Working Right

I started my first blog begrudgingly my senior year of college for a creative writing class. Halfway through my semester I’d created a second that had four times the posts; and my hard drive double that in unpublished posts. After the class my “second” blog continued to run for years until recently when I shut it down and created this one. I went through 20 years of the government-run child farms (read: school system) before I realized that I enjoy writing.

Between my junior and senior year of college I found myself unemployed and living in my brother’s study on a pullout couch. I’d sold everything, packed my car and driven west about a year earlier. My worldly possession fit into a cargo box on the top of a station wagon and included a duffel bag of clothes, camping gear, and a milk crate full of books for when I decided to go back to school. After a discouraging day of job hunting I plunked down on the couch with my head in my hands. I looked up, grabbed the purple hardbound book at the top of the milk crate and started reading. A couple of hours later I’d finished Purple Cow and found an author I idolize to this day, Seth Godin.

The next day I got a library card. A month later I’d read every book by Seth and moved on to Guy Kawasaki, Malcolm Gladwell, Tony Hsieh, Steven Pressfield, Ken Robinson, Dan Pink, and many, many others. Before the next quarter I was filled with ambition and fond of my new-found interest… one I hadn’t realized through 19 years of school.

The point in all this is not the modern education system. I’ll expand on that post later. No this post is about how I got to where I am and the lessons I’ve learned–and more importantly those lessons I’ve realized.

If you asked me today to tell you my “passion”–I couldn’t. I’d think about some of my hobbies, about how I idolize the idea of being an author. If I were to “follow my passion” I’d likely quit my job and write books until I used that influence to start Acme Inc.

It’s a shit idea.

I stumbled across the idea of reading and writing in spite of school, not because of it. They were things at the time that I’d been doing my whole life and yet never discovered. I had 19 years of experience reading and writing, yet if I would have run off, quit school and became an author I would have been called a fool. Instead if I’d discovered yoga or baking–and had less than a day’s experience in it–I would have been encouraged to follow my passion. To run-off, quit school and start a studio/bakery.

And that makes sense, right?

When I was 12 years-old I had my first crush. It was on the girl who sat with her back to me at the adjacent lunch table. I’d invent excuses to bump chairs or talk to someone at her table. By the middle of the year–about spring time–I’d fostered as normal of a relationship any 12 year-old can muster with a person of attraction. The next step was to coordinate a time to get my friends and her friends to the movie theater at the same time. And I did.

However, when I approached my Dad for the money and a ride he scoffed. He’d provide a ride, but I needed to find the money on my own. Fail.

Too young to sack groceries, I printed flyers and hoped to find enough lawns to mow to pay my way to the movies. By the time summer was in full-swing I’d started a lawn business, stopped renting my Dad’s mower and acquired my own (yes, he made me rent his mower). I graduated high-school and turned-down several college offers to go to a local community college in effort to stay close to what was now a full-fledged landscape construction company. I had crews, trucks, equipment, contracts, and a void where most have “high school and college experiences.”

I was completely absorbed by the company. Every waking minute was devoted to building that company. It felt really good to be good at something. I was an average student, an average athlete, and an exceptional entrepreneur. To this day many consider me to have great business acumen.

Why?

Well, while my kick-ball skills may be sub-par, I have over a decade of experience as a business owner. It was easily the most successful–and thus most fulfilling–period of my life.

Then I got burned out. The void of lacking “experiences” was screaming uncle. I no longer wanted to be in charge. I no longer wanted to work the hours of an investment banker while enrolled in school full-time.

I sent my employees to work for competitors, liquidated the assets and sold-off the contracts. And after a short-stint in retail quit college, sold everything, packed a car and drove west. I lived in a different state monthly, slept in my car mostly and saw amazing things. Day-by-day filling my “experience void” whilst chasing the counselor’s advice of following my passion. I was a whitewater raft guide, a wilderness first responder, a mountain conqueror–and eventually–poor and unemployed on my brother’s couch.

Filled with ambition and stubborn to a fault I unrealistically continued down the same path that led me to that couch. I jumped from student, to entrepreneur, to corporate slave, to start-up groupie, to my current situation. Each time changing license plates and thinking I’d made the last change. Thinking, I’d finally found my passion.

And yet. Here I am. Passion searching.

Cal Newport wrote the book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. It didn’t change me. But it did bring into focus a lot of shit that’s been there all along. His first rule? Don’t follow your passion.

Yep. Don’t follow your passion.

The first few chapters are mildly convincing–but it builds on itself. And since I’ve lived the life Benjamin Button; having all of my success early in life, I’ve watched my childlike ambition tumble my passion-seeking vertebrae down an economic-ladder. Today, I can appreciate the validity of his point-of-view.

I found writing only after I’d done it long enough to sew trains of thought together erroneously with punctuation. Not before. It wasn’t fun when it was hard.

I found reading after my vocabulary had expanded far enough that I could get through more than a children’s book without dictionary.

And my business was as fulfilling as it was because it had every aspect of what our “perfect career” can provide: autonomy, purpose and mastery. I wasn’t passionate about mowing lawns when I started it. And a few years in I wasn’t smiling and filled with warm fuzzies as my friends went off on Friday night while I worked. But like reading, and writing, I was putting in the hard, deliberate practice that paid in spades down the line. And by the time I sold the company I’d become so good, they couldn’t ignore me.

The moral is–don’t follow your passion. Working right, trumps finding the right work.