After Steve Jobs dropped out of college in 1972, he was free to audit classes on topics that interested him. One of those courses was on calligraphy. In his own words, Jobs learned all about “serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.”
None of what he learned appeared to have any practical use - until Jobs was designing the Macintosh 10 years later. At the time, all other computers used ugly monospaced fonts on green screens. Jobs poured his typographical knowledge into the Mac and produced the “first computer with beautiful typography.”
I really only got into photography when my daughter was born, and I realized that I had no idea how to take a decent photo of a human being.
Steve Jobs related this story in a beautiful speech at a 2005 Stanford commencement address -- one of the few times he bared his philosophy of life. His message was simple - follow your passion, do what you love, and eventually, you will be rewarded in ways you could not have foreseen.
But is that really good advice? Will you be more successful if you spend your energy on endeavours which you enjoy doing or by focusing on more practical considerations? If you are a doctor, how will your carpentry hobby help your career? What about an engineer who likes rock-climbing? Or a lawyer whose favorite thing in life is playing at the local jazz club on Saturday nights? Is pursuing a passion only for the young?
The sad reality is that most people worldwide are not doing what they love. 52% of Americans are unhappy with their jobs. Only 13% worldwide love what they do. A young person facing these facts might have three reactions:
- Hating your job is an unfortunate but necessary aspect of our economy. We are consigned to live out miserable lives as wage serfs until something better comes along.
- It’s alright to hate your job, because there are more important things in life, such as friends, family, and hobbies.
- The view that your job has to suck is fundamentally wrong, and being happy with your work is a practical and proper goal.
Even if you agree with Steve Jobs, what should you do about it? How exactly will a passion for role-playing video games result in a successful career? Part of the problem is that we have forgotten what it means to be “passionate” about something.
Three Rules for Passionate Pursuit
The universe is big, and every now and then, I discover something in it that I want to learn more about. One of those things has been photography. If you asked me, I would have said that photography has been my hobby for many years, but all that really meant is that I carried an expensive toy around and took pictures at parties when things got boring. I really only got into photography when my daughter was born, and I realized that I had no idea how to take a decent photo of a human being. I hated every photo I took, and resolved to learn how to do it better.
The reality is that talent is something we develop by persistent effort and continuous improvement.
1. Master the skills
The first thing I did was find out who the best photographers in the world were. I found a few that I liked, and searched for how to take a class from them. I found one which seemed like a good starting point and dived in.
After every lesson, I would go out and practice what I had just learned. I took tens of thousands of photos of my family and friends, and when they got tired of that, of people on the streets of Shanghai. I spent many hours roaming the city, taking my camera on runs through old neighborhoods and tourist spots, and family events. After I had learned the fundamentals, I took courses on photo editing, workflow, and the masters of the past.
2. Be your own worst critic
As my photos improved, I got tons of praise, but very little criticism. Once, I joined a meeting of some of the best professional photographers in Shanghai, as they presented photo-essays of their projects in order to learn how to critique a work to better direct my progress. However I saw that people tended to vary the praise they offer, but rarely offered essential criticism. Unless you are very lucky, you will have to be your own worst critic.
3. Keep improving
There are two opposing but equally terrible ideas when it comes to talent:
- The intrinsic view of talent is that it is innate, and there is nothing we can do about it.
- The materialistic view of talent is that the more we do something, the better we get at it.
The reality is that talent is something we develop by persistent effort and continuous improvement. The most difficult thing in the world is to honestly understand our own mistakes, and then fix them - and keep doing this over and over. This is how all masters - from painters to rocket scientists get to where they are.
It’s OK to be passionate about something and not drop everything else in your life for it.
This is how mastery of any skill works. When you start, you don’t know that you’re terrible. Anything is possible, and the work is easy. As you learn more about your field, you come to realize that it is far more complex than it seems. You realize that you’re an amateur and your work sucks. You become incredibly discouraged. This is when most people quit. Only after a long period of harsh self-criticism and continuous improvement do we become good at something.
What’s the payoff?
After several months of effort, I found something else that interested me, and moved on. At this point, you might ask, “If you were so great at photography, why didn’t you quit your job and take it up full time?” I probably could have become a decent wedding photographer. But you know what - many people are good at photography. It’s a crowded market with increasingly small margins. It’s OK to be passionate about something and not drop everything else in your life for it.
There was a time when I quit my day job to pursue something I cared about - but not everything else. Life is long enough for us to master many trades. If I never did anything with photography, I would still have a collection of great family photos and see my work published in dozens of magazines.
But if you have entrepreneurial attitude, you’re bound to find a way to use your passion to build your career or at least add another income stream.
Combine your hobby and your career
When you find a passion in the midst of a career, the best opportunities often come from combining it with your existing work. With me, it happened when I learned about a project to build a photo-sharing service which would let thousands of people share photos of school activities with our customers. I jumped on the project and convinced management to let me lead the team that would build it.
I didn’t publish a single photo, but I used my perspective as a photographer to build a successful product. My experience as a user of Flickr, Instagram, Lightroom, and other products used by photographers gave me a deep understanding that helped me build a product that customers would find simple and intuitive. And it worked - before long, people were using the website and mobile apps to upload millions of photos, and my career received a boost that I parlayed into a better title and salary.
You can do it too
Anything worth your time is worth the effort to learn to do it well. Whatever it is you love, pursue it with a passion. Keep striving and improving. You may not see the practical value right away - that’s OK. You’ll still enjoy the feeling of having mastered a skill. But if you have entrepreneurial attitude, you’re bound to find a way to use your passion to build your career or at least add another income stream.
One of my friends used his love for Star Wars and video games to become a cinematic designer, working on a triple-A Star Wars franchise. Another one used his love of solving math problems to get a job as data analyst. I decided to combine my undergraduate degree in economics and a passion for software development to build several online markets, including one for construction equipment and a cryptocurrency exchange.
You can love what you do - if you’re honest about your faults, persistent enough to overcome them, and entrepreneurial enough to use your passion in your career.