A Minimalist’s Guide To Cultivating Passion

“I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years,”  Steve Martin recalls  in his 2007 memoir, Born Standing Up. “Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.” If you do the math, this sums to fourteen years of hard work before Martin saw returns on his investment.

Fourteen years.

That’s a long time to remain focused on a goal without reward, especially when the path is ambiguous (“The course was more plodding than heroic,” Martin recalls).  But as he makes clear in his book, Martin found a Zen peace in the simplicity of his pursuit. He describes with relish, for example, the importance of “diligence” in becoming a star — a term he redefines to mean the ability to not work on unrelated projects — and he labels “loss of focus” as an “indulgence” that success cannot afford.

Martin’s story should resonate with those of us interested in the minimalist lifestyle preached here at Zen Habits. He injected minimalism into his life by orienting his world around a single passionate pursuit: innovating stand-up comedy. For Martin, there was never any doubt what his Most Important Task would involve each morning, and jettisoning unrelated commitments and distractions came naturally. As he discovered, when you know what your life is about it’s easy to sidestep all that threatens to clutter it.

In other words: passion breeds simplicity.

Even if we agree on their value,  however, how do we find these simplicity-generating passionate pursuits in our own lives? This is the thorny question I address in this post.

Passion Paralysis

Faced with the task of identifying their “passion,” most people have one of two reactions:

The first is a frantic search of their lives with the aim of uncovering some magical pursuit that unmistakably sings to their soul. As a writer of student advice, for example, I frequently receive e-mails from young people that begin: “I’m trying to decide what my passion should be…”  (If only it were that easy.)

The second reaction is paralysis: faced with the life-changing importance of this discovery, many people freeze — hoping for a sign from above that will make things clear. (Spoiler: This can be a long wait.)

Neither of these approaches succeed, as passion is not something that can be forcefully identified, and though it sometimes bubbles up serendipitously, this is not something you can count on happening any time soon.  So what’s a passion-seeking minimalist to do?

I found an answer in an unlikely place…

Do Less. Get More.

In the winter of 2009, I began researching a book on college admissions. Inspired by the type philosophy taught here at Zen Habits, I sought students who followed a Zen path through the college process — getting into good schools while still living uncluttered and authentic high school lives. It soon became clear that the students who pulled off this feat shared a common trait: like Steve Martin, they had organized their life around a passionate deep interest. (This interest, in turn, made them irresistible to admissions officers weary of reading the files of chronically over-scheduled and stress-addled applicants.)

To make my book useful, I needed to discover how such passionate interests are formed. After months of research, I arrived, finally, at Penn State University, where a professor named Linda Caldwell had made a career out of studying interest formation.

Excited by her results, and wondering how to translate them into everyday life, I gave her a call:

“You need to be exposed to many things,” she told me. “You should expose yourself even though you might not know if you’ll be interested.”

When you find something that catches your attention: follow-up; see if it sticks.

In other words, discovering passion requires a dedication to unstructured exploration. You have to leave large swathes of free time in your schedule (a technique I call underscheduling), and fill this time with the exploration of things that might be interesting. Of equal importance, when something catches your attention you must leverage your free time to aggressively follow up.

As Caldwell’s research reveals, true passion can’t be forced. You can participate in personality tests and self-reflection exercises until you drop from exhaustion, but it’s unstructured exploration coupled with aggressive follow-ups that most consistently leads people to a life-consuming interest.

Here are some examples of this idea in action:

  • In a gap year following high school, Ben Casnocha booked an open-ended trip around the world. He left his schedule undefined, traveling with only the general goal of journaling and meeting interesting people. During this process he noticed a recurring interest in writing. Because his time was unstructured, he was able to aggressively follow-up on the interest by calling up his contacts in the publishing industry. His efforts led him to a book deal and he went on to finish the manuscript in the exotic international destinations left in his trip. He continues to write professionally today both on his blog and in magazines; he’s also a frequent commentator on NPR.
  • In 2003, Dee Williams, a toxic waste inspector, was living in a spacious bungalow in Portland, Oregon. (Depending on the source, it was somewhere between 1500 to 2000 square feet of luxurious living.) Her time was consumed by the standard traps of middle class life: an extensive remodel on her home, car problems, the struggle to pay bills, and so on. A committed environmentalist, she realized she was tired of walking the walk and wanted to talk the talk (“I was a slackavist,” she recalls), so she simplified her life, selling her house and moving into an 84 square feet “tiny house” made out of found materials and parked in the corner of a friend’s yard. This move to simplicity opened time in her schedule for exploration. She soon stumbled into a community of people who were using tiny houses as a way of promoting sustainable living. She left her job as a waste inspector and started Boxcar Woodcrafts, a small woodworking company, and now dedicates her newly copious free time to teaching classroom programs on green living and sustainability.
  • As a high school student, Maneesh Sethi was adamant about leaving free time in his schedule. (During his senior year, for example, he arranged a schedule that allowed him to return home after lunch each day.) He filled this free time with exploration: among other pursuits, he became Internet famous for demonstrating how to transform a tube sock into an iPod case. A computer enthusiast, Maneesh found himself one weekend afternoon at a trade conference where he met an editor of programming books. This led him to discover that the editor was considering a book on computer game programming for teenagers. Leveraging the free time in his schedule, Maneesh aggressively followed-up on the opportunity, sending over a collection of sample chapters, and finally convincing the publisher that a he, as a teenager, was well-suited to write their book for teenagers. This led, among other things, to a follow-up book, and a recurring segment on a TechTV show. Maneesh now writes full time about living an unconventional lifestyle.

This advice can be hard to follow at first. When we think about passion we think about action: we want to start doing big things right now! But the reality of passion is more subtle. You have to do less to get more in your life. It’s a virtuous catch-22: by embracing a minimalist lifestyle now, you are more likely to develop the passionate interest that will support the lifestyle in the long run.

Put another way: take a step back; relax; then open your eyes to patiently take in all that’s out there.

Author: Cal Newport, read more from Cal at his blog, Study Hacks, or subscribe to his feed.

Be the change that you want to see. Step into your leadership.


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