Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance - Angela Duckworth (2016)
Part II. GROWING GRIT FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Chapter 6. INTEREST
Follow your passion is a popular theme of commencement speeches. I’ve sat through my fair share, both as a student and professor. I’d wager that at least half of all speakers, maybe more, underscore the importance of doing something you love.
For instance, Will Shortz, long-time editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, told students at Indiana University: “My advice for you is, figure out what you enjoy doing most in life, and then try to do it full-time. Life is short. Follow your passion.”
Jeff Bezos told Princeton graduates the story of leaving a high-salary, high-status Manhattan finance job to start Amazon: “After much consideration, I took the less safe path to follow my passion.” He has also said, “Whatever it is that you want to do, you’ll find in life that if you’re not passionate about what it is you’re working on, you won’t be able to stick with it.”
And it’s not just on hot June days in our cap and gown that we get this advice. I hear the same thing—over and over again, nearly verbatim—from the grit paragons I interview.
So does Hester Lacey.
Hester is a British journalist who has been interviewing achievers of the caliber of Shortz and Bezos—one per week—since 2011. Her column appears weekly in the Financial Times. Whether they’re fashion designers (Nicole Farhi), authors (Salman Rushdie), musicians (Lang Lang), comedians (Michael Palin), chocolatiers (Chantal Coady), or bartenders (Colin Field), Hester asks the same questions, including: “What drives you on?” and “If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?”
I asked Hester what she’s learned from talking to more than two hundred “mega successful” people, as she described them during our conversation.
“One thing that comes up time and time again is: ‘I love what I do.’ People couch it differently. Quite often, they say just that: ‘I love what I do.’ But they also say things like ‘I’m so lucky, I get up every morning looking forward to work, I can’t wait to get into the studio, I can’t wait to get on with the next project.’ These people are doing things not because they have to or because it’s financially lucrative… .”
Follow your passion was not the message I heard growing up.
Instead, I was told that the practical realities of surviving “in the real world” were far more important than any young person living a “sheltered life” such as my own could imagine. I was warned that overly idealistic dreams of “finding something I loved” could in fact be a breadcrumb trail into poverty and disappointment. I was reminded that certain jobs, like being a doctor, were both high-income and high-status, and that these things would matter more to me in the long run than I might appreciate in the moment.
As you might have guessed, the individual proffering this advice was my dad.
“So, why’d you become a chemist?” I once asked.
“Because my father told me to,” he answered without a hint of resentment. “When I was a boy, history was my favorite subject.” He then explained that he’d enjoyed math and science, too, but there was really no choice when it came to what he’d study in college. The family business was textiles, and my grandfather dispatched each of his sons to study trades relevant to one stage or another of textile production. “Our business needed a chemist, not a historian.”
As it turned out, the Communist Revolution in China brought a premature end to the family textile business. Not long after he settled here in the United States, my dad went to work for DuPont. Thirty-five years later, he retired as the highest-ranking scientist in the company.
Given how absorbed my dad was in his work—often lost in reverie about some scientific or management problem—and how successful he was over the arc of his career, it seems worth considering the possibility that it’s best to choose practicality over passion.
Just how ridiculous is it to advise young people to go out and do what they love? Within the last decade or so, scientists who study interests have arrived at a definitive answer.
First, research shows that people are enormously more satisfied with their jobs when they do something that fits their personal interests. This is the conclusion of a meta-analysis that aggregated data from almost a hundred different studies that collectively included working adults in just about every conceivable profession. For instance, people who enjoy thinking about abstract ideas are not happy managing the minutiae of logistically complicated projects; they’d rather be solving math problems. And people who really enjoy interacting with people are not happy when their job is to work alone at a computer all day; they’re much better off in jobs like sales or teaching. What’s more, people whose jobs match their personal interests are, in general, happier with their lives as a whole.
Second, people perform better at work when what they do interests them. This is the conclusion of another meta-analysis of sixty studies conducted over the past sixty years. Employees whose intrinsic personal interests fit with their occupations do their jobs better, are more helpful to their coworkers, and stay at their jobs longer. College students whose personal interests align with their major earn higher grades and are less likely to drop out.
