delete. Try again. Delete.
A week before my essay was due, I had nothing to show for my labor. I was still terrified. So I did what any mature adult would do. I threw my laptop across the couch, guzzled two glasses of wine and then sat in the dark, loathing myself and tearing up repeatedly until 2 a.m. “Just put your butt on the ground and write,” I heard my teacher say. So I did. I sat down on the floor. I decided to write just one sentence. But then one turned into two, and then three—until I had something decent. Not great, but decent.
A few days later, I read the story out loud to a kindly, well-dressed audience at the Book Passage near the Embarcadero. I wasn’t a wimp.
Dragons and Princesses
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.
— Rainer Maria Rilke4
“What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?” Every day, the big, red question stares down at me from the poster where it lives in my office. It reverberates in my head while I fill my coffee mug and visit the paper clips drawer. The message makes my fears more apparent to me, while de-sensationalizing the concept of fear itself.
We’re all afraid. Might as well barrel through and do what you want to do anyway.
Those who do barrel through may notice that, instead of eradicating fear, doing what you love brings brand new fears roaring to the forefront. With each new skill or personal milestone, there is more to learn and possibly more to be afraid of.
I used to be terrified of writing. Now I am merely very afraid of it. I keep pushing through Word docs and text files with the vague hope that eventually I’ll land on something that feels good. Until then, I have to make a choice: To write, and then write some more, even when I’m nervous. To accept the imperfections.
To practice my passion until I feel it.
Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962). ↩
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, (HarperCollins, 2009). ↩
Emily Dickinson, Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, (Little, Brown and Company, 1976). ↩
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, (Dover Publications, 2002). ↩