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There’s a scene in the movie Blade where Wesley Snipes’ character follows a Familiar–a human loyal to the vampire race–into a Japanese-themed club, complete with Japanese women performing pop songs in school-girl attire.

After cornering the guy he was following and holding him from fleeing he asks the Familiar, “Where’s the entrance?”

“It’s in the freezer!” the cop (the Familiar) squirms out.

Blade looks at the fridge to his left and back at the cop with a “you’ve gotta be shittin’ me” look.

 

Pause.

That’s the look I give whenever I hear anyone use motivational phrases in front of me. Not because I’m a horribly negative person, but because it’s somebody feeding another person happy cupcakes of feel-good advice that rarely, if ever, elicits any results.

I vaguely remember about a study done, one I haven’t been able to find again, that compared the feeling of reading inspirational quotes as equivalent to the feeling of achieving a goal. If that is true, then there is a lot of delusion going on in the world.

The worst offender for me in particular is “Follow your passion”.

The overall meaning behind it is if we align what we’re passionate about with the ability to support ourselves we’ll enjoy a happy and thriving career. Or basically we win at life if we hit that sweet spot.

Here’s a venn diagram for you.

It goes hand-in-hand with the closely related “If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” slogan.

These overly simplistic aphorisms fill us up with so many good thoughts; why are we not flying yet? Oh, that’s right, because I’m not a Lost Boy. Bangarang.

Aphorisms, like cliches, aren’t useless. By their very nature they become memorable. The phrases that stick the most are the ones that rhyme: “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit”. And just because these sayings are short, sweet and sometimes catchy, does it make it true? I realize that example probably doesn’t fit in with what I’m talking about, but it does show what I mean. It’s the first rhyme that popped in my head. Kudos, Johnnie Cochran.

I question if we need passion right now. Must we be passionate from the start? Is passion even necessary?

Trying to Follow My Passion

The simplicity in “following your passion” makes it seem easy, a mere shift in strategy and mindset. Focus on that “thing” and everything will fall into place. Does this really happen? Do the blinders lift to the path that must be walked? Or am I still going to have to figure out how everything works? Wait! How much work is there?

What if I don’t know what my passion is? What if I’m passionate about a lot of things? Which one should I choose?

From the start I’m already at an impasse. How can I figure this out?

It took Brandon Stanton getting laid off to figure it out. For three years he worked as a bond trader in Chicago. In early 2010, to offset the daily grind of his job and unwind, he used his weekends to take photographs downtown.

After being let go in July of 2010 he decided to not look for another job and instead acted on a vague idea of making something out of his photography. He then embarked on a tour of American cities to shoot. New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and eventually landing in New York in August.

Sometime during his travels Brandon began taking photos of people. Out of all his photos–most of which were building, bridges, landmarks and other interesting parts of cities–it was his shots of the people that inhabited these cities that garnered the most responses.

During that summer of 2010 he filled several Facebook albums with his photography of New Yorkers. Instead of proceeding to the other cities on his list he instead decided to move to New York altogether and attempt to make something out of his newly growing fanpage aptly titled “Humans of New York”.

The Humans of New York fanpage has over 18 million followers and has opened many opportunities for Brandon.

Brandon acted out of a vague notion. It took him losing his job to give this activity he did on his weekends a shot. Through the stumbling blocks that arrive when learning a skill he found something worth pursuing, developing his niche in the process. He became proactive and prolific, shooting five to six photos a day, everyday.

His loss of a career presented him an opportunity to explore. His curiosity signaled a potential for his photography. His passion grew from there.

What about polymaths?

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, or just Leonardo da Vinci (or maybe just da Vinci), didn’t have a formal education growing up. Besides the basics of reading, writing and math, formal career paths were closed to him on account of being an illegitimate child.

From 1467 to 1476 he apprenticed to Andrea del Verrochio learning many technical skills during the years: carpentry, metalwork, leather arts, painting, sculpting, etc.

In 1482, da Vinci convinced the soon-to-be Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, to employ him by marketing his skills as a military engineer. He served under him for 17 years.

During his time in Milan, Leonardo was commissioned on many projects including his painting of the “Virgin of the Rocks” and “The Last Supper” as well as a 16-foot statue of the Duke of Milan’s father.

Over the years da Vinci was tasked with many different types of projects utilizing his interests in arts and sciences. The two were never disparate things in his mind, one in the same.

With these studies and disciplines as a painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, military engineer and draftsman, what was da Vinci passionate about? All of these things? Was he passionate at all or doing it merely to support himself?

It was Walt Disney that said, “When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.” Leonardo indeed possessed a curious mind, and with that curiosity came many interests. But did da Vinci have passion or was it unbridled curiosity?

Work, Works

At almost $300 a plate (30,000 yen) and three Michelin stars, Jiro Ono is acclaimed for world-class sushi.

He works everyday at his restaurant in Tokyo, a hole-in-the-wall found near the entrance to the Ginza metro station, only to take a day off for funerals or national holidays. The dedication to his craft was instilled in him from childhood.

Ono was born in 1925 in Tenryu, a city located on the western end of the Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan which merged together with neighboring cities and towns in 2005 to become the now expanded city of Hamamatsu.

At the age of nine, he was told he had no home to come back to and that’s why he has to work hard. This became one of the many lessons he would teach his own sons in the future. Moving to Tokyo he apprenticed at a sushi shop and has done nothing but sushi since then. He became a qualified sushi chef in 1951 and opened his own restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, in 1965.

Ono embodies the spirit of a shokunin–one in relentless pursuit of perfection through their craft. The way of shokunin is to repeat the same thing everyday. Ono is no less a master of sushi, although he himself would explain he is not, but he loves making it. He consistently uses every day to advance his skill no matter how small the detail.

In the beginning of the 2011 documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Ono explains the reason for his success:

“Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”

Conclusion

If we don’t have a passion at hand, how would we find it? Maybe let’s not worry about passion and pay more attention to our curiosity, allowing it to lead us to something passionate. Which means we’ll probably end up doing many different things until we find something that moves us. And the same thing goes when we already have many interests. What moves us?

We can also do very well for ourselves if all we have is work ethic, discipline and commitment. Passion can be developed through the accumulation of great work. But passion isn’t required to get us started.

I will say this: it is easier to be committed to something when you genuinely care about it. Whether it be because of passion or by responsibility.

The underlying theme is the work is still there.

Work has always been an entry point to discovery. We follow threads of ideas that present themselves to us as we continue working. Those ideas are fleshed out the longer we stay working.

Personally, work has never let me down. It has never been a waste of time in my life. If skill is accrued through time, and if mastery is the end goal of learning a skill, then skill plus time puts us on that spectrum towards mastery. With every repeated action evolving into gracefulness, efficiency and competency.

Leonardo didn’t have many choices as an apprentice but advanced on the skillsets he had access to. Jiro Ono found one thing and stuck to it. And after losing his job Brandon Stanton took photo after photo every single day. They’ve found success along the way. Work will always be required.