It’s certainly true that you can’t get a job just doing anything you enjoy. It’s tough to make a living playing Minecraft, no matter how good you get at it. And there are a lot of people in the world whose circumstances preclude the luxury of choosing among a broad array of occupational options. Like it or not, there are very real constraints in the choices we can make about how we earn a living.
Nevertheless, as William James foretold a century ago, these new scientific findings affirm commencement speech wisdom: the “casting vote” for how well we can expect to do in any endeavor is “desire and passion, the strength of [our] interest… .”
In a 2014 Gallup poll, more than two-thirds of adults said they were not engaged at work, a good portion of whom were “actively disengaged.”
The picture is even bleaker abroad. In a survey of 141 nations, Gallup found that every country but Canada has even higher numbers of “not engaged” and “actively disengaged” workers than the United States. Worldwide, only 13 percent of adults call themselves “engaged” at work.
So it seems that very few people end up loving what they do for a living.
It’s difficult to reconcile the straightforward directives offered in inspirational speeches with epidemic levels of indifference toward work. When it comes to lining up our occupations with what we enjoy, how come so many of us miss the mark? And does my dad’s success offer a counterexample to the passion argument? What should we make of the fact that, by the time I came along, my father’s work really was his passion? Should we stop telling people to follow your passion and, instead, tell them to follow our orders?
I don’t think so.
In fact, I see Will Shortz and Jeff Bezos as terrific inspirations for what work can be. While it’s naive to think that any of us could love every minute of what we do, I believe the thousands of data points in those meta-analyses, which confirm the commonsense intuition that interest matters. Nobody is interested in everything, and everyone is interested in something. So matching your job to what captures your attention and imagination is a good idea. It may not guarantee happiness and success, but it sure helps the odds.
That said, I don’t think most young people need encouragement to follow their passion. Most would do exactly that—in a heartbeat—if only they had a passion in the first place. If I’m ever invited to give a commencement speech, I’ll begin with the advice to foster a passion. And then I’ll spend the rest of my time trying to change young minds about how that actually happens.
When I first started interviewing grit paragons, I assumed they’d all have stories about the singular moment when, suddenly, they’d discovered their God-given passion. In my mind’s eye, this was a filmable event, with dramatic lighting and a soundtrack of rousing orchestral music commensurate with its monumental, life-changing import.
In the opening scene of Julie & Julia, a younger Julia Child than any of us watched on television is dining in a fancy French restaurant with her husband, Paul. Julia takes one bite of her sole meunière—beautifully seared and perfectly deboned by the waiter moments before and now napped in a sauce of Normandy butter, lemon, and parsley. She swoons. She’s never experienced anything like this before. She always liked to eat, but she never knew food could be this good.
“The whole experience was an opening up of the soul and spirit for me,” Julia said many years later. “I was hooked, and for life, as it turned out.”
Such cinematic moments were what I expected from my grit paragons. And I think this is also what young graduates—roasting in their caps and gowns, the hard edge of the folding chair biting into their thighs—imagine it must be like to discover your life’s passion. One moment, you have no idea what to do with your time on earth. And the next, it’s all clear—you know exactly who you were meant to be.
But, in fact, most grit paragons I’ve interviewed told me they spent years exploring several different interests, and the one that eventually came to occupy all of their waking (and some sleeping) thoughts wasn’t recognizably their life’s destiny on first acquaintance.
Olympic gold medalist swimmer Rowdy Gaines, for example, told me: “When I was a kid, I loved sports. When I got to high school, I went out for football, baseball, basketball, golf, and tennis, in that order, before I went for swimming. I kept plugging away. I figured I’d just keep going from one sport to the next until I found something that I could really fall in love with.” Swimming stuck, but it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. “The day I tried out for the swim team, I went to the school library to check out track and field because I kind of had a feeling I was going to get cut. I figured I’d try out for track and field next.”
