Useful first, passionate second

There’s this aura in college that you should first study what you like—one that many students are suffocated by. I only know, because I’ve gotten a good whiff of its effects myself.

What undergraduate wouldn’t feel more capable studying the intricacies of persuasion, willpower, and Marshmallow Tests more than the idea of trying to implementing a chat server? Naturally, when given the decision, I drifted towards studying psychology rather than programming; I was more passionate about it.

The effects of passion became clear when I tried to start my first startup. A couple months in, my co-founders and I sat down to discuss equity. One was a programmer. The other a good communicator. As for me? An introvert unable to describe what he brought to the table—because I didn’t bring anything concrete. Without a base of concrete skills, all I was, was a passionate idea guy; as rare and valuable as the average student.

From that point forward, I made the resolution to use any remaining time, inside or outside of class, to become useful—to develop concrete skills. Only then, would I worry about passion.

Coincidently, that’s the advice famed entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreeseen gives students:

If you intend to have an impact on the world, the faster you start developing concrete skills that will be useful in the real world, the better…Once you get into the real world and you’re primed for success, then you can pursue your passion… Graduating with a technical degree [or any other useful skill] is like heading out into the real world armed with an assault rifle instead of a dull knife. Don’t miss that opportunity because of some fuzzy romanticized view of liberal arts broadening your horizons.

Put another way, your first priority is not to discover what you like, as most school counselors will tell you; your first priority is to become useful.

The way to internalize this advice enough to follow it, is to realize that passion is nothing more than a present inclication. Focus on it too early and it’ll only serve to disguise your fears and prevent you from embracing the very hard work that makes you useful.

Using my experience with psychology as an example: by itself, psychology is just interesting bits of knowledge that anyone can learn, and most do enjoy learning. Much less people are willing to put in the hours of difficult, deep work required to become decent writers, or speakers, or programmers. But only in that way can you bring your study of psychology to life through stories like Malcolm Gladwell; or in seminars like Tony Robbins; or through an app like Stickk.

The approach, as I’ve come to see it, is to not rely on passion, or college for that matter. Through whatever means, as early as you can, develop a base of one to two concrete skills that can be useful anywhere. That way, when you touch base with the specific domain that resonates with you—call it your passion if you like—you’ll be ready with the ability to package everything together into your own gift of expertise.