Passion and Potential

Does your passion maximize your potential? I wrote recently about how to evaluate potential careers, and suggested that the advice to “follow your passion” might be less than helpful. One reason is that not everyone has a singular focus, or a specific interest or talent that is consistently rewarding. There is beginning to be a realization that some people are multi-talented, or at least multi-interested, and they may be better off with a life of exploration and change. There are even websites for such people: www.puttylike.com, and LinkedIn recognizes multipotentialist as a category.

The value of such people comes from their breadth of knowledge, their ability to adapt, and their ability to link knowledge of one field to another. Consulting firms like McKinsey hire graduates from many different areas of speciality, because they value intelligence and diligence rather than specific knowledge. Classical notions of education involving Latin and Greek, rather than engineering and computer science, were based on the value of learning from history, rather than the acquisition of specific domain knowledge. This approach celebrates context and judgement, rather than just the facts.

For myself, it has always been hard to be satisfied with one area of focus. Instead I have lived the intellectual life of a serial monogamist. I have worked in architecture, music, software development, marketing, strategy, and I have been somewhat productive as a writer. There is a tradeoff: I am not as good at any of these things as someone who has dedicated decades to one set of professional skills. But each area of exploration and learning has provided me with a sense of deep satisfaction for a time, and I have been able to link the learning from one to the next, developing a richer picture of the world as a result. Leonardo da Vinci and Stephen Fry are two examples of this kind of person, although both are much more accomplished than I.

Emerging generations are expected to have multiple careers, so perhaps as a representative of this type, I am the tip of some kind of iceberg. I think the key is to be truly diligent in each area of life – to make a real effort to pay your dues, and learn the skills that are needed to be a practitioner. There is a difference between a dilettante who skates over the surface of many subjects, and a serial expert, who works hard at developing each new skill. My current primary focus is architecture, and my journey includes a Masters degree, professional exams, and a lot of time learning from my mistakes, in all areas of practice. I have had the good fortune to work on a wide range of projects, from inner city master planning to multi-building campuses, and from small remodels to projects involving hundreds of thousands of square feet, from concept to completion.

The impact of this is that by training attention and passion on a subject for a period of years, one can develop genuine professional skills and deep satisfaction, but one does not have to regard this as a lifetime singular direction. If, through the rich opportunities afforded to us, we find a new source of energy and excitement, it is appropriate and possible to pursue it with passion and diligence.

In summary, passion is an emotion we choose to apply to our circumstances and opportunities, not a fate to which we are bound.

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