As a teenager, James Beard Award-winning chef Marc Vetri was as interested in music as he was in cooking. After college, he moved to Los Angeles. “I went to a music school out there for a year, and I worked nights in restaurants to make money. Later, when I was in a band, I worked mornings in restaurants so I could do the music thing at night. Then it was like, ‘Well, I’m making money in the restaurants, and I’m really starting to like it, and I’m not making anything in music.’ And then I had an opportunity to go to Italy, and that was it.” It’s hard for me to picture my favorite chef playing the guitar instead of making pasta, but when I asked what he thought about the road not taken, he said, “Well, music and cooking—they’re both creative industries. I’m glad I went this way, but I think I could have been a musician instead.”
As for Julia Child, that ethereal morsel of sole meunière was indeed a revelation. But her epiphany was that classical French cuisine was divine, not that she would become a chef, cookbook author, and, eventually, the woman who would teach America to make coq au vin in their very own kitchens. Indeed, Julia’s autobiography reveals that this memorable meal was followed by a succession of interest-stimulating experiences. An incomplete list would include countless delicious meals in the bistros of Paris; conversations and friendships with friendly fishmongers, butchers, and produce vendors in the city’s open-air markets; encounters with two encyclopedic French cookbooks—the first loaned to her by her French tutor and the second a gift from her ever-supportive husband, Paul; hours of cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu under the tutelage of the marvelously enthusiastic yet demanding Chef Bugnard; and the acquaintance of two Parisian women who had the idea of writing a cookbook for Americans.
What would have happened if Julia—who once dreamed of becoming a novelist and, as a child, possessed, as she put it, “zero interest in the stove”—had returned home to California after that fateful bite of perfectly cooked fish? We can’t know for sure, but clearly in Julia’s romance with French food, that first bite of sole was just the first kiss. “Really, the more I cook, the more I like to cook,” she later told her sister-in-law. “To think it has taken me forty years to find my true passion (cat and husband excepted).”
So, while we might envy those who love what they do for a living, we shouldn’t assume that they started from a different place than the rest of us. Chances are, they took quite some time figuring out exactly what they wanted to do with their lives. Commencement speakers may say about their vocation, “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” but, in fact, there was a time earlier in life when they could.
A few months ago, I read a post on Reddit titled “Fleeting Interest in Everything, No Career Direction”:
I’m in my early thirties and have no idea what to do with myself, career-wise. All my life I’ve been one of those people who has been told how smart I am/how much potential I have. I’m interested in so much stuff that I’m paralyzed to try anything. It seems like every job requires a specialized certificate or designation that requires long-term time and financial investment—before you can even try the job, which is a bit of a drag.
I have a lot of sympathy for the thirty-something who wrote this post. As a college professor, I also have a lot of sympathy for the twenty-somethings who come to me for career advice.
My colleague Barry Schwartz has been dispensing counsel to anxious young adults for much longer than I have. He’s been teaching psychology at Swarthmore College for forty-five years.
Barry thinks that what prevents a lot of young people from developing a serious career interest is unrealistic expectations. “It’s really the same problem a lot of young people have finding a romantic partner,” he said. “They want somebody who’s really attractive and smart and kind and empathetic and thoughtful and funny. Try telling a twenty-one-year-old that you can’t find a person who is absolutely the best in every way. They don’t listen. They’re holding out for perfection.”
“What about your wonderful wife, Myrna?” I asked.
“Oh, she is wonderful. More wonderful than I am, certainly. But is she perfect? Is she the only person I could have made a happy life with? Am I the only man in the world with whom she could have made a wonderful marriage? I don’t think so.”
A related problem, Barry says, is the mythology that falling in love with a career should be sudden and swift: “There are a lot of things where the subtleties and exhilarations come with sticking with it for a while, getting elbow-deep into something. A lot of things seem uninteresting and superficial until you start doing them and, after a while, you realize that there are so many facets you didn’t know at the start, and you never can fully solve the problem, or fully understand it, or what have you. Well, that requires that you stick with it.”
After a pause, Barry said, “Actually, finding a mate is the perfect analogy. Meeting a potential match—not the one-and-only perfect match, but a promising one—is only the very beginning.”
