I hung out with Mikael of MikaelSyding.com a couple of days ago. We were discussing the topic of success, when Mikael said something smart.
He said that there’s usually an element of luck or randomness involved in success — especially meteoric success.
I agreed with this.
Mikael then said that when you try to decipher different factors in what made you (or someone else) successful at a thing, it’s hard not to let survival bias interfere.
Survival bias is a term that means you’re only paying attention to the things that lasted, and not to the things that perished. In this case: Only paying attention to the people who “made it” while disregarding all those who failed. And this often leads to inaccurate conclusions.
I agreed with him on this as well. . .
. . . And added that cognitive biases like hindsight bias and the curse of knowledge also make it challenging for successful people to decipher specifically what it was that made them so successful at what they did.
This means that some people who become very successful — and aren’t too analytical — have a tendency to oversimplify their success. They’ll say they’re successful specifically because:
–It was “destiny” (biggest post-rationalization ever).
–It was “thanks to God” (U.S athletes always do this).
And so on. . .
But as a matter of fact, their success may have been based on a completely different set of factors. The truth tends to be trickier than we think. Sometimes this post-rationalizing mental narrative that people tell themselves can even consist of complete falsities. . .
. . . And when very successful people spread falsities and inaccurate information it has harmful effects. Like when they tell young people that their success depended on being “passionate” (or some other vague and confusing reason).
Next thing you know there are headlines in major newspapers, TV, and forum posts on large websites about how “passion” is the key to becoming successful.
This takes me to the topic that I want to discuss with you today:
Because of this phenomenon, many young people believe that their life would be perfect if only they “found their passion”.
If only. . .
If only. . .
If only they “found their life purpose”.
I recently got an email from a young male reader about this.
I am confused because I don’t know what to do with my life.
All I know is that I want to have a successful career. I will have a degree in 1 year but I’m not looking forward to starting a career in what I’ve studied. And at the same time I don’t like university or think it’s very interesting, plus it costs me money I don’t have, so I will not study more after I finish.
I guess what I am really asking is: How do i find my life purpose?
I know I have to find my passion first before I can do that, but the problem is I don’t know what my passion is…
Don’t take this the wrong way, because I mean it in a good way, but you seem like you’re passionate. How did you get that way? Have you got any advice for me?
Thanks in advance
My answer to this email wound up getting long and detailed. So I decided to turn it into this article instead.
My answer below:
You know what you should do?
You should just forget it.
Seriously — rid yourself of the idea of a “life purpose”.
Because it’s only an idea. It doesn’t have any objective reality on its own, except for as long as you entertain it.
The idea of a “life purpose” has become a widespread meme in modern culture, which explains the popularity of articles about:
How to Find Your Life Purpose in 60 Seconds or Less
But consider the following. . .
If those articles delivered on their promise there would be a lot more people who had “found their purpose”, right? And if that were the case there would be some magic formula for how to do that by now.
But there aren’t — and there isn’t.
Maybe that’s because. . .
. . . There is no general — objective — life purpose which applies to everyone.
And so, naturally there’s no other person who can give you the right answer or tell you specifically what to do (not even a tarot reader, a numerologist, or a psychic).
In other words — you’re on your own.
You have to figure out this stuff for yourself.
But. . .
. . .Maybe I can nudge you in the right direction.
When it comes to answering tricky questions I like to see what older, smarter, and more experienced people (than myself) have said on the topic. People who have an enviable track record, with great results in some area of their lives that I would like to replicate.
Then, once I have gathered enough material, I will go through it all to see if it makes sense.
And as far as the “purpose & passion question” goes, there is no shortage of smart people who’ve contributed with their thoughts. Let’s go through a few of these people. Their opinions can be divided in two camps:
1) “Passion is bullshit.“
2) “Follow your passion.“
Let’s start with the “passion is bullshit” camp.
Scott Adams (Writer of Dilbert and serial entrepreneur):
When a successful person is interviewed, and you say, “What was the secret to your success?” what they can’t say, because society won’t let them, is: “I was smarter, I worked harder, I had better connections, and I got really lucky.” Instead, they go with a democratic trait: passion. Anyone can have passion in the right situation, so it makes it sound like you can do what they did.
And what does Adams think is a better idea for becoming successful than relying on “passion”?
