Passion vs. Skills: So Good They Can’t Ignore, Pt I

I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s books, “Deep Work” and “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” What started me on Cal’s work is the notion that I may have lost my talent or habit for sinking deeply into “The Zone”.

Creative writing has eluded me for some time, especially sinking into “The Zone”, the flow, or being deeply immersed in the act of creative writing. The combination of the flow and creative writing is like a drug to me, and I’ve been on a quest to regain that high.

Joining a Silent Writing Group in November 2021 was a boon for me. We wrote several times a week in one-hour sessions of silence. This is what got me wondering about losing my ability to do “Deep Work” like creative writing, and how I might regain it.

Since November, I’ve put in place a ‘practice’ of holding space for creativity. During these hour-long sessions twice a week, I ‘practice’ at being creative. It is much like a yoga practice: I show up and start something creative, whether it’s drawing, painting, writing, or journaling. There are no expectations about product or producing. For me, it’s about making space to be creative. It’s a demonstration to myself that I value that trait and time. Being creative is a passion.

Incorporating an awareness and value of “Deep Work” into my life has shown me how little deep creative work I was doing and how unsatisfying my life had become. I had no problem doing and maintaining space for “Deep Work” for my job, but not for those things that mattered most to me. My new ritual is also showing me that it is possible to get a deep creative practice back and with it, a sense of fulfillment.

However, Cal’s work has led me to other questions and insights, namely about the difference between pursuing a passion and pursuing a career.

As a research administrator in academia, one of my tasks is to help increase the research capacity of academics. This often translates into giving presentations or workshops on how to (successfully) integrate a research program into a workload full of teaching, supervision, and administrative responsibilities. And increasing the research capacity of academics can also translate into helping students increase their own research capacity, should they choose.

For a few years now, I’ve been providing, upon request, a workshop to undergraduate students on how to apply to graduate school. I remember a version of this was offered in the Department of Archaeology when I was an undergraduate at the University of Calgary. I felt it was invaluable at the time, but in looking back and reflecting on my own personal experience, I felt that it was lacking. I was hoping what I could offer may be a bit more...more…in my own workshop.

Why did I feel I could improve this workshop? It was assumed that everyone wanted to — and should –go to grad school. There was no deeper exploration into the reasons why someone would want to spend tens of thousands of dollars, two to ten years, and acquire specialized knowledge in a certain topic.

And this was precisely the gap that I felt was not filled by the workshop I took a couple decades ago.

During high school and undergrad, it was my greatest desire just to learn. I *loved* to learn. I hung out at the library. I made reading a vocation. In undergrad, I wanted to turn this love of learning into a PhD and then into an academic job. I wanted my days to be full of “Deep Work”, helping others on their learning journey, and intense spontaneous hallway conversations that led to “Eureka!” moments. Ah, such was the promised life of a tenured academic. It was idyllic and a bit unrealistic.

Graduate school offered a glimpse of reality.

As a graduate student, I was being indoctrinated into the administrative system of the institution. It was daunting and endlessly accountable in strange and unusual ways. I would often avoid my office, choosing to write my thesis in coffee shops instead. Teaching a lab showed me the responsibilities of showing up for my students and developing engaging teaching materials. My debt at finishing my MA was about $60k and a tenure-tracked professor would have been making $45k/year. My debt would have been more than twice my annual salary by the time I was applying for a tenured job. Even 20 years ago, tenured jobs were difficult to come by. As a tenure-tracked professor, I’d be earning little and working like a dog for a number of years. It was thankless, and financially, mentally, and emotionally draining.

The financial reality was the deciding factor for me, so I stopped my education at a Master’s level.

After living nearly two decades since this decision and doing some deep reflection, I can see how this was the best choice for me. Would this be the best choice for others? This is a question that Cal Newport tackles in “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and Scott Young also touches on in his book, “Ultralearning”. They both argue for exploring the ‘why?’ before embarking on any form of learning or skills development. There must be an understanding of the goal before the journey is taken.

And this is what brings me to altering the workshop I give to undergraduate students about graduate school.

Post-secondary education, specifically college and university (or non-vocational education), is often viewed nowadays as a path to employment. Students, both undergraduate and graduate, are then perplexed when, upon graduation, they are unable to find employment or employment they believe they are competent to perform.

Completing post-secondary education is a journey. If the goal is to obtain employment commensurate with the level of knowledge and skills obtained during this journey, it is essential that you ensure that the outcomes of the journey fit with the desired goals. In other words, will a degree (or two or three) fit with the job you hope to land?

Answering this question requires research, both inside and outside of yourself.

Further Reading

Cal Newport: Deep Work, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Scott H. Young: Ultralearning

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