On work and fulfillment.
At 22 years old, my best friend in the world passed away in his sleep. We were set to move in together just one week later in Dallas. The most energetic, loving, and passionate person I ever had the joy of knowing had been ripped from my life and countless others’ lives. As deaths go when someone of this attitude and aptitude passes away, we decided to celebrate his life as much as we could. Part of this process involved remembering his life with one simple phrase.
“Live life with passion!”
It became the signature of his life, and a phrase that his friends and family will remember him by forever. He embodied the term, and everything that it represented - a thirst for life, a desire to grow, and a love for people. He did not pursue passion. He LIVED passion. And there is a big difference...
Passion, this somewhat elusive and undefinable word that is woven into our society, requires some debunking and refining before we can jump into how it relates to our craft. So it’s best if we get it out of the way upfront. Passion is very en vogue these days, and for good reason. The more and more our society becomes cursed by workaholism and connectedness, the more enticing the idea of turning our passions into our life’s work becomes. The wave junkie becoming a surf instructor. The homelessness activist starting a non-profit. The young backpacker becoming a travel blogger. At surface level this all sounds amazing, and seems like something worthy of pursuing. But what the passion equation leaves out is the most critical piece to our long-term happiness…
Work is still work. We must enjoy the process over the passion.
The thing about passions is that we’re used to digesting them in chunks. The surfer gets her weekend rides in. The activist serves at the shelter a few times per month. The backpacker snaps a few photos per day. The beauty of digesting things in chunks is that they’re easier to enjoy! Because at that point they aren’t work at all. They’re a hobby, and we don’t spend enough time in them to ever get sick of them. So what happens in our minds is we use the logic of “If I like doing it a little bit, then surely I’ll LOVE doing it all the time!” And this is where the passion equation falls short. No matter what our day to day work is, whether it’s something mundane or something we’re passionate about, at the end of the day it’s still work. The surf becomes work when you’re up at 5am in ice cold water day in and day out. The activism becomes work when people start to become numbers on a spreadsheet. The photography becomes work when the pictures become the focal point instead of the world they’re capturing. What starts out as a passion, quickly turns into a paycheck.
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, esteem takes its place in the 4th slot on the pyramid, sitting atop physiological needs, safety needs, and belonging needs. What Maslow was saying, in essence, is that once our food and water needs are met, once we know our survival isn’t at risk, and once love and a social circle has a place in our life, the next most important fulfillment in our lives is esteem. Put another way, achievement is engrained in our being right up there with survival and community.
We are driven to achieve.
And thankfully so for our species. If not for our desire to achieve, we wouldn’t have agriculture, medical cures, life-saving technologies and countless other advancements that make today’s world what it is. Achievement is in our DNA, and if we grasp that we’re wired to achieve, we can start to understand where passion falls short.
If we accept that esteem, and by necessity achievement, are fulfilling to us as humans, then the next question to tackle is how we acquire them. Think about achievement. It is simply achieving a goal or being recognized for our work. In the former we literally achieve something we set out to do and in the latter we acquire the feeling of achievement through recognition and praise. So if achievement feels good and leads to esteem, it would make the most sense to do this as often as possible. How do we achieve things regularly?
We do things we’re good at.
Because when we do things we’re good at, we achieve things or acquire the praise of achievement more frequently. And when we achieve, we’re motivated to continue improving and achieving. Each success builds on itself, and we simply get better and better at what we’re good at. This increases our esteem and helps us acquire one of the most vital foundations of the human experience. And this is precisely why passion so often eludes us only to leave us unsatisfied. While we may care about things we’re passionate about, that doesn’t necessarily make us good at them. And if we aren’t good at them, it means we aren’t being fulfilled by achievement in them. Being a passionate surfer is very different from being a good surf instructor. Being a passionate activist is very different from being a good non-profit manager. And being a passionate traveler is very different from being a good travel blogger. When we mistake our passion for our career, oftentimes we minimize our ability to achieve because we’ve chosen something for the sake of enjoyment instead of the sake of fulfillment. In the world of happiness, fulfillment trumps passion every time. And fulfillment comes from achieving at things we’re good at.