One strategy for getting ahead is being incredibly good at a particular skill; you need to be world-class to stand out for that skill. In my case, I layered fairly average skills together until the combination became special. If you put me in a room with 20 people, I’m not going to be the funniest or the best artist, writer, or business person. Because I have all of these things in sufficient (but not world-class) quantity, it was the combination that made them successful.
So, if you studied engineering, you could probably be a good engineer. But if you studied engineering and took classes on public speaking, there’s a good chance you’ll be running the show. If you intelligently choose which skills to layer on top of each other, that’s an accessible strategy, whereas passion is complete misdirection.
I agree. What do you think?
And here’s why he thinks that physical health (and being fit) is also more important to success than “passion”:
My view is it’s not passion you want; it’s energy. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you need more energy to do it better. It’s your competitive edge, and it’s available to all. That stuff will protect you against your failures, as well as give you energy to try more things. So if the goal is to try more things until luck can find you, the place to start is your fitness.
I have taken a similar approach to Adams. I base my long-term decisions on 3 factors:
- Will doing this free up more time?
- Will doing this give me more energy?
- Will doing this help me make more money?
When I first made up my mind to get in excellent physical shape some years ago, I made that decision from a long-term perspective. There were 3 main reasons why I was motivated to make it happen:
- I knew I wasn’t going to have the time to do it when I was older
- I knew I needed the extra energy
- I knew that once you’re ripped it’s extremely easy to maintain. . .
So it was a no-brainer for me, and my motivation never faltered.
Next is M.J Demarco (serial entrepreneur and author)
In his book Millionaire Fastlane, Demarco writes about the idiocy of following your “passion” when the goal is to make money.
He gives the example of a guy whose passion was hip hop music, and decided to set up shop in the neighborhood he lived. The problem was that there was a demographic mismatch. Mostly elderly people lived in the neighborhood:
Is a 91-year-old grandpa the target market for hip-hop gear? The obvious problem here is selfishness. The owner is following his passions, and his love for hip-hop music and culture. Maybe a life coach told him to “do what you love.” Whatever the motive, the need is internal and not externally based on the marketplace.
And then finally we have. . .
Mark Cuban (billionaire entrepreneur)
Who gives — in my opinion — the best answer.
Here’s what Cuban says:
if you have been able to have some success, what was the key to the success? Was it the passion or the effort you put into your job or company ?
If you really want to know where your destiny lies, look at where you apply your time.
Time is the most valuable asset you don’t own. You may or may not realize it yet, but how you use or don’t use your time is going to be the best indication of where your future is going to take you .
Let me make this as clear as possible:
1. When you work hard at something you become good at it.
2. When you become good at doing something, you will enjoy it more.
3. When you enjoy doing something, there is a very good chance you will become passionate or more passionate about it.
4. When you are good at something, passionate, and work even harder to excel and be the best at it, good things happen.
Don’t follow your passions, follow your effort. It will lead you to your passions and to success, however you define it.
Reasons #2 and #3 are completely overlooked by “passion-seekers”. They don’t understand psychology. Because here’s the thing. . .
. . .You can trick your brain into liking almost anything as long as you don’t hate the thing to begin with.
And you must want it. Otherwise you won’t be willing to put in the initial investment of:
- Time and effort
- Money or some other form of kind of “sacrifice”
Because that’s what passion is made up of: Investment.
Passion is not some magical blessing bestowed upon a chosen few individuals who go on holy pilgrimages to “find their purpose”.
Passion is about caring (giving a shit) about something, being curious, and being interested. And this won’t happen by itself. You must put in that period of initial investment — and immerse yourself.
If that’s too general for you, I’ll tell you one of my favorite strategies for creating “passion”. I call it:
The Immersion strategy:
And it works by creating lots of mental associations on a topic in a short period of time (like by studying the history of the topic).
If you can do that then you’ll create an interest. And if you keep it up and invest more into the process you’ll create a passion. I’ve done this with lots of things.
But most people don’t do this. They do the exact opposite: They just search and search, without ever immersing themselves in anything. . .
. . . And then they do more searching, because their searching has become habitual. If you ask them why they do this, they’ll tell you:
Because it still doesn’t feel perfect!
And supposedly it has to feel “perfect right from the start”. Otherwise it doesn’t count, and it’s not a “real passion”. That’s what they were told by the passion & purpose professionals.
These people are hopeless.
Now let’s go through the arguments for “following your passion”
–On second thought, let’s not.
