Sunday, October 7, 2012

Cultivating vs. following your passion

I’m a little bit obsessed with Cal Newport, his blog ‘Study Hacks’ (, and the topic of his latest book: ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work you Love’.  As Cal describes in his blog, the book is the result of his attempt to answer the question, “Why do some people love what they do, while so many others do not?”.  His thesis is that the oft-repeated “follow your passion” mantra is mostly full of crap.  Most people don’t have an all-consuming passion, or the skills to execute their idea.  So finding your passion, then finding the job that allows you to fulfill all your creative needs, then living happily ever after … is a fairytale. 

He argues that a better alternative is to target a career that allows you to hone your skills, become extremely valuable and then leverage that to get the life you want.  (Presumably at that point, you’ll have a clearer understanding of what work brings you satisfaction & happiness.)  Simply put, passion isn’t something you follow; it’s something you cultivate over time.

So, when it comes to people like me (presumably, enough education/skill to have options, not enough self-knowledge to see a clear path forward), how do you find a job and start a career out of college?  I’ve mentioned earlier that my general life goal is to be surrounded by smart people, and that I chose my current job because I like my coworkers and they are all smart, hard-working people.  But there’s something else that I remember seeming really important when my friends and I were looking for jobs … salary.

Be honest with me, guys, how much does your salary matter to you now?  A few months ago (over Peruvian chicken, yum), a friend and I discovered that we had really similar spending philosophies despite pretty different income levels.  (My friend, who does research, makes about half of what I do in the private sector.) Yet my friend and I both don’t want for anything – we have great places to live (my friend’s house is actually way more awesome than mine), we see our friends, go out for drinks or noms, can pursue writing or inventing cool things, can splurge on nice wine or fancy beer. 

The point is that making 40K+ ensures a pretty comfortable lifestyle provided you don’t lose your mind and try to buy a BMW or insist on buying full-price Banana Republic dresses every month.  And that conceivable you can enjoy some of those luxuries, just in moderation.  So, why (to an extent) does your salary matter less than you might think it would?  And why don’t people who make over 40K save up all of that extra money?  It’s easy to get accustomed to a new lifestyle.  Because our perception of what’s a ‘reasonable price’ or ‘necessary expense’ is updated given our life situations, your larger salary doesn’t usually net you proportionally more savings.

I was talking to some friends of mine at work about our coworker who recently left to travel the world (doesn’t that sound amazing?).  Someone mentioned that our company would probably love to have him back once he returns from his travels, and I opined that I thought it was unlikely we’d see our friend back in the same position at the same company.  People change – after a year of traveling, you’ll likely want a different job.  What’s scary about a high-consumption lifestyle is that you need an increasingly larger salary to support your ‘needs’, and why climbing the career ladder is a stressful necessity for some.  The great thing about a satisfaction-minded & frugal lifestyle is that you target your spending to maximize returns on happiness while reducing spending overall.  My hope is that if you’re not ruled by the stress of high expenses, which necessitate pursuing a larger salary, you have more options to pursue your interests – even the ones that don’t generate lots of money.

What do you think – is your salary as important as it seemed when you were first looking for jobs?  Do you spend differently now than you did in college?  (I for one am buying a lot more fancy cheese.)

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