“Without passion, all the skill in the world won’t lift you above craft. Without skill, all the passion in the world will leave you eager but floundering…” – Twyla Tharp
Twyla Tharp is one of America’s greatest choreographers. She’s a true master of her craft, having created over 130 dances, and winning armfuls of awards along the way. She knows that hard work and passion are requisites, but without skill, you can only get so far.
If you read this article, you know that when it comes to success, “follow your passion” is bad advice. Passion can be a helpful spark to ignite the powder keg, but it must be tempered with clarity of purpose and valuable skill. This form of self-indulgence goes hand-in-hand with the timeless confidence of youth. The confidence that, despite our present condition, everything will magically turn out fine – this is the millennial way.
The Millennial Quandary
32% of millennials between the age of 26 to 33 have a four-year degree or more, making them the best-educated cohort of young adults in American history. The thing is, only about 50% of college grads are satisfied with their jobs, and an equal number think their education didn’t prepare them for their current job.
In fact, only a little over half think they even have the education and training to get ahead in their field. Yet, despite the financial burdens and job dissatisfaction, endemic of the millennial generation, more than 8 in 10 think they have enough money to lead the lives they want, or expect to in the future.
I can’t tell you how many people I know who believe their “future self” will have it all figured out; that expectations will match reality. When I was in grad school my classmates ranged from sprite young college grads in their early twenties, to those nearing retirement age. It didn’t matter if it was the twenty-somethings just getting started, or the career-changing mom. The message was always the same – “present me” doesn’t have a coherent plan of action, but “future me” will have it all figured out.
How many people do you know that speak of the future in this way? Are you one of them?
To be perfectly honest, I was guilty of this too. Still am to some degree, but I’m working on it every day. For most of my life, admittedly, I simply went through the motions, living my life on unconscious autopilot, assuming a college degree was a guarantee of a certain quality of life; a job coupon as it were.
“I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” – Carl Jung
Talking to millennials about the future is like listening to someone trying to describe a dream they had two nights ago; it’s a hazy recount of snippets and incomplete thoughts. It lacks clarity and precise detail; an incomplete puzzle.
It’s something many shrug off, sigh, and wistfully mutter under their breath “some day”. Then gaze longingly off into the distance with dreams of a brighter future, and no clearly defined path to get there.
The common error among millennials is that they’re stuck in a holding pattern. They’re spinning their wheels, waiting for the future to happen to them, instead of facing reality and making a calculated effort get the ball rolling. To get the job you want, or build the career you think you deserve, you need to develop your skills and get better.
The way to build the valuable skills – the career capital – is through deliberate practice.
“Wishing is a way to remove oneself from what is going on now…”.
In this book, Cal Newport argues that it’s not passion that’s a reliable metric for future success, but skill. Deliberate practice is a strategy to help you acquire the rare and valuable skills in your field. It is “...above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in”.
By adopting the deliberate practice strategy, you literally force the skills to come.
Showing up and working hard will only get you so far, but you’ll eventually plateau. To excel in something, to surpass the threshold from good to great you need to stretch your abilities and become better – this is the point of deliberate practice. By first actualizing your goals and discerning the specific skills necessary to help you achieve those goals, you can implement deliberate practice as a strategy to build career capital, which will help you advance farther faster in your field.
Stop Doing Nothing, and Start Doing Something. Anything. Now.
The way of the millennial is to do nothing after graduating. You probably majored in something fulfilling and stimulating, but after graduating you couldn’t find a job in your field. Sound familiar? We’re in a recession. This presents a certain set of obstacles, but you find a job, any job that will pay the bills, and statistically, you’ll probably make that your career. Instead of implementing deliberate practice, and acquiring skill to help you fulfill your purpose, you stagnate and do nothing.
This should be a familiar example:
Ashley is 25 with a Master’s degree from a reputable school. She’s been out of school for three years and still retains a vivid conception of the kind of work she wants to be doing, but isn’t. Instead, she came to work a retail job with me – a low-stress job with decent pay for me during grad school. She so desperately wanted an academic career in criminal justice policy, specifically with the prison system in the U.S. – a pretty specific niche in academia. When talking about our hopes and plans for the future career-wise, her utter frustration with her current position in life would bleed through her words. She felt overqualified and underpaid for her current job. She was constantly applying for jobs in her field of interest, but nothing would take, so she bounced from temp job to temp job.
