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The Minimalist’s Guide to Cultivating Passion

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Cal Newport of Study Hacks.

“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:

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.

Read more from Cal at his blog, Study Hacks, or subscribe to his feed.



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