Your Work Is Your Craft
I hate the word “job”. Okay, that’s not fair. Hate is a strong word. I think there are better options for us to use than the word job. Why? Because job has baggage attached to it. It could be good baggage or bad baggage, and that is likely determined by the emotions and beliefs we have attached to jobs in the past. We have the baggage of our own experience with working - a job that we hated, a job that we loved, a job that we wanted, etc. Then, we have the baggage of our friends and acquaintances’ experiences with jobs. And finally we have the baggage of our parents, and whatever their relationship was with jobs. An example? Someone who grew up with a mother or father as a successful entrepreneur will attach totally different meaning to the term “job” than someone who grew up with a parent who did manual labor for a living. So I want to move us beyond jobs when talking about our work, and instead talk about our craft. Is it semantics? Sure. But our words are everything, and the ones we choose to use matters. I like to view our daily tasks, the things that we apply ourselves to day in and day out, as our craft. A craft, by nature, has hard work, appreciation, and attention to detail attached to it. It goes beyond some mundane job that we go to just for a paycheck, and it takes on a personal narrative. It attaches ourselves, our beings, to the work, and this fundamentally changes how we approach it. Maybe you don’t actually enjoy your day-to-day work. Maybe you’re looking for something new. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t still craftsmen and craftswomen in what we accomplish each day. We craft our attitudes. We craft our conversations with others. We craft our ability to stay positive. We craft our work ethic. We craft the purpose behind what we do. When we remove our craft from our daily tasks, it is minimized to a job. But none of us want a job. We want a craft and a purpose that we can apply ourselves to. It has nothing to do with whether or not we have a boss. It has nothing to do with whether we’re filing papers or selling widgets. It has nothing to do with the to-do list in front of us. It has everything to do with our approach to it. This is our craft. It’s shaped by our own two hands.
Have you ever had an experience where you observe someone in their work and you think to yourself “This person is fully engaged in their work. They are a true pro at what they do.” I have many times. I’ve seen this in bartenders and servers. I’ve seen this in sales reps. I’ve seen this in doctors. I’ve seen this in countless positions, regardless of what that particular “job” is. Time and time again what I’ve noticed is these people is not that they’re overtly passionate about their work, but that they are intentional craftsmen at their work. They pay attention to the details and focus on delivering superior work. They don’t rely on emotions like passion to drive them. Instead they rely on the innate satisfaction that comes from improving upon and perfecting their craft. This is what happens when our work becomes our craft. It is agnostic in regards to passion, but omnipresent in regards to fulfillment.
What Is Your Craft?
Now that we’ve demystified what passion is and isn’t, and we’ve unpacked what building our craft should look like, let’s discover what our craft truly is. It starts with a very simple question.
What are we good at?
Notice I didn’t say “great” at. Notice I didn’t say “the best” at. I simply asked what we’re good at. This is our starting place for discovering our craft. Remember when we talked about the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset? The fixed mindset would jump to the conclusion that we already need to be great at something in order to turn it into our daily work. The growth mindset would jump to the conclusion of “give me something to start with and I’ll improve from there.” When it comes to finding and honing our craft, we must approach it with a growth mindset if we want to find fulfillment in our work.
To use continuity with our prior examples, just because the surfer is good at surfing doesn’t mean the surfer is good at teaching. Just because the activist is good at empathizing with the homeless, doesn’t mean that the activist is good at raising money for the annual budget. And just because the traveler is good at finding hidden destinations, doesn’t mean the traveler is good at writing about them. To find our craft, we must start with something we’re good at.
Oftentimes when we’re in the search for meaning in our lives, we overlook the things that we’re good at for fulfillment. I remember a conversation with a good friend in Costa Rica not too long ago, who is building a web-based business. He was on the ever elusive search for meaning in his work, and was avoiding at all costs what he was actually good at - designing websites and logos. Why? Because in his own words he wasn’t passionate about doing those things. So instead he was taking the high friction and high frustration path of building a business based on things he wasn’t good at. Through hours of incredible conversation with each other, unpacking and discovering what he was truly seeking, he decided that designing websites and logo was the perfect springboard to building the business he wanted to build. What was it he was truly seeking? Fulfillment. As the saying goes,
“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by his ability to climb a tree, he will live his whole life believing he is stupid.”
Much like the fish shouldn’t spend his days trying to climb a tree, so should we not spend our days fighting the uphill battle of passion and trying to find fulfillment without achievement. Our daily craft is a matter of mindset. When we view our work as a vessel for positively impacting ourselves and those we interact with, the actual tasks become a moot point. Instead it’s the energy we put behind the tasks that matters. We craft those tasks and those interactions, and by nature of treating this work as a craft we positively impact those in our wake. Passion can kick us into gear, but we must never mistake the passion for the work. A craftsman’s mindset is what creates great work, and great work is what creates fulfillment. By starting with things that we’re good at, we give ourselves room to grow, room to craft, and a regular occurrence of fulfillment through achievement and recognition. This is an optimal environment in which we can grow and improve daily. Think of it as the Maslow-approved approach to building a remarkable life. We are all geniuses, but if we don’t give ourselves a chance to swim, we too might find ourselves believing we’re stupid.