Useful first, passionate second

There’s this aura in college that you should first study what you like—an aura 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 writer and public speaker. As for me? An introvert unable to describe what he brought to the table. Without any concrete skills, all I was, was a passionate idea guy; as rare and valuable as your 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.

This, in fact, is the career 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 inclination. 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.

So how do you become useful? The best advice I’ve found, comes from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. His career advice is to find a mix of skills that’ll make you both rare and valuable:

Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

[…]

Capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more “pretty goods” until no one else has your mix… It sounds like generic advice, but you’d be hard pressed to find any successful person who didn’t have about three skills in the top 25%.

What are your three?

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.

Don't follow your passion but let your passion follow you in your quest to become really good at what you do.
- Cal Newport