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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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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