A Nerd’s Tale
High school, Junior year. I admit it, I was a nerd. A whopping big one. I spent my lunch break in high school hanging out with my nerd friends in the Chemistry lab, which the teacher graciously opened to his nerdlings. We’d swap Tom Lehrer lyrics, discuss our latest D&D campaigns, or argue about whether Star Trek: The Next Generation was as good as the original. Like I said, nerds.
One day, we’re talking math. “Listen, guys,” I’m saying. “If zero divided by anything is zero, and anything divided by zero is infinity, and anything divided by itself is one, then what’s zero divided by zero?” Truly a conundrum for the ages! The physics teacher walks in – his classroom is adjacent and shares an office with the chemistry lab. He overhears us and says, “Dustin, that’s really clever. You should be a mathematician, you have a knack for it!”
Fast-forward several months. Career aptitude testing. You answer hundreds of questions and they tell you what career you should pursue. Apparently I score pretty well at math – which fact would surprise every math teacher I’ve ever had, by the way, since I never got over a “C” in math – and very well in analytical thinking, too. According to the test, I should be a mathematician. Or at least an engineer.
I’d already learned that with my awful eyesight, I was never going to be an astronaut, but I am still excited about space. Engineers design space craft! And the test said the same thing the physics teacher said – somehow, math and analytical thinking are my strong suits, so I should be an engineer. An aerospace engineer, in fact.
Between the test and the physics teacher’s random comment, I was set – the classes I would take in my last year of high school, my choice of majors, my choice of universities to apply to, my career path, everything was laid out before me in golden letters.
Three years later I would drop out of college and start drinking heavily.
What is your passion?
I read a lot of career advice books. Some because their authors or publicists send them to me to review here on Lifehack, others because I review business and contemporary culture books for Publishers Weekly. While they all offer various approaches to the problems of career-building and career-change, they almost always start with the advice to figure out what you’re passionate about.
This is a harder question than it seems. We haven’t really developed any kind of processes for determining or cultivating passions. My own experience in high school is probably shared by more people than not – we’re given a battery of tests to determine what we’re good at, under the huge assumption that what we’re good at is directly related to what we’re passionate about.
This is reinforced by teachers who, I realize now that I am one, spend so much time teaching subjects to students who are bored and disinterested that they latch onto anyone with even an inkling of interest in the topics that, as teachers, they’ve dedicated their lives to. I wasn’t cut out to be a mathematician, or even an engineer, not because I wasn’t good at math, but because I hated math – I just happened to be a good analytical thinker who one day was playing with numbers. I might have been making puns or unpacking some turn of speech (like the use of “literally”, as in “I’m literally starving to death!” when of course, you’re not literally starving to death, you’re doing the opposite of literally starving) or playing with words in some other way and my future physics teacher wouldn’t have taken any notice.
Schools are, in general, not equipped to help students cultivate passions. They’re structured around imparting a minimum body of necessary knowledge to as many students as possible, and cherry-picking students who show any aptitude for one topic or other to receive advanced instruction in those topics. Schools are, as Ken Robinson has noted, better at beating passions out of us than cultivating them
If a student is lucky, he or she graduates with some notion of a major to pursue in college – but ask around in any group of college freshman and sophomores, and you’ll find more “undecideds” than anything else. If those students are lucky, they’ll latch onto some topic in their four (or five, or six) years at college; a good number of them, though, will simply sit down with a course catalog their senior year, look over what they’ve taken, and figure out which major they’re closest to graduating in.
And a surprising number of college students graduate with no idea of what to do next. With nothing guiding them one way or another, they fall into the first decent job they find, and thus begins the grind towards death.
So they turn to one of the career guides out there – many of which are quite excellent – and somewhere in the first few chapters the author asks them what they’re passionate about – and they don’t know. How could they?
Our productivity literature pays a great deal of lip service to the idea of a higher calling or higher purpose. In Merlin Mann’s Productive Talk podcast, a multi-part interview with David Allen, Allen repeats several times that people should constantly be asking themselves “Is this the most important thing I can be doing right now? Does this task help me fulfill my purpose here on Earth?”
Most people skip that bit in GTD, or in other productivity systems, because we honestly don’t know how to even think about the question, let alone answer it. But being productive without passion is a sure path to disappointment. Is it any wonder that so many people who pursue greater productivity find themselves burnt out and “fall off the wagon” after a few months of practice? Without passion, greater efficiency just means you end up doing more of the work you didn’t really care about in the first place.
Of course, some of us get lucky and find ourselves doing work that is meaningful and deeply satisfying, often by accident. That’s another common theme in career books – someone stumbles upon an innovation that becomes their career and their passion. They invent something to solve some problem they happen to encounter, they do some favor for friends and are encouraged to do it professionally, or whatever.
I have to believe that there’s a better system for the rest of us than luck, accidents, and hopeful thinking. Alas, I don’t know what it is – it took me 20 years to realize my own passion for writing. But it’s the first task in the journey toward a new vision of productivity, to figure out how to identify the kind of tasks that being really productive at would make us happiest.
Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to figure that out in your own life, and to share with us or with others how you figured it out. If you’re one of the lucky few who has already found your passion, let us know how you arrived there.