There’s a lot we don’t know about the psychology of interest. I wish we knew, for example, why some of us (including me) find cooking a fascinating subject, while many others couldn’t care less. Why is Marc Vetri attracted to creative endeavors, and why does Rowdy Gaines like sports? Aside from the rather vague explanation that interests are, like everything else about us, partly heritable and partly a function of life experience, I can’t tell you. But scientific research on the evolution of interests has yielded some important insights. My sense is that, unfortunately, these basic facts aren’t commonly understood.
What most of us think of when we think of passion is a sudden, all-at-once discovery—that first bite of sole meunière bringing with it the certainty of the years you’ll spend in the kitchen … slipping into the water at your first swim meet and getting out with the foreknowledge that you’ll one day be an Olympian … getting to the end of The Catcher in the Rye and realizing you’re destined to be a writer. But a first encounter with what might eventually lead to a lifelong passion is exactly that—just the opening scene in a much longer, less dramatic narrative.
To the thirty-something on Reddit with a “fleeting interest in everything” and “no career direction,” here’s what science has to say: passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.
Let me explain.
First of all, childhood is generally far too early to know what we want to be when we grow up. Longitudinal studies following thousands of people across time have shown that most people only begin to gravitate toward certain vocational interests, and away from others, around middle school. This is certainly the pattern I’ve seen in my interview research, and it’s also what journalist Hester Lacey has found in her interviews with the “mega successful.” Keep in mind, however, that a seventh grader—even a future paragon of grit—is unlikely to have a fully articulated passion at that age. A seventh grader is just beginning to figure out her general likes and dislikes.
Second, interests are not discovered through introspection. Instead, interests are triggered by interactions with the outside world. The process of interest discovery can be messy, serendipitous, and inefficient. This is because you can’t really predict with certainty what will capture your attention and what won’t. You can’t simply will yourself to like things, either. As Jeff Bezos has observed, “One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves.” Without experimenting, you can’t figure out which interests will stick, and which won’t.
Paradoxically, the initial discovery of an interest often goes unnoticed by the discoverer. In other words, when you just start to get interested in something, you may not even realize that’s what’s happening. The emotion of boredom is always self-conscious—you know it when you feel it—but when your attention is attracted to a new activity or experience, you may have very little reflective appreciation of what’s happening to you. This means that, at the start of a new endeavor, asking yourself nervously every few days whether you’ve found your passion is premature.
Third, what follows the initial discovery of an interest is a much lengthier and increasingly proactive period of interest development. Crucially, the initial triggering of a new interest must be followed by subsequent encounters that retrigger your attention—again and again and again.
For instance, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins told me that it was watching space shuttle launches on television in high school that initially inspired his lifelong interest in space travel. But it wasn’t just one launch that hooked him. It was several shown in succession over a period of years. Soon enough, he started digging for more information on NASA, and “one piece of information led to another and another.”
For master potter Warren MacKenzie, ceramics class in college—which he only took, initially, because all the painting classes were full—was followed by the discovery of A Potter’s Book by the great Bernard Leach, and then a year-long internship with Leach himself.
Finally, interests thrive when there is a crew of encouraging supporters, including parents, teachers, coaches, and peers. Why are other people so important? For one thing, they provide the ongoing stimulation and information that is essential to actually liking something more and more. Also—more obviously—positive feedback makes us feel happy, competent, and secure.
Take Marc Vetri as an example. There are few things I enjoy reading more than his cookbooks and essays about food, but he was a solid-C student throughout school. “I never worked hard at academics,” he told me. “I was always just like, ‘This is kind of boring.’ ” In contrast, Marc spent delightful Sunday afternoons at his Sicilian grandmother’s house in South Philly. “She’d make meatballs and lasagna and all that stuff, and I always liked to head down early to help her out. By the time I was eleven or so, I started wanting to make that stuff at home, too.”
