Finding passion or forging mastery?

How to find your vocation? That’s a difficult question, and one that I’ve been thinking about almost non-stop for the past few years. I’ve been reading books, listening to podcasts, watching YouTube videos and talking with mentors on how to find your true passion in life. Today I want to discuss two general approaches to finding your vocation that I’ve come across so far.

The first general approach to finding one’s vocation and creating a meaningful career is what I call the passion-driven approach. According to this approach, you should first find your passion in life and then put all your effort to working on it. The basic assumption is that everyone has a passion that can be discovered and that you should make it your priority to find your passion. You can find clues about your passion in different ways. One technique that Robert Greene mentions in his book ‘Mastery’ is to go back to your childhood and reflect on what really made you excited. Whether it’s playing with Legos, drawing, or going on adventures, these early childhood memories serve as important signposts to finding what truly inspires you in life. Another method is to try out various things early in your career and see which activities, skills, and settings feel right and gets you excited, and then pursuing jobs that allow you move towards those things. Yet another method is to work on one job for an extended period, reflect on what aspects of the job you enjoy, and then try to find a new position that allows you to go deeper into those aspects.

The passion-driven feels very compelling. It resonates with a very common tendency of people to think that, “if I can just get this thing or that thing, or if I can just find x and I’ll be happy.” It also seems a very common advice to “follow your passion!” Although I think the passion-driven approach can work well for many people, there is also a great risk of falling into thinking that you need to find your passion in order to be happy in your career. Another big risk involved with the passion-driven approach is that you become too impatient, and are never able to stick to a job for extended periods. If you’re constantly assessing whether a job is making you excited or not, you might not be able to develop the patience to overcome the first months and years of learning the necessary skills that allow you to perform well in your job. As a result, you might end up switching between jobs before you truly find out if you like it or not.

However, there is another way to finding your vocation, which I call the competency-driven approach. While the passion-driven approach is founded on the assumption that passion is something intrinsic to us, and that all that we need to do is to reveal it, the competency-driven approach says that passion is forged like iron is forged at a foundry. Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, argues that early in your career, you should focus on building valuable and rare skills that allow you to create value to others. As you develop these skills and increase your career capital, two things happen. Firstly, when you learn new skills and slowly approach mastery, you will derive more pleasure from learning and practicing your craft, which in turn makes you more eager to learn more. Becoming better also increases your ability to give to others, which again makes you feel good about yourself and more eager to learn. This creates a virtuous cycle of learning and giving that makes work meaningful. Secondly, with increasing career capital, more doors become open to you and you get more opportunities to steer your career to a direction that inspires you. As you become better at what you do, you will eventually find enjoyment, purpose, and dedication by focusing on mastery.

I think both approaches have merit, and using a combination of both the passion-driven approach and the competency-driven approach is probably most effective. Although the passion-driven approach emphasizes more on reflecting on what makes you excited and happy, self-reflection is also an unavoidable part of the competency-driven process as you should aim to develop those skill areas that you find enjoyable and more natural to you. However, I’ve personally found the competency-driven approach more appealing. The “follow your passion” advice is so prevalent today that I find it refreshing to think that passion can be created as opposed to seeking it like a treasure. Focusing on developing skills also appears more concrete and easier to grasp than doing seemingly endless reflection on myself.

What do you think? Please leave a comment on what approach have you used in creating a meaningful career.


1 reply
  1. David Ing
    David Ing says:

    The idea of finding vocation through passion (in either of the ways that you’ve suggested) is that there’s some presumption of knowing, associated with it.

    In coaching high school students apply to university, I find they “don’t know what they don’t know”. Their frame of reference is from high school, so they expect undergraduate education should be something like that. After the first few months on campus, they start to get an appreciation that the way the people learn in universities isn’t the same as the teaching that they had in high school. To succeed, they have to change their frames of reference.

    My general advice to those students is to select courses (within the constraints of program requirements) that will enable them to have the most number of options open in the future. For students willing to go an extra step, we can map out potential majors that would be ruled out in second year, if you don’t take the course in first year (e.g. not taking a sociology course in the first year precludes you from taking a second year sociology class; yet often third year philosophy classes don’t require that you study first year philosophy). Typically, of five courses, at least one is open for students to choose, and a “general education class” is recommended by counsellors. In my experience, a “general education class” is a requirement on a four year horizon, so it’s better to take a first course prerequisite that open up more options, and leave the general education for a later year (when the student knows more about his or her future).

    As you’re changing from the academic world into the professional business world, there’s a lot that you don’t know you don’t know. You’ll have some immediate learning topics, of course, that you’re sure to focus on. So, how do you maintain some direction, such that you’re not just hopping from one urgency to another (viz. in baseball, going to for base hits, rather than home runs?)

    The suggestion to try to choose paths that open up more options, rather than closing them down. Practically, in life, we do encounter alternatives where one path precludes the other, and you’ll never really know what might have happened on that alternate path. For many decisions in life, however, we do have a lot of options in a stacks, and we can reprioritize them up or down, depending on conditions at that time.

    This leads to thinking about the long view, and Peter Schwartz spoke to this question, saying:

    > [09:30] Here, I mean one idea above all else, over the long run, as opposed to in the world immediately at hand, and that is, better means having more options for the future, creating more options for the future.

    (I’ve never actually seen him write this down anywhere, which is why it was worth capturing from an interview). For more, you might look at “The Art of the Really Long View” (MP3 audio) | Peter Schwartz | Dec. 12, 2003 | Long Now Foundation at

    This subtle, but deep, idea, has me on researching the ideas associated with generative systems (and specifically regenerative systems) as a way forward.

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