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Free Radicals: Don’t Follow your Passion, Cultivate it

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
— Seneca

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maximize your potential

We’ve entered a new phase of self-invention.

Thanks in large part to technology and the pace of the modern world, finding your way through the labyrinth is more difficult than ever.

Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career (Kindle), edited by Behance’s 99U editor-in-chief Jocelyn Glei, and featuring contributions from over twenty of today’s creative minds, explores the timeless skills—generating opportunities, building relationships, and taking risks—that can help you navigate today’s changing landscape.

In the foreword to the book, Behance founder Scott Belsky, author Making Ideas Happen, explains the concept of free radicals.

Chalk it up to new technology, social media, or the once out-of-reach business tools now at your fingertips. The fact is, we’re empowered to work on our own terms and do more with less. As a result, we expect more from those that employ us and we expect more from ourselves. When we get the resources and opportunities we deserve, we create the future.

Here’s a name for us: Free Radicals.

Free Radicals want to take their careers into their own hands and put the world to work for them. Free Radicals are resilient, self-reliant, and extremely potent. You’ll find them working solo, in small teams, or within large companies. As the world changes, Free Radicals have re-imagined “work” as we know it. No doubt, we have lofty expectations:

We do work that is, first and foremost, intrinsically rewarding. But, we don’t create solely for ourselves, we want to make a real and lasting impact in the world around us.

We thrive on flexibility and are most productive when we feel fully engaged. We demand freedom, whether we work within companies or on our own, to run experiments, participate in multiple projects at once, and move our ideas forward.

We make stuff often, and therefore, we fail often. Ultimately, we strive for little failures that help us course-correct along the way, and we view every failure as a learning opportunity, part of our experiential education.

We have little tolerance for the friction of bureaucracy, old-boy networks, and antiquated business practices. As often as possible, we question “standard operating procedure” and assert ourselves. But even when we can’t, we don’t surrender to the friction of the status quo. Instead, we find clever ways (and hacks) around it.

We expect to be fully utilized and constantly optimized, regardless of whether we’re working in a start-up or a large organization. When our contributions and learning plateau, we leave. But when we’re leveraging a large company’s resources to make an impact in something we care about, we are thrilled! We want to always be doing our best work and making the greatest impact we can.

We believe that “networking” is sharing. People listen to (and follow) us because of our discernment and curatorial instinct. As we share our creations as well as what fascinates us, we authentically build a community of supporters who give us feedback, encouragement, and lead us to new opportunities. For this reason and more, we often (though, not always) opt for transparency over privacy.

We believe in meritocracy and the power of online networks and peer communities to advance our ability to do what we love, and do well by doing it. We view competition as a positive motivator rather than a threat, because we want the best idea—and the best execution—to triumph.

We make a great living doing what we love. We consider ourselves to be both artisans and businesses. In many cases, we are our own accounting department, Madison Avenue marketing agency, business development manager, negotiator, and salesperson. We spend the necessary energy to invest in ourselves as businesses—leveraging the best tools and knowledge (most of which are free and online) to run ourselves as a modern-day enterprise.

Maximize Your Potential

One of the best insights in the book revolves around cultivating passion. We’re told from a very young age to follow our passion. Cal Newport, author of How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less, points out the flaw in this wisdom.

This pattern is common in the lives of people who end up loving their work. As described in Lesson 1, careers become compelling once they feature the general traits you seek. These traits, however, are rare and valuable—no one will hand you a lot of autonomy or impact just because you really want it, for example. Basic economics tells us that if you want something rare and valuable, you need to offer something rare and valuable in return—and in the working world, what you have to offer are your skills. This is why the systematic development of skill almost always precedes passion.

In other words Newport argues that what you do for a living matters less than you think.

“[T]he right question is not “What job am I passionate about doing?” but instead “What way of working and living will nurture my passion.”

Stepping back, he writes:

The goal of feeling passionate about your work is sound. But following your passion—choosing a career path solely because you are already passionate about the nature of the work—is a poor strategy for accomplishing this goal. It assumes that you have a pre-existing passion to follow that matches up to a viable career, and that matching your work to a strong interest is sufficient to build long-term career satisfaction. Both of these assumptions are flawed.

Newport argues a more sophisticated strategy for finding passion means “we should begin by developing rare and valuable skills.” Once we’ve done that, we can use these skills to navigate our career towards the general lifestyle that resonates with us.

milton erickson

In a section on reprogramming your daily habits, Scott Young speaks to how automatic many of our decisions become and how routines drive our lives.

If you think hard about it, you’ll notice just how many “automatic” decisions you make each day. But these habits aren’t always as trivial as what you eat for breakfast. Your health, your productivity, and the growth of your career are all shaped by the things you do each day — most by habit, not by choice.

Even the choices you do make consciously are heavily influenced by automatic patterns. Researchers have found that our conscious mind is better understood as an explainer of our actions, not the cause of them. Instead of triggering the action itself, our consciousness tries to explain why we took the action after the fact, with varying degrees of success. This means that even the choices we do appear to make intentionally are at least somewhat influenced by unconscious patterns.

Given this, what you do every day is best seen as an iceberg, with a small fraction of conscious decision sitting atop a much larger foundation of habits and behaviors.

We are What we do

Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career explores how creating opportunities, building expertise, cultivating relationships, and taking risks can propel you forward. With contributions from Tony Schwartz to Ben Casnocha, you’ll be left thinking about the next opportunity and how to get there. (Best served with a side of its prequel: Manage Your Day-to-Day.)