As a teenager, Marc had a part-time job washing dishes in a local restaurant. “And I loved that. I worked hard.” Why? Making money was one motivation, but another was the camaraderie of the kitchen. “Around that time I was sort of a social outcast. I was kind of awkward. I had a stutter. Everyone at school thought I was weird. I was like, ‘Oh, here I can wash dishes, and I can watch the guys on the line [cooking] while I’m washing, and I can eat. Everyone is nice, and they like me.’ ”
If you read Marc’s cookbooks, you’ll be struck by how many friends and mentors he’s made in the world of food. Page through and look for pictures of Marc alone, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find many. And read the acknowledgments of Il Viaggio Di Vetri. It runs to two pages with the names of people who made his journey possible, including this note: “Mom and Dad, you’ve always let me find my own way and helped guide me through it. You’ll never know how much I appreciate it. I’ll always need you.”
Is it “a drag” that passions don’t come to us all at once, as epiphanies, without the need to actively develop them? Maybe. But the reality is that our early interests are fragile, vaguely defined, and in need of energetic, years-long cultivation and refinement.
Sometimes, when I talk to anxious parents, I get the impression they’ve misunderstood what I mean by grit. I tell them that half of grit is perseverance—in response, I get appreciative head nods—but I also tell them that nobody works doggedly on something they don’t find intrinsically interesting. Here, heads often stop nodding and, instead, cock to the side.
“Just because you love something doesn’t mean you’ll be great,” says self-proclaimed Tiger Mom Amy Chua. “Not if you don’t work. Most people stink at the things they love.” I couldn’t agree more. Even in the development of your interests, there is work—practicing, studying, learning—to be done. Still, my point is that most people stink even more at what they don’t love.
So, parents, parents-to-be, and non-parents of all ages, I have a message for you: Before hard work comes play. Before those who’ve yet to fix on a passion are ready to spend hours a day diligently honing skills, they must goof around, triggering and retriggering interest. Of course, developing an interest requires time and energy, and yes, some discipline and sacrifice. But at this earliest stage, novices aren’t obsessed with getting better. They’re not thinking years and years into the future. They don’t know what their top-level, life-orienting goal will be. More than anything else, they’re having fun.
In other words, even the most accomplished of experts start out as unserious beginners.
This is also the conclusion of psychologist Benjamin Bloom, who interviewed 120 people who achieved world-class skills in sports, arts, or science—plus their parents, coaches, and teachers. Among Bloom’s important findings is that the development of skill progresses through three different stages, each lasting several years. Interests are discovered and developed in what Bloom called “the early years.”
Encouragement during the early years is crucial because beginners are still figuring out whether they want to commit or cut bait. Accordingly, Bloom and his research team found that the best mentors at this stage were especially warm and supportive: “Perhaps the major quality of these teachers was that they made the initial learning very pleasant and rewarding. Much of the introduction to the field was as playful activity, and the learning at the beginning of this stage was much like a game.”
A degree of autonomy during the early years is also important. Longitudinal studies tracking learners confirm that overbearing parents and teachers erode intrinsic motivation. Kids whose parents let them make their own choices about what they like are more likely to develop interests later identified as a passion. So, while my dad in Shanghai in 1950 didn’t think twice about his father assigning him a career path, most young people today would find it difficult to fully “own” interests decided without their input.
Sports psychologist Jean Côté finds that shortcutting this stage of relaxed, playful interest, discovery, and development has dire consequences. In his research, professional athletes like Rowdy Gaines who, as children, sampled a variety of different sports before committing to one, generally fare much better in the long run. This early breadth of experience helps the young athlete figure out which sport fits better than others. Sampling also provides an opportunity to “cross-train” muscles and skills that will eventually complement more focused training. While athletes who skip this stage often enjoy an early advantage in competition against less specialized peers, Côté finds that they’re more likely to become injured physically and to burn out.
We’ll discuss what Bloom calls “the middle years” in the next chapter, on practice. Finally, we’ll plumb “the later years” in chapter 8 when we discuss purpose.
For now, what I hope to convey is that experts and beginners have different motivational needs. At the start of an endeavor, we need encouragement and freedom to figure out what we enjoy. We need small wins. We need applause. Yes, we can handle a tincture of criticism and corrective feedback. Yes, we need to practice. But not too much and not too soon. Rush a beginner and you’ll bludgeon their budding interest. It’s very, very hard to get that back once you do.
Let’s return to our commencement speakers. They’re case studies in passion, so there’s something to be learned from how they spent their early years.
