How to avoid the Passion Trap - and why you don't need to love your job

“As we’ve placed more importance on the passion hypothesis, we’ve become less interested, and therefore more unhappy, with the work we have. I call this effect the passion trap, which I define as follows: The more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have.”
– Cal Newport, ‘The Passion Trap

Newport is making quite a profound argument - that we should not be so caught up in trying to make our work an enjoyable part of life. I agree with this in a roundabout way: certainly, people who rely on their work for their sense of purpose, structure, social interaction, expression and creativity tend to be vulnerable to disappointment. In part, because our employers are (often arbitrarily) calling the shots - we could get fired or made redundant at any moment, our contracts left to lapse. Also, our creative expression will inevitably curtailed by unforgiving commercial interests.[1]

So how can we earn enough to pay the rent, while still engaging with our passion? It is a false dichotomy to say that we can only have our work, or take a year off (a ‘mini retirement’) with which to study, or write our novel, or read Ulysses. If we are willing to surrender or minimize other things in our lives - going out late with friends during the week, training for a triathlon, raising a family, and/or watching torrented copies of Battlestar Galactica, we can actually accomplish quite a lot. I can personally attest to the feasibility of working four days a week professionally and studying a Masters degree, whether by research or by coursework, at the same time. Or we can keep our full-time job[2], and dedicate three hours an evening to our extra-curricular projects. At such a rate, in ten years we will have accumulated our 10 000 hours to become, for instance, an Amateur Professional. In this way, our working life can easily finance our personal projects - be they creative, or recreational, or physical.

There are some difficulties with this model however. I once remarked to a friend, to her distress, that it’s impossible to be a servant of two masters.[3] This now strikes me as being a false dichotomy - I’ve certainly done the full time study and part time work combo before, for a year and a half. And sometimes the two can complement the other, and give you perspective - variety is the spice of life, after all. Problems can arise however when the culture that you try to belong to and the ethos that you subscribe to in one part of our life (be it painting, or singing, or) can be at odds with how you’re expected to think, and behave, in the other (that is, your office job). It’s more subtle than being torn two directions at once - the insidious part is that your mind can align with the culture that you are working in quite quickly.[4]

The good news is that there are many ways to avoid letting the workplace indoctrination colour your extracurricular/creative life. I’m sure other life hacking bloggers have their own ideas on this – some of my own include
  • Cycling or running to and from work: want to really clear your head and get into a new frame of mind after work? There’s nothing better than negotiating peak-hour traffic on the saddle of a racer.  
  • Get a room of your own: I’ve tried to create an ergonomic, uncluttered environment in which to practice my ‘art’. I don’t make it too comfortable, however – I’ve been sitting on my butt all day, and for the sake of my health, I don’t want to simply sit back down when I get home. That’s why I recommend - standing desks.
  • Recharge, refresh, and refocus: as soon as I get home, I grab a shower, cook a quick protein-rich dinner, make myself some green tea, and boot up the word processor on my PC and get to work. No television, no phone calls, just the occasional trip out to the kitchen for more tea.

Work can suck. Even those professional stints that I have enjoyed the most often turned out to have had modest enduring value to the world. Little knowledge was ultimately retained by students I taught, three businesses I’ve worked for went under shortly after I left, websites I’ve designed have been replaced with bland off-the-shelf designs, and instructional material that I’ve written was never maintained. When we have our own side-projects however, we are much more likely to be able to look back over a year and feel a sense of lasting accomplishment.[5] Sure, it’s great to have a ‘life’ – but only if it’s worth living at the expense of your extracurricular passions. Because unless you’re of independent means, or are happy to work for shiny trinkets[6], you’re unlikely to find that passion, and secure it, in the office.

Image by Michael Beserra

[1] My favourite scene in Pollock is where the protagonist is painting and the cameraman asks him to stop so he can load more film. Pollock, however, isn’t stopping for anyone.

[2] I personally like the part-time work option - as long as the professional wages can be maintained - for instance, not having to drop down to a ‘normal’ part-time job, such as making coffees.

[3] ‘None is able to serve two lords, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to the one, and despise the other; ye are not able to serve God and Mammon.’ (Matthew 6:24) It’s very rare for me to quote the bible to back up my arguments. But I just figured it would be useful to look at the origins - and potential nuances - of this biblical mantra. Here, Mammon represents wealth – so the full meaning might be closer to, ‘You can’t simultaneously pursue material prosperity and try to be humble.’

[4] Occupational hazards of a professional: lowering ourselves to the petty politics of our offices, developing disdain for others and an aura of elitism; coming to privilege business over productivity, and quantity over quality, and getting results over being creative.

[5] Doing two masters degreesconsecutively, while most of the time working professionally four to five days a week, meant that I couldn’t ride as frequently as I wanted to, take up every invitation from friends, or watch as many episodes of Battlestar Galactica that I had stockpiled. It was a stressful time – but it was probably also the most productive time of my life: I published a novella, a study of Japanese travel writing, and a thesis on alternative tourism; and two essays that I wrote during that time are in the top ten of my blog’s most popular posts – one on Peter Singer, the other on Albert Camus (between them, they account for over a thousand page views).

[6] These are still legitimate - and viable - scenarios, mind you.