On following your passion …

Read an article yesterday which talked about how the usual slogan of “following your passion” is bad advice. I skimmed through the article on my phone so I don’t have a link to post here, but do a Google/ Twitter for this phrase followed by “bad advice” and you’ll find many hits. I think this video by Cal Newport is what the author was referring to.

Anyhoo, this is a topic that is of interest to me. I work as an IT Manager/ System Administrator and the sole reason I am in this field is because I am following my passion. I love spending time with computers, so back in my teens when it came to choosing a track for college I went ahead with Computer Science. In retrospect Computer Science was a bad choice because what I was really interested in was Information Technology and generally fiddling with computer – but I was stubborn and didn’t ask anyone before making a decision (nor were there anyone to advice me either!) so I ended up in Computer Science. After that I started working and got into the role of a System Administrator, which is where I wanted to be in anyways.

It hasn’t been easy though being in this field. For one, I am over-qualified for it (doh!). For another, I haven’t been able to get the kind of work that interests me. I spent a lot of my undergrad days and the years after that working on Linux – setting up mail servers, web servers, blogs, tinkering with general back-end System Administration stuff – but due to bad luck or poor choices the work I do for a living is more of user support and working with client OSes and software. I keep trying to move on to the other side but it never happens – not for lack of trying from my side though, it just doesn’t click even though I am quite good at what I do.

This has been demotivating obviously. And many a times I’ve been lost and unsure on what to do next. What can I do – within the limitations of where I am, family commitments etc – to get more work that’s interesting to me and makes better use of my skills.

Somewhere along the line I read Wil Wheaton’s book “Just a Geek”. He was asking similar questions about his state of life in the book and he remembered a speech by Patrick Stewart on passion and how maybe he didn’t have enough of it. The gist of Patrick Stewart’s speech was that if you want to follow your passion you have to love it a lot – so much so more than all the hate and negativity that will come against you in the pursuit of that passion. Following a passion is a struggle, something to consciously keep in mind as you constantly badger through all the obstacles. Wil realized that he didn’t have that much love towards acting (his passion). Sure he loved acting, but he tired of sacrificing his time with the family for this passion and wasn’t willing to humiliate himself any more with pointless auditions. He realized that he loved acting but it had come to be that he no longer loved it more than all the other stuff working against it, and that he was now done turning down other things he was equally good at (and loved too) but which he had been turning down so far in pursuit of acting. This realization was a turning point in his career.

I loved that section of the book because it resonated so much with my state of mind. And it got me thinking that perhaps I should stop focusing so much on getting server level work and instead start enjoying the kind of work I am otherwise getting and which I am good at. This has been a good strategy in that while I haven’t managed to completely ignore my pursuit of server related work, I have managed to keep it under control or at least recover from bouts of demotivation when things don’t click. I guess I don’t love it enough – or in my case, I guess I don’t have the luxury of loving it enough to leave everything else behind after it!

A side effect of not trying so hard has been that I also get more time to enjoy other things. Previously once I got home from work, I’d mostly be on the laptop trying something out. Or I’d sleep early and wake up early so I can study Exchange 2010 and fiddle with my virtual machines! But now that I don’t do any more of that, I have more free time to spend with my daughter, read a book, listen to some music, or watch TV. And these are a lot less stressing than constantly trying to break through the invisible barrier.

And then I read the article I was referring to at the beginning of this post. That made a lot of sense too. What the author says is that following a passion is not as easy as realizing you have a passion for it and then everything will miraculously fall into place for it. You have to put a lot of effort into it and have to be prepared to keep at it for as long as it’s necessary. Also, every task has a learning curve and you may currently be doing something that seems difficult or boring and not meant for you – but that’s only because you are still mastering it; once you overcome that curve and get to grips with the task, it might very well turn out to be your passion. In short – don’t blindly discard everything else in pursuit of your passion, keep an open mind at trying other things and developing those if they seem to work out better! (Note: I am paraphrasing all of this from memory, so I could be way off base from what the author said. The above is how I understood the article anyways and what I took from it).

This made a lot sense and it related to what I had read in Wil Wheaton’s book. I realized that during all the time I have been trying to move on to server level work I have been getting better and better at handling users and supporting their demands, at working with client side OSes and software, and generally in terms of managing the IT tasks of an office. My server interest hasn’t been wasted either as I better understand how both sides fit and so am more aware of how the software my users use work, resulting in me being better able to troubleshoot them or work around issues as needed. But at the end of the day – after about 11 years of working as an IT Manager/ System Administrator – this is what I have mastered and this is what I am great at, so it’s time to stop wishing for something else and just focus on working harder at what I am good at and try and do an even better job than what I already am!

So that’s that!