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

Archaeology was never my passion. I didn’t have dreams of being an archaeologist. It wasn’t my Plan A. It was, in fact, a distant Plan B to my desire to explore and learn physical anthropology, human evolution, and applying my knowledge to forensic contexts. (Hence, the title of my blog, “The Reluctant Archaeologist”.)

Upon finishing my graduate degree, I was chronically underemployed for a number of years. (It might even be argued that I still am!) Why was this the case? People only saw that I was an Anthropology graduate. What could they do with that?

And that’s often what I asked myself: what the hell could I do with an Anthropology education?

After many entry-level positions, I finally fell back on archaeology consulting. During undergrad, I focused on labs and field schools to ensure I had some hands-on skills. This proved extremely useful because it qualified me for a consulting job. However, every archaeology graduate had these same skills and they didn’t set me apart from every other job applicant. I needed experience so that I could be beneficial to a potential employer. This is where that age-old cycle begins: you can’t get a job because you don’t have experience and you can’t get experience because you don’t have a job.

How do you break this cycle?

I forgot my notebook at home so I scrambled through the garbage in my vehicle for paper.

I broadened my job search outside of my comfort zone, and ended up moving up north. It was an intense experience that had many bad, unsafe, and unhealthy moments. Thankfully, it only lasted three months. Yet I learned a lot and it helped me understand what archaeological consulting companies wanted in an employee. It got me experience and it also helped me see that I had a lot of latent skills and traits that were invaluable for performing archaeology consulting well.

This three-month job helped me get another job that lasted over five years.

Archaeology remained a Plan B for me. It didn’t become a passion, even after nearly six years of doing it. However, I found a way to make it my own. I found a way to add my stamp to a job that I felt I had no choice but to take. I found a way to bring in my own passions to a job that I wasn’t passionate about.

What was I passionate about? Doing a good job. Doing the right thing. Constantly learning. Understanding that what I did had a purpose and finding meaning in what I did. In other words, I take pride in a job well done, I work with integrity, I am curious, and I need to know that what I’m doing is making a difference toward a higher (perhaps more noble) goal.

You may have noticed that what I am passionate about had little to do with archaeology or anthropology. In fact, my passions could be applied to nearly anything I wish or need to do. And this is the basis, I believe, for Cal’s and Scott’s argument for understanding the goal of your intended learning journey. This is the difference between a pursuit of passion and a pursuit of a career.

If your goal is to learn, you can do this through many, many ways: life experience, travel, books, talking to people, on the job training, or sometimes even formal education.

If your goal is to get a job, you need to find out what your prospective employer wants and then acquire that. Formal education may not be something a prospective employer wants. In fact, they may be looking for skills. How you get those skills and demonstrate them to a prospective employer is up to you. Formal education may be one of many ways to do this. However, often formal education is not the best way.

If your goal is to follow your passion, you need to find out what your passions are. As illustrated above, my passions could be engaged in any job or career. It’s likely yours could too. For example, if you argue you are passionate about music, I encourage you to ask “What is it about music that you love?” Is it that music allows you to tap into creative expression, individuality, collaboration to create a piece of art, or any other host of reasons? I am passionate about creative writing and fiction because I am passionate about creative expression. I can also express my creativity in myriad other ways, including in my job as a research administrator. I do not need to be a full-time writer to express my creativity. In fact, there are many ways in which being a full-time writer would seriously cramp my creativity and impede my passion.

My journey of the past twenty years has brought me to the following insights:

  • I may never be passionate about my job. Because I have identified my passions (and/or values), I can find ways to incorporate them or bring out avenues in my job that I am passionate about.
  • I don’t need more letters behind my name to get a better job or to do what I want to do. I can learn on my own, develop skills I need, and apply that learning and those skills to do what I want to do. My subsequent abilities will show themselves through the projects and tasks I have completed.
  • Being underemployed allows me to pursue things that give me great fulfillment, like scattered remains research, creative writing, and transferring and applying knowledge.

For anyone who is searching for a way to bring their passions into their life, it’s likely that the space and opportunity is already there. You just need to be aware of it and preserve that space. And much like you shouldn’t depend on a life partner to take the place of a diverse social community, you shouldn’t require that your job (or any job) attend to all of your passions. There are other, likely more fulfilling, ways to achieve a passion-filled life.

Further Reading

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

Scott H. Young: Ultralearning

Personal Values Assessment

Day Designer: How to Understand your Core: Values + Passions + Strengths

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