New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz told me that his mother was “a writer and a lover of words,” and that her mother, in turn, had been a crossword fan. An inclination toward language, Shortz speculated, could very well be in his genes.
But the unique path he walked was not just a matter of genetic destiny. Not very long after he learned to read and write, Shortz came across a puzzle book. “I was just entranced by it,” he recalls. “I just wanted to make my own.”
Predictably, that first puzzle book—the initial trigger for his curiosity—was followed by a slew of others. “Word puzzles, math puzzles, you name it… .” Soon enough, Shortz knew all of the major puzzle makers by name, acquiring the complete Dover Books collection of his hero Sam Loyd, as well as the works of a half-dozen other puzzle makers whose names are as familiar to Shortz as they are foreign to me.
Who bought all those books?
What else did she do?
“I remember when I was very young my mom had a bridge club over, and to keep me quiet for the afternoon she took a piece of paper, ruled it into squares, and showed me how to enter long words across and up and down. And I was happy all afternoon making my little puzzles. When the bridge club left, my mother came in and numbered the grid for me and showed me how to write clues. So that was my first crossword.”
And then Shortz’s mother did what few mothers—including me—would have the initiative or know-how to do: “My mom encouraged me to sell my puzzles once I started making them, because as a writer, she submitted articles for publication to magazines and newspapers. Once she saw this interest that I had, she showed me how to submit my work.
“I sold my first puzzle when I was fourteen, and I became a regular contributor to Dell puzzle magazines when I was sixteen.”
Shortz’s mother was clearly on the lookout for what might pique her son’s interest: “My mom did a lot of great things,” he told me. “For instance, I loved listening to radio and pop music and rock music when I was a kid. When she saw this interest, she got a guitar from a neighbor and set it on the bunk bed above my bed. I had the opportunity, if I wanted it, to pick up the guitar and start playing.”
But the desire to make music was nothing compared to the desire to make puzzles. “After nine months, when I had never touched the guitar, she took it back. I guess I liked listening to music, but I had no interest in playing it.”
When Shortz enrolled at Indiana University, it was his mom who found the individualized program that enabled Shortz to invent his own major: to this day, Shortz remains the only person in the world to hold a college degree in enigmatology—the study of puzzles.
What about Jeff Bezos?
Jeff’s unusually interest-filled childhood has a lot to do with his unusually curious mother, Jackie.
Jeff came into the world two weeks after Jackie turned seventeen years old. “So,” she told me, “I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what I was supposed to do.”
She remembers being deeply intrigued by Jeff and his younger brother and sister: “I was just so curious about these little creatures and who they were and what they were going to do. I paid attention to what interested each one—they were all different—and followed their lead. I felt it was my responsibility to let them do deep dives into what they enjoyed.”
For instance, at three, Jeff asked multiple times to sleep in a “big bed.” Jackie explained that eventually he would sleep in a “big bed,” but not yet. She walked into his room the next day and found him, screwdriver in hand, disassembling his crib. Jackie didn’t scold him. Instead, she sat on the floor and helped. Jeff slept in a “big bed” that night.
By middle school, he was inventing all sorts of mechanical contraptions, including an alarm on his bedroom door that made a loud buzzing sound whenever one of his siblings trespassed across the threshold. “We made so many trips to RadioShack,” Jackie said, laughing. “Sometimes we’d go back four times in a day because we needed another component.
“Once, he took string and tied all the handles of the kitchen cupboards together, and then, when you opened one, all of them would pop open.”
I tried to picture myself in these situations. I tried to picture not freaking out. I tried to imagine doing what Jackie did, which was to notice that her oldest son was blooming into a world-class problem solver, and then merrily nurture that interest.
“My moniker at the house was ‘Captain of Chaos,’ ” Jackie told me, “and that’s because just about anything that you wanted to do would be acceptable in some fashion.”
