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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 4: The Quest for Passion

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 4: The Quest for Passion

Toward a New Vision of Productivity

     

    This is the fourth part of a 12-part series I will be posting through the end of December and into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). I will also soon announce some other venues where I and several others will be discussing some of the issues raised in this series. Stay tuned…

    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!”

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    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.

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    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

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    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?

    Passionless Productivity

    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?”

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    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.

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    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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