When I was growing up, my parents would describe me as a “generalist.” They didn’t mean it in a bad way—they were too!—though it also meant it wasn’t so obvious where my career would go, or what my skills were. I could develop my skills at most things I tried to do, especially with practice.
One of the challenges of being a generalist, of course, is the optionality; there are so many things you could do, so it becomes very difficult to stick with one. By contrast, if you’re a specialist, you have no choice—you clearly excel at a few specific things, and you learn to appreciate it.
The one thing
When I hear questions like, “How do I find my passion?” or “How did you know you’d become a writer?” I can empathize. I faced this challenge myself.
Pedantically speaking, passion is an emotion that comes and goes; when a person uses the word “passion,” they usually mean finding something—a field, a line of work, a craft—that they feel really excited by and that they can excel at. There are some starting points for that:
- Look around you, at the objects, you love. For me, I loved books and stationary, so I naturally gravitated towards writing. I’m also naturally drawn to drawing, art, illustration, and graphic design.
- Look back at what you were doing for fun in your childhood years, between the ages of 8–14; author Robert Greene describes this more as “primal inclinations.”
- Try a lot of things, and see how you feel after. You may want to become a singer, but do you love writing songs, or practicing your instrument? Wanting to be the person who does the thing isn’t enough; you actually need to love doing the thing too. Try a daily challenge and see how you feel at the end of doing the same thing for 100 days; I recently started writing every day again, which only affirmed how much I enjoyed the writing process. Comparatively, I tried a bunch of things in smaller ways prior; mixing music, graphic design, recording arts, programming, clothing, and illustration; none of them stuck like writing did for me. Don’t wait for someone to provide you with an opportunity to try something, seek them out or create them.
Since I’ve written a book, and for publications such as Fast Company, Quartz, and Business Insider, people may see me as an author or writer. I’ve certainly continued to create that perception, though I also do other things—like start and lead an editorial studio, interview recording artists, and recommend books.
You won’t find the one thing overnight; it’ll slowly reveal itself to you, over the years. In the meantime, try asking yourself simpler questions. “Can I afford this?” “Where do I want to live?” and “Will this work?” are some amongst many.
Distraction is yet another challenge; I’ve heard the term being described as “shiny object syndrome.” For example, someone once told me they’d jumped from making TikTok videos to writing their own blog, and had trouble sticking with or committing to a specific thing.
Distraction isn’t such a bad thing in the creative process; a study published in the National Library of Medicine shows that letting go of cognitive control can actually help stimulate creativity.
The problem is the byproduct of distraction; being unable to let go of it, and instead dropping the things we were meant to focus on. We jump around, and different people know us for doing different things.
If you hear people tell you, “Oh? I didn’t know you did that!” frequently, or saying, “I have no idea what you do,” there’s a symptom that you’re spread a little bit too thin.
In terms of career: the solution here is to find a ladder, stick with it for a year or two, and to climb it steadily. It’s only in doing that when you build the character and network that you can apply to other fields, and also to give a field a clear shot. Your ladder will be the thing in your life that makes you money.
In terms of creativity: the solution here is to try creative hobbies outside of the ladder you chose. If the money comes, that’s nice, but it’s not the goal. The goal is to find some way you would spend your time even if you had all the money in the world, in which getting paid is just a nice bonus. That’s passion. These hobbies should never take up the majority of your week, which is dedicated to your ladder; instead, you can pick them up or drop them as you like. Start small projects that you can do yourself.
Treat your work like a balanced financial portfolio; the career you choose is the main thing you’re betting on, and you’re working on a few much smaller bets outside of it to see how they pay off.
Life is full of paradoxes; creative work is full of oscillations and tensions. Letting go of fixed concepts—for example, the ideas that you’re good at something, or bad at something, or even of the ideas of generality and specialty—will enable you to move freely. Sometimes, discipline is more important, and other times play is more important; so long as you stick with the structure of a ladder, you’ll be able to balance your chaotic energy.
Each modality involves more than one role; for example, working as a writer involves being a madman, a judge, a carpenter, and an architect. You must continue working and moving between these four things, knowing when to channel which energy.
Being good at many things is a gift; you have an opportunity to choose, and also to blend them together. Be decisive, complete a piece of work, and see how you feel after.