Jackie remembers that when Jeff decided to build an infinity cube, essentially a motorized set of mirrors that reflect one another’s images back and forth ad infinitum, she was sitting on the sidewalk with a friend. “Jeff comes up to us and is telling us all the science behind it, and I listen and nod my head and ask a question every once in a while. After he walked away, my friend asked if I understood everything. And I said, ‘It’s not important that I understand everything. It’s important that I listen.’ ”
By high school, Jeff had turned the family garage into a laboratory for inventing and experimentation. One day, Jackie got a call from Jeff’s high school saying he was skipping classes after lunch. When he got home, she asked him where he’d been going in the afternoons. Jeff told her he’d found a local professor who was letting him experiment with airplane wings and friction and drag, and—“Okay,” Jackie said. “I got it. Now, let’s see if we can negotiate a legal way to do that.”
In college, Jeff majored in computer science and electrical engineering, and after graduating, applied his programming skills to the management of investment funds. Several years later, Jeff built an Internet bookstore named after the longest river in the world: Amazon.com. (He also registered the URL www.relentless.com; type it into your browser and see where it takes you… . )
“I’m always learning,” Will Shortz told me. “I’m always stretching my brain in a new way, trying to find a new clue for a word, search out a new theme. I read once—a writer said that if you’re bored with writing, that means you’re bored with life. I think the same is true of puzzles. If you’re bored with puzzles, you’re bored with life, because they’re so diverse.”
Pretty much every grit paragon I’ve talked to, including my own dad, says the same thing. And in examining one large-scale study after another, I find that the grittier an individual is, the fewer career changes they’re likely to make.
In contrast, we all know people who habitually throw themselves headlong into a new project, developing a fierce interest, only to move on after three or four or five years to something entirely different. There seems no harm in pursuing a variety of different hobbies, but endlessly dating new occupations, and never settling down with just one, is a more serious matter.
“I call them short-termers,” Jane Golden told me.
Jane has been promoting public art in my home city of Philadelphia for more than thirty years as the director of the revered Mural Arts Program. At last count, she’s helped convert the walls of more than 3,600 buildings into murals; hers is the single largest public art program in the country. Most people who know her would describe her commitment to mural arts as “relentless,” and Jane would agree.
“Short-termers come work here for a little while and then they move on, and then they go somewhere else, and then somewhere else again, and so on. I’m always sort of looking at them like they’re from another planet because I’m like, ‘How’s that? How do you not lock in to something?’ ”
Of course, it’s Jane’s unwavering focus that needs explaining, not the limited attention spans of the short-termers who come and go. Fundamentally, the emotion of boredom, after doing something for a while, is a very natural reaction. All human beings, even from infancy, tend to look away from things they’ve already seen and, instead, turn their gaze to things that are new and surprising. In fact, the word interest comes from the Latin interesse, which means “to differ.” To be interesting is, literally, to be different. We are, by our natures, neophiles.
Even though getting tired of things after a while is common, it’s not inevitable. If you revisit the Grit Scale, you’ll see that half the items ask about how consistent your interests are over long stretches of time. This links back to the fact that grit paragons don’t just discover something they enjoy and develop that interest—they also learn to deepen it.
As a young woman, Jane thought she’d become a painter. Now she battles bureaucratic red tape and raises money and deals with neighborhood politics. I wondered whether she’d sacrificed her life to a cause she felt was more meaningful but less interesting. I wondered if she’d given up novelty.
“When I stopped painting, it was very difficult,” Jane told me. “But then I discovered that growing the Mural Arts Program could be a creative endeavor. And that was great, because I’m a very curious person.
“From the outside, you might see my life as mundane: ‘Jane, you’re just running the Mural Arts Program and you’ve been doing that forever.’ I would say, ‘No, listen, today I went to a maximum security prison. I was in North Philly. I went to church. I was in a boardroom. I met with a deputy commissioner. I met with a city council person. I worked at an artists’ residency program. I saw kids graduating.’ ”
Then Jane used a painter’s analogy: “I’m like an artist who looks at the sky every morning and sees a variety of really brilliant colors where other people would just see blue or gray. I’m seeing in the course of a single day this tremendous complexity and nuance. I see something that is ever evolving and rich.”
For help understanding the ever-deepening interests of experts, I turned to the psychologist Paul Silvia.