I don’t even want to address them because they’re so wacky.
Lots of people, with no real track record to base their advice on, tell you to “go for your dreams”, “shoot for the stars”, “follow your heart”, and so on. It sounds nice –but it has zero practical value.
Instead, let’s discuss. . .
How to Have a Successful Career:
Here’s how I see it:
- You must find your STRENGTHS (what you’re good at).
- Then you must BUILD on your strengths.
- And finally you must put yourself in the right situations where you’re likely to meet the right people.
If you can do those three things consistently you’ll improve your chances for serendipity enormously, and you’ll probably have a successful career over the long-term.
You find your strengths slowly by reading and analyzing books, learning from experience, and by being around smart people. It may take a while.
I want you to read this (free) book — Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker — and take notes.
It’s only 13 pages.
But it’s very good.
Here are a few relevant excerpts.
Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves—their strengths, their values, and how they best perform
It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.
(You can read my thoughts on this here: 9 Things You Must Know About Natural Talent to Succeed
The only way to discover your strengths is through feedback analysis.
And this is one of the reasons I write a lot and analyze what I do.
You should keep a journal and take notes before and after important decisions. Because it helps with two things:
1) It shows you how your thoughts are affected by different circumstances that arise.
For example, when you’re scared or desperate you tend to think shitty thoughts that have low long-term value. So never make important decisions when you’re emotional.
2) It matches your expectations of an outcome against the actual outcome in a way that is easy to compare
When practiced consistently over time, this process of feedback analysis is the process by which you learn to “know thyself”.
Practiced consistently, this simple method will show you within a fairly short period of time, maybe two or three years, where your strengths lie—and this is the most important thing to know. The method will show you what you are doing or failing to do that deprives you of the full benefits of your strengths. It will show you where you are not particularly competent. And finally, it will show you where you have no strengths and cannot perform.
Two or three years!? But I want to find my passion now!
–Then I suggest you start writing.
Create a consistent process — and stick to it.
Stop searching and start immersing.
Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values. Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person—hardworking and competent but otherwise mediocre—into an outstanding performer.
Indeed — prepared being the key word.
For example, I know a guy who makes good money simply by the virtue of his people skills. He’s very good at making others around him feel comfortable . He knows he’s talented at this, so he made sure he took social jobs where he met lots of people.
This was a smart long-term strategy. Because it eventually allowed him to meet influential people who liked him, and recruited him for their new company.
Here’s what I’m guessing those guys thought when they hired him:
This young guy is great at hanging out with clients. Much better than we are. If we take him on, he can meet with clients, and we’ll have more time to manage the business.
My friend anticipated that something like this would happen sooner or later. Because he knew his strengths.
If you want to do the same thing then. . .
. . . You want to figure out the answer to questions like these:
- How do I perform best?
Alone or in a team?
- What are my strengths?
Where does success come naturally for you?
- What are my weaknesses?
Where do you consistently fail?
- How do I learn best?
Do you prefer reading or listening?
Do you learn best when you explain to someone else?
Do you learn best by applying what you learn?
–Personally, I learn from all these things about equal. So I have put together a framework for learning where I combine all these things. But some people are more extreme:
Churchill was an excellent listener.
Hitler liked giving monologues — he was a talker.
Eisenhower was a reader.
- What are my values?
What will you stand for?
What will you not stand for?
After you figure that out you start working on the final question:
- Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values: How can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done?
A tip for answering tough questions:
When you start working — (yes, it takes time) — on these questions, a good idea is to begin by inverting. Turn each question on its head. For example, ask yourself: How do I perform horribly?
And then work by a process of elimination, until you know all the things you need to avoid to not perform horribly.
Summary: Stick to Actionable Advice
Don’t believe the hype.
Don’t buy into it.
You don’t find any of those two things.
You create them.
And how can you have a successful career?
- Finding out your strengths through feedback analysis
- Then building on your strengths by engaging in deliberate practice
- And combining that with putting yourself in the right situations with the right people
–And soon good things will happen. You should. . .
Do it even if it takes some time.
Do it even if most other people are only interested in taking shortcuts.
But. . .
Don’t do things just because everyone else is — that’s called conforming to herd mentality. . .
. . . And it’s a sure way to mediocrity.
All high performers take their time to find out what they do well and then they practice like hell to do those things swell.
Photo credit: Overdrive