Dad’s Career Advice: Craftsmanship vs Passion

Growing up, dad’s career advice to me was, “find what you love to do then find someone dumb enough to pay you for it.”

Pretty easy for dad to say because his job couldn’t have been more perfectly suited to him. He taught a program called “Outdoor Recreation” at a local college. The program’s goal is to teach people how to develop and lead recreational activities, etc. Dad would take students out into the woods for camping and hiking trips, taught them how to build shelters, and all kinds of orienteering kinda stuff.

Not only was this perfectly suited to my dad’s love for the outdoors, it also indulged his other passion: talking to people who had to listen to him. He loved being a teacher and he developed near cult status among his students.

On top of all that, dad pretty much had full creative control over how he designed the program.

There’s usually three main criteria for what makes a job good. First is autonomy. People want to feel like they’re free to solve problems as they see fit without being micro-managed. Dad definitely had autonomy at the college.

Second is the work has to be meaningful. This is obviously subjective, but people want to feel like they’re contributing to society and their job actually means something to them. Dad loved the outdoors, loved teaching, and really believed in getting people active and engaged with their community, so it was definitely meaningful to him.

Finally, is people want to feel like they’re being paid what their worth. I dunno what dad’s salary was, but we lived in a pretty comfortable suburban home, so I guess he was paid a decent wage.

Millennials like myself look at dream jobs like this as unicorns. Seems like we can only find one, or at most two, criterion on that list. Desultory jobs that pay well with demanding bosses, or meaningful work with shitty pay. Seems like we can’t bridge the gap between “find what you love to do and someone dumb enough to pay you.”

dad with a few trout out in the bush

In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport says the problem is that we spend too much time on the first part. He calls it “the passion mindset.” Throughout our lives, we’ve been taught to pursue our passion and make that a career. But there’s a couple problems with this. First, most of us don’t know what our passions are, and we feel like we can’t enter the job market until we discover it. This can cause paralysis by analysis. Secondly, just because we have a passion, it doesn’t mean we can build a career around it.

Instead, Newport suggests going after a viable career option that interests you and building your skills until you can command the things that actually make a good job: meaningful, autonomous and well paying. He calls this the “craftsman mindset.” For example, you may not have a burning passion to be a software engineer, but you have a natural aptitude for computers and find it interesting. So, after developing your knowledge and skills over the years, you get to the point where you can set your own terms. Newport calls this “career capital.”

Newport backs this up with a lot of research. A lot of people who report having jobs they love, say that they didn’t have a pre-existing passion before they started. Rather, their passion grew with their competence. This goes against conventional wisdom because we’re taught to start with passion. But it seems like passion can come later on.

Newport simplifies it as such: good jobs are rare and valuable, and if you want a good job, you have to have a rare and valuable skill. That’s why you need to operate from a craftsman mindset, not a passion mindset. The latter has a “what does the world have to offer me” attitude, whereas the former is “what can I offer the world?” The world is only going to meet you halfway is if you’re too good to ignore.

dad out with his granddaughter

Looking back at my dad’s career, I can see how he leveraged the craftsman mindset. The outdoor recreation program didn’t even exist when he started his career, so how do he get there? First, he got an education degree from university and worked as a gym teacher. In addition to this, he spent a lot of time volunteering with local hiking groups, developing trails. He was also an avid runner and helped organize a number of races. By developing his CV like this, he was able to seek out a great job.

Starting out with a pre-existing passion or calling then trying to build a career around it is like trying to push a square peg into a round hole. Instead, if you develop your craft you can mold both the peg and hole to your advantage. So, if I were to amend my dad’s advice it’d be “Get really good at something then find someone to dumb enough to pay your for it.”



~ by braddunne on May 2, 2021.

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