“I like to separate my work from my hobbies” he nonchalantly declared.
Now perhaps it was the directness of his voice or the firmness of his tone, accented with the thick sounds of spoken German, but he had my attention.
“Wait what?” –
“I like to separate my work from my hobbies” he repeated. “I love bouldering and climbing and yet I haven’t attended a single competition. I have no interest in doing so.”
Somewhere between the lush greenery and the copper tiled houses of rural Germany, I’d gotten lost in conversation with the stranger seated next to me. As our train chugged onwards, carrying my friends and I further away from Munich, our exhilarating experiences almost began to feel unreal. I hadn’t quite described to him how happy I’d felt all weekend, experiencing his culture - falling in love with their food. And yet we spoke of many things: travelling, school, dance and climbing. Covering all the basics had led me to learn that he was German and had gone to school in Germany, France and Switzerland on a special program. However amongst all the things he’d said, this one had impacted me the most.
Across the aisle, my friends continued to gleefully chat, bubbling with energy and loud echoing laughs - much to the chagrin of the other passengers. While I could hear the conversation that I was missing out on…
“What is the most attractive quality in a friend?”
“What’s the best place you’ve traveled to?”
“Where do you want to eventually settle?”
..my mind was still reeling from his simple statement. I couldn’t ignore the dissonance of what I’d heard and what I knew.
All I’ve known for the majority of my life is that to succeed you have to ‘do what you love’. ‘Following your passion’ has been one of the most defining pieces of advice I have received time and time again from guidance counselors, college advisors and recruiters alike. Conventional wisdom dictates that transforming your passion into your career blurs the lines between work and play. In fact the biggest advocate of this is Steve Jobs with his passion for Zen Buddhism, leading him to his success with minimalistic design and technology.
But to my surprise what this stranger was proposing was that the fulfilment from working on what you loved did not surpass the pressure associated with it. The trade off just wasn’t worth it, he said.
While this left me feeling unsettled, his words made me feel lighter.
I related to what he said wholeheartedly when it came to leading a team of well-trained dancers this past year. Perhaps the reason why I began to enjoy dance less and less was because I was constantly straddling the fine line between a passion (read: When Does the Magic Happen?) and a hobby. While captaincy brought me the pride of making decisions for a nationally acclaimed organization, my passion for it made any losses feel much, much worse. Passions weren’t supposed to be relaxing. They fueled and drained you at the same time. Similarly, perhaps the reason why I loved writing so much was because I could pick it up or put it down as I pleased. However if there was money riding on it, the stress and pressure would eventually lead to the loss of a hobby.
“Hence the question of finding your passion is not discovering what you like, but what you would be willing to suffer for.”
The National Univeristy of Singapore’s Centre for Future-ready Graduates' director Crystal Lim Leahy penned something incredibly interesting regarding this.
“In my experience, most successful people don’t find a passion. They grow it. It’s very rare for a young person to develop a singular clarity about passions and purpose early on in life. For most of us who are older, we know passions change. What you love at 30 can be very different at 40 or 50. What’s more important and practical for most of us is to focus on cultivating curiosity and accumulating skills.”
What was so refreshing about her take on this was that it made it okay to be a master of none. But how could we excel with this?
One of her tips is to develop a diverse portfolio of skills and experiences and to start now. Scott Adams, the celebrated creator of the famous comic strip Dilbert is a big advocate for celebrating diverse mediocrity rather than singular excellence. He often talks about how he has layered a combination of self-described ‘mediocre’ skills into a ‘talent stack’ that is quite special. Hence while we are conditioned to believe that to succeed you must be good at something and must pursue a career in the thing that you are good at, Adams and Leahy have me convinced that is okay to be okay at things.
As the afternoon sun filtered in through the scratchy windowpanes it provided classic lighting to our takeout containers. While their shadows danced across the tray tables in front of me, I couldn’t help but smile at the effortlessness of it all. I felt light.
Heres to separating work and play. Heres to thought provoking train rides.