A couple of months ago, I wrote about following your passion, and why it’s an idea that is too often romanticized, but why I also think it’s worthwhile. I want to follow up on that for a minute, because I’ve encountered an idea in several different places recently that basically boils down to “real passion comes from being good at something, so focus on the things you’re good at and passion will come naturally.” This is probably true for some people, or else the idea wouldn’t be so prevalent, but it couldn’t be further from my own experiences, and I think it has the potential to lead to some bad places.
I grew up with a natural talent for writing. It’s also something I love doing. My natural talent was nowhere near enough, by itself, to get me to a professional level of skill, but because it was something that I loved, and something that mattered to me, I developed my skill far beyond what I was born with.
But I’m good at other things, too. Including playing the viola, as I discovered when my school had everyone pick a musical instrument. I wasn’t any kind of musical prodigy, but I had enough natural talent to pick it up more quickly than average. I ended up playing for about three years. I practiced nearly every day, and steadily improved. I wasn’t amazing at it, but I was good enough to win spots in performances that required auditions.
It took me three years to realize that despite my talent and the skill I had developed, it wasn’t something I actually enjoyed. I didn’t get any real fulfillment from getting better at it or demonstrating my skills, and I didn’t feel what musicians talk about feeling when they pick up their instruments. I practiced not because of any internal drive, but because I was supposed to. The reason it took so long for me to figure all this out is that I was familiar with the narrative of how playing music is something that smart and creative people do. For as long as I could remember, I had been told that I was both of those things—and so, based on my subconscious logic, of course I liked playing a musical instrument, right? That was the narrative I knew, and so I assumed I was enjoying myself, even when it didn’t fit my actual thoughts and feelings. Even once I realized the viola wasn’t for me, I just figured I was playing the wrong instrument, and switched to the guitar. It took another three years for me to figure out what was really going on—I didn’t belong in that narrative after all. I was good at playing music, and I had the personality for it, but it simply didn’t appeal to me.
I started with something I was naturally good at, and spent six years steadily improving my skills. I got plenty of external validation, and was able to watch myself getting better. But I never developed passion, and only rarely felt even a quieter kind of enjoyment. Even before I figured out where I had gone wrong, it was certainly never something I considered devoting the rest of my life to.
In contrast, about ten years ago I started exploring a style of digital art that involves using software to create images using pre-created 3D figures. (Here are some examples of varying quality, although none of these are mine.) I was, frankly, terrible at it. Visual art is not where my talents lie. But it was fun. I loved doing it—not the same way I love writing, but enough to keep on doing it and work at getting better. I read guides for beginners, and more advanced tips, and studied what other people were doing. When I created an image I wasn’t happy with, I tried to figure out where it had gone wrong. I kept learning and working until what I was doing was, if not exceptional, at least above average for an amateur. I stopped for reasons unrelated to either skill or enjoyment, but if I had chosen to focus seriously on it, I have no doubt that I could have improved my skills much further. I would have become much better at it than I had ever been at the viola or the guitar, and enjoyed the process a lot more.
It’s easy to look at something you’re good at and think you should be spending your life doing that. Especially when that’s the feedback you get from the people around you. I’m lucky in that the thing I have the most natural talent for is also the thing that gives me the most fulfillment. But that’s luck (or possibly a very early love for storytelling that made me focus enough on it at a young age to give me an advantage when I started writing stories of my own). That’s not how it works for everyone. Sometimes the thing you’re good at isn’t the thing you want to devote the rest of your life to—even if the narrative tells you it is.
There are times when choosing to spend your life doing the thing you’re good at, even if you’re not passionate about it, is the right decision. You might not actively dislike it, after all; maybe it just doesn’t set your soul on fire. (And it’s okay not to have an intense passion! A lot of people don’t.) Or maybe you’re the type of person for whom the joy of accomplishment and achievement is as important as, or more important than, enjoyment of the process.
And it should go without saying—but often doesn’t—that deciding to spend your life doing something you love, but not putting in the time and effort to get good at it, is never a good decision. That’s true whether you’re naturally talented or not. Except in the case of genuine prodigies, natural talent is never enough, and if you rely solely on that, eventually you’ll hit a wall and realize you never learned how to work to improve your skill.
But you can get good at anything—barring natural limitations, of course (I’m never going to be tall enough for basketball, no matter how much work I put into it). So if you there’s a choice between doing something you’re good at but don’t really care about, and doing something that you enjoy or find fulfilling, I would almost always say to choose the latter. Even if you’re terrible at it, you can change that. And when it’s something that matters to you, the process of getting better will be, if not fun (because work doesn’t have to be fun!), at least satisfying in the way that devotion to a craft or field you love is satisfying.
It’s hard work, but making yourself enjoy something is a whole lot harder.