Question from a reader -
I had a discussion yesterday with one of my friends about what we wanted to do with ourselves and we both have dabbled in numerous thing but nothing has stuck. He said if what we were doing was truly something worth doing, we'd be devoted to it. We simply haven't found what we want to devote ourselves to. Do you believe devotion follows interest or devotion is generated with work? I don't feel tied to anything, one moment I'll be playing a finger style piece on the guitar then whip out the electric and start playing funk. Maybe I'll start reading Ram Das, try learning HTML then go exercise. However, at the end of the day, I still feel errant and listless. Perhaps because I feel like I feel that ultimately, my actions are futile or are directionless.
"He said if what we were doing was truly something worth doing, we'd be devoted to it" - well, I'm not so sure that's the case. I know plenty of people who have causes they really believe in, but still have a hard time focusing on and dedicating themselves to it.
"Do you believe devotion follows interest or devotion is generated with work?" I think being interested in something helps a lot, but isn't enough. I know lots of people who deeply believe in something and passionately enjoy working on it, but yet still can't get the work out of themselves.
Actually, in some circumstances, it's harder to work on something you really believe in, because you get your identity wrapped up in it. Like the writer who can write plenty technical operations manuals because he aims to get it to just "good enough," but can't make progress on a novel because he's aiming for perfect and none of the words seem right.
Obviously, being good at something helps. When you start anything, you probably suck at it, and you have to get through that... it's hard to be engaged with something you aren't good at.
What I'd recommend to you, then, is figuring out broadly what you want out of life - what big picture things do you want individually?
I say "individually," because wanting world peace probably doesn't bring much clarity.
Okay, so what big picture things do you want? It's your own list, nobody's going to see it, so don't be politically correct and write stuff that'd just make you look good. What do you really want?
Now, what I'd recommend is trying to advance towards that when you're working on other stuff. Music or exercise or computer stuff or whatever. Try to make the individual tasks you do serve the big picture some. So, if you decide you want to be a performer of some sort, go practice guitar out in public with a hat for people to throw coins or money in. If you think you want to be a freelancer while traveling, then learn html by offering to build/refine a website for free for someone you like and admire who isn't tech savvy.
This way, you'll be getting closer to the big picture stuff you want. Even if it turns out you don't dig doing design, you'll still have learned about deliverables and working with people and how long things take to get done (answer: always longer than you expect). Even if you don't stick with a particular style of guitar, you learn more about performing in public and getting comfortable with being heard.
It's also probably worth reading, "Don't know what you're doing with your life?" which lists some generally useful skills to build.
One final thought - I do it too sometimes, working on a little of this and a little of that on a particular day. It's very easy to feel like you didn't accomplish anything on those days - so if possible, you might pick one thing you'd like to accomplish and jam away on it.
I actually found this from emptying my inbox and answering email. If I spend two hours answering email and empty half my inbox, and then write half of a long blog post, I feel like I got nothing done. But if I cleared the inbox to zero, then there's a tangible milestone accomplished. Or if I'd written a couple posts. You might consider setting one thing you want to accomplish, and forcing through the hard parts to get there. That's one of the bad things about procrastination - you generally procrastinate when you hit hard parts, so what winds up happening is you're a ways into four or five projects, but all of them you're stuck at the hard part as soon as you pick it back up.
That sucks. So ideally, pick one thing that you're going to do that day, and power through the hard part until you have a tangible accomplishment.
1. Figure out the big picture things you want.
2. When you work on day to day stuff, try to make it serve the big picture even if it isn't what you'll be doing forever.
3. Ideally pick one thing to do in a day to get to a tangible accomplishment, and do that.
4. Some generally good skills and things to build are in "Don't know what you're doing with your life?" - you might want to read that.
Good luck and godspeed. Lots of people have been where you're at. If you can make the individual things you do serve the big picture, you're making progress even if you don't stick with the current task forever.
Excellent post. This is something that I've been thinking about for quite some time. As I've mentioned in other comments here and on my blog, I have a deep interest in something, yet cannot get myself to work on it. At least, not often.
I think recap points 1-3 will be useful for me the most. Thanks.
Sebastian suggested to ask yourself "what big picture things do you want individually?" which is great advice and to me goes along another question: who am I? In other words what I'm suggesting is that when we say "We simply haven’t found what we want to devote ourselves to." we're looking outwards with the idea that there is something out there we haven't yet experienced that would call for our complete devotion. While this might be true, what seems more frequent is that we haven't spent enough time looking inwards. It is much easier to know what ones wants when one knows who he/she is to begin with.
Also, in the act of looking outwards we generally go for the new rather than for the old ignoring the fact that things that have not worked in the past might work in the future. Don't disregard the fact that you might have come across your passion and completely missed it because you weren't "ready".
As a practical advice I'd invite you to try to apply the 5 whys to question the things you start and then abandon. This in my experience helps to make things more actionable. For each one of them write down a "5 whys" analysis and after a couple of months you should have an interesting data log where patterns might emerge.
From a reader -
Just a thought - You probably get several requests for advice, inputs etc. Do you not get overwhelmed?
Indeed, my email/people contacting me volume has gone up massively a lot. Like, a whole lot.
Do I get overwhelmed? Well, I reckon there's two things people usually call "overwhelmed" -
1. A short term overwhelmed feeling, like when you've got to do 6 hours of things, but you've got a flight in 3 hours.
I used to dislike to work. I saw how most people lived their lives, slogging through work that they hated, and I was determined not to fall into that trap. I made the mistake of generalizing, lumping all work together in the same bucket.
Since then, things have changed. In terms of monumental personal life changes, becoming a hard worker is the most recent one I've undergone. About a year ago, for reasons I touched on in this post, I decided that it was imperative for me to become a hard worker. I didn't do it because I had suddenly fallen in love with work, but rather because I had began to feel as though I was behind. And believe me, it wasn't love at first sight.
To fall in love with hard work, you must understand why it's necessary. When I was young I was told that sugar was bad, but I never understood exactly why it was bad, so I kept eating it. Only when I learned how it chemically affected my body did I finally give it up. The same is true of work-- if you don't know why you have to work hard and love it, you'll probably never actually do it.
Work is your gift to the world. That sounds corny, but it's true. And believe me, you owe the world a gift or two. Think of all of the various things that millions of people around the world have done for you to enjoy the life you have. They made up languages, invented stuff, procreated at the exact right times to create your ancestry, and managed to not kill each other in the process. We're lucky to be here, and the high standard of living we all enjoy now is only because of those who came before us. Some, like Einstein, had huge impact, but even people you don't notice, like the janitors, are making your life better.