Life is short. How do you get the most out of it? What is your contribution to humanity? Does there need to be any? Wouldn’t spreading joy and hope around your close ones be fulfilling enough?
This is an article meant for those of you who have the ambition to do something extraordinary, who want to make the world a better place, to have a positive impact, but don’t know just exactly how to get started.
Elon Musk, when asked to inspire young entrepreneurs about what to do to change the world, simply responded:
You know, honestly, I don’t think everyone needs to go try to solve some big, world-changing problem. I mean we should just think: are we doing something that’s useful to the world? […] people should be able to be proud of doing that. It doesn’t always have to be something that is going to change the world.
— Elon Musk (video, starts at 53min)
Here’s what I think: We read so many articles, watch so many videos and respond to so many notifications that we rarely take the time to listen to ourselves. We have all those inputs about how others acted in order to get successful that we sometimes forget that we all are different. Because we’re all unique, it is absolutely crucial to understand the precise conditions under which you are capable of delivering the most value. Those conditions can be investigated by studying the situations in which you felt passionate about your work. They represent the balance you should strive for in order to feel fulfilled and ultimately contribute the most.
To get there, I recommend alternating between periods of extreme isolation and introspection with periods of high activity where you push your ideas to the limit.
Being passionate about something is a feeling that often has a deep cause, like a very positive first experience, a fortunate encounter, or a seemingly innate ability that gave you a learning advantage over your peers thus motivating you to go further. Understanding these causes is a way to understand yourself. It’s incredibly hard, and also incredibly insightful.
So how do you get started? Stop the inflow of information. Get bored. Get isolated. Think about situations where you felt “in the flow”, where you felt energised and motivated. Where time stopped and all that mattered was what you were doing or experiencing. Why did you feel that way? Was it because you felt a sense of mastery of some advanced skill? Because you felt selfless by doing something for a purpose bigger than yourself? Because you went outside of your comfort zone and did something no-one would have done? What made you feel unique? And more importantly, what is the underlying pattern that permeates all those different situations?
Write down a set of personal values that characterise stimulating situations and clearly identifies pitfalls not to fall into. More precisely, I’d investigate how much of the positive and negative effects can be associated to:
- the mastery of the craft itself
- the view of others on what you were doing
- the freedom of when and how you operated
- the purposefulness of your work
Stop thinking, start doing
The feeling of passion never appears immediately. Starting from scratch, you need to nurture, practice, and work hard in a given field before you achieve enough mastery to assess whether or not this is something that corresponds to your values, to a purpose you are comfortable with, which ultimately gives you a proud sense of achievement. That’s why “follow your passion” is actually terrible advice.
But often, you first become good at something, and then you become passionate about it. And I think most people can become good at almost anything.
— Andrew NG (source)
This means you can’t just do an assessment of yourself and immediately figure out the proper direction. You need to be willing to align a few possibilities, and start exploring.
So draft out a new project, and get going. Set out clear goals, and don’t stop before you’ve reached them. There’s nothing worse than half-finished projects. You won’t nearly know as much from an unfinished project because you need to get past the hard work and do the last 20% in order to draw the proper conclusions.
I believe that if you move from project to project in that manner, you will end somewhere where you’ll feel happy and fulfilled. It will prevent you from falling into the pitfall of constantly changing course without getting anywhere instead producing something meaningful.
It is now the second time that I have left a comfortable job at a very respectable company without having a plan B, and I love it. I don’t plan too much ahead, but I try to make meaningful contributions around me. Who knows, those things could end up changing the world. But most importantly: I’m enjoying the journey.
Further reading: https://hbr.org/2015/02/how-to-build-a-meaningful-career