I asked her if there was anything she did in her free time – writing, blogging, volunteering, anything. Anything to try and bridge that gap; to invest in herself and develop the skills to help her stand out from the pack, and break into her field.
“I CAN write, but if I’m not getting paid for it, what’s the point? I don’t have time for that noise. I mean, I’m more than qualified for the kind of work I want to be doing! It’s just frustrating”.
When she wasn’t working at the shop, she was either bar-hopping with friends or binge-watching shows on Netflix most days of the week, and playing D &D or hitting more bars, brunches, and bad dates on the weekend.
“I mean, I have good grades and a Masters degree, that should be enough!”.
In her mind, if she wasn’t getting paid, what was the point?
Therein lies the problem. Rather than getting to work now, she did nothing. It’s as if she was a robot, deactivated outside of the hours from nine to five.
“It doesn’t matter whether this is the worst time to be alive or the best, whether you’re in a good job market or a bad one… “ – Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way.
If you’re in your twenties, your career capital is effectively nil, and your skills desperately need developing. You do this through deliberate practice – with or without the paycheck. As David Deida said, “every moment waited is a moment wasted, and each wasted moment degrades your clarity of purpose.”
Find a way. Now.
Deliberate practice helped me get my top choice for an internship (two, actually) this past Spring. I applied for the intern position for a company in D.C., and sent over my CV and requisite materials, following standard procedure. It was touch and go at the beginning, but we scheduled a phone interview, and they asked for more writing samples. I sent over more academic papers, and just for the hell of it, I sent over blog post that I was proud of.
Another week went by.
After a second phone conversation it turned out I wasn’t a good fit for the structured, internship program they had in place. I was neck-deep in the throes of grad school, and on top of that they wanted me to quit my job and commit full-time to an unpaid internship. The money didn’t matter to me, but since I could barely make rent as it was, I couldn’t make it work. Bummer.
Two weeks later.
I get an email from a name I don’t recognize. Turns out, it was from the senior director of the company. Evidently, my writing samples made their way to her desk, and she liked what she saw. It wasn’t the wealth of dry, academic papers I’d accrued in grad school, those are a dime a dozen, but it was the lengthy blog post I had written in my free time. The post captured my years of experience in nutrition and fitness, and critical actionable steps for people getting started. My story wasn’t special or unique, but it offered my personal perspective and struggles. It also showcased my authentic voice, which hardly seeps through in objective academic writing.
As I neared graduation, writing papers, grant proposals, and collating research became as natural as breathing. Everything could now be completed on autopilot – I was no longer growing, no longer stretching my abilities. The internship was an opportunity for me to accrue 200+ hours of deliberate practice in a type of writing that desperately needed improvement. I worked closely under an editor who scrutinized my work. I was given assignment after assignment, producing draft after shitty draft, writing and rewriting until I got it right, forcing me to get better.
Remember: you must stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and receive ruthless feedback on your performance.
This is embarrassing to admit, but it wasn’t until I graduated from college that I realized being passive didn’t lead to success – not until I graduated from college! In my half-retarded brain, I used to think life was something that just happened to people. If you’re anything like I was, you thought you were supposed to go to college, get a nondescript job in a box somewhere. You wear a tie, a pair of khakis, move up the ladder, maybe meet a nice lady, have some kids. Then you die, more often than not, with your song still inside you, to paraphrase Thoreau.
Unless you take the initiative and invest in yourself, life will pass you by. To succeed in life and move closer to reaching your goals, you have to fucking work, but you also have to get better. Work smarter, not harder. Employing deliberate practice as a strategy for pursuing excellence “is to embrace a long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity”.
As Robert Greene put it, “direct yourself toward the small things you are good at. Do not dream or make grand plans for the future, but instead concentrate on becoming proficient at these simple and immediate skills.” Rather than fixating on the future, forgoing action in the present, focus on finishing the smallest task you have right in front of you; finish it well, then move on to the next thing. That’s how you get better.