Paul is a leading authority on the emotion of interest. He began our conversation by pointing out that babies know just about zilch when they’re born. Unlike other animals, which have strong instincts to act in certain ways, babies need to learn almost everything from experience. If babies didn’t have a strong drive for novelty, they wouldn’t learn as much, and that would make it less likely they’d survive. “So, interest—the desire to learn new things, to explore the world, to seek novelty, to be on the lookout for change and variety—it’s a basic drive.”
How, then, do we explain the enduring interests of grit paragons?
Like me, Paul has found that experts often say things like “The more I know, the less I understand.” Sir John Templeton, for example, who pioneered the idea of diversified mutual funds, made the motto of his philanthropic foundation “How little we know, how eager to learn.”
The key, Paul explained, is that novelty for the beginner comes in one form, and novelty for the expert in another. For the beginner, novelty is anything that hasn’t been encountered before. For the expert, novelty is nuance.
“Take modern art,” Paul said. “A lot of pieces could seem very similar to a novice that seem very different to an expert. Novices don’t have the necessary background knowledge. They just see colors and shapes. They’re not sure what it’s all about.” But the art expert has comparatively enormous understanding. He or she has developed a sensitivity to details that the rest of us can’t even see.
Here’s another example. Ever watch the Olympics? Ever listen to the commentators say things, in real time, like “Oh! That triple lutz was just a little short!” “That push-off was perfectly timed”? You sit there and wonder how these commentators can perceive such microscopic differences in the performance of one athlete versus another without watching the video playback in slow motion. I need that video playback. I am insensitive to those nuances. But an expert has the accumulated knowledge and skill to see what I, a beginner, cannot.
If you’d like to follow your passion but haven’t yet fostered one, you must begin at the beginning: discovery.
Ask yourself a few simple questions: What do I like to think about? Where does my mind wander? What do I really care about? What matters most to me? How do I enjoy spending my time? And, in contrast, what do I find absolutely unbearable? If you find it hard to answer these questions, try recalling your teen years, the stage of life at which vocational interests commonly sprout.
As soon as you have even a general direction in mind, you must trigger your nascent interests. Do this by going out into the world and doing something. To young graduates wringing their hands over what to do, I say, Experiment! Try! You’ll certainly learn more than if you don’t!
At this early stage of exploration, here are a few relevant rules of thumb taken from Will Shortz’s essay “How to Solve the New York Times Crossword Puzzle”:
Begin with the answers you’re surest of and build from there. However ill-defined your interests, there are some things you know you’d hate doing for a living, and some things that seem more promising than others. That’s a start.
Don’t be afraid to guess. Like it or not, there’s a certain amount of trial and error inherent in the process of interest discovery. Unlike the answers to crossword puzzles, there isn’t just one thing you can do that might develop into a passion. There are many. You don’t have to find the “right” one, or even the “best” one—just a direction that feels good. It can also be difficult to know if something will be a good fit until you try it for a while.
Don’t be afraid to erase an answer that isn’t working out. At some point, you may choose to write your top-level goal in indelible ink, but until you know for sure, work in pencil.
If, on the other hand, you already have a good sense of what you enjoy spending your time doing, it’s time to develop your interest. After discovery comes development.
Remember that interests must be triggered again and again and again. Find ways to make that happen. And have patience. The development of interests takes time. Keep asking questions, and let the answers to those questions lead you to more questions. Continue to dig. Seek out other people who share your interests. Sidle up to an encouraging mentor. Whatever your age, over time your role as a learner will become a more active and informed one. Over a period of years, your knowledge and expertise will grow, and along with it your confidence and curiosity to know more.
Finally, if you’ve been doing something you like for a few years and still wouldn’t quite call it a passion, see if you can deepen your interests. Since novelty is what your brain craves, you’ll be tempted to move on to something new, and that could be what makes the most sense. However, if you want to stay engaged for more than a few years in any endeavor, you’ll need to find a way to enjoy the nuances that only a true aficionado can appreciate. “The old in the new is what claims the attention,” said William James. “The old with a slightly new turn.”
In sum, the directive to follow your passion is not bad advice. But what may be even more useful is to understand how passions are fostered in the first place.