The surprising truth about finding a career you love

What skills do you possess that are valuable? CodeClan instructor Keith Douglas looks back at career decisions that led him to coding (and guitars).

We’ve all heard it. “Find something you’re passionate about and pursue it. That’s the route to career happiness!”

But it turns out this 20th century paradigm isn’t quite as true as we thought.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my career. Like, a lot. And I’m not just talking about bringing down a web server or sending out test emails to hundreds of users. Yes, those were painful, but short lived.

The biggest mistake was my mindset. I still have remnants of it today. Dominant ideologies are powerful and difficult opponents.

When I left school I went to music college. I was following my passion. That was the way to be happy wasn’t it? Damn, I wanted to be a rock ’n’ roll guitarist and studying contemporary music was the way to do it. Right?

Well, it could have been if I’d worked harder. The truth was, I was a pretty average musician. Yeah, I practiced a bit but nowhere near enough to get anywhere near above average let alone the top.

Couple that with the luck, perseverance and sacrifice required (which I lacked), I was onto a loser. The result was a diploma in hand but a less than average one.

So I switched.

Offer something rare and valuable

It was 1997 and the web was just emerging like a weird creature from an alien shaped egg. I was curious.

I packed up my guitar and went to study software development. Back then, our tutor believed that VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) would be the killer app of the web (it wasn’t) and that made me even more interested.

I spent hours experimenting on the university computers at the weekend, building weird worlds in VRML. I built my first website, ‘How to Feed your Ostrich’ (pretty niche huh?), and started playing with JavaScript.

I got my first development job after I graduated during the heady dotcom boom and it was exciting. But I made the same mistake, this time with an added complication. The mistake was not practicing enough at programming and the added complication was that I believed I had abandoned my passion.

That guitar-shaped teenage dream was still hanging around compounded by the popular rhetoric of follow your passion. Which clearly I wasn’t. Ughhh.

I kept going, building experience as I went, paying the bills, persevering, but still with that niggling worry that I wasn’t following my calling.

Then I came across Cal Newport’s book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You‘. A strange title indeed, but the premise is intriguing: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

Say whaaaat?

He provides evidence and case studies showing that the things that make a great job great are rare and valuable.

His premise is that if you want a fulfilling career, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. That’s to say, you have to have in demand skills before you can expect a good job.

Newport quotes Ira Glass, the legendary NPR radio presenter:

“In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream, but I don’t believe that. Things happen in stages. It takes time to get good at anything” and “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase.”

Newport also relates a story about Giles Bowkett who took up Ruby and built a midi generator as an open source project and became well known in the Ruby community.

In his other book ‘Deep Work’, he talks about David Heinemeir Hansson – the creator of Ruby on Rails. Particularly relevant to us coders.

Finding your unique skills

Keith with guitar

I still struggle. Sometimes, I feel like a fish out of water. Some people find interest and pursue their curiosity during their teenage years, turning it into a career. I was too busy learning Chuck Berry songs, so working on building programming skills came later in life.

But I’ve persisted and now that I know there’s evidence that the whole “follow your calling” thing is flawed, I’m more confident in any path I might take.

Yes, it’s hard. It’s easier to get distracted by the new shiny objects we’re constantly tempted by.

It’s easier to turn on the telly than do a code exercise in Even that killer app you want to build can distract you. But I’ve found practice can also be engrossing and, with time, fulfilling.

It started with curiosity which turned into experimental play which led to interest which, with practice, turned into skills that were valuable to the market.

“It’s hard to be passionate about something you’re not good at. Interest and desire come first. Then lots of hard work. Then passion.” – Eric Elliott, JavaScript Educator

It turns out that the actual work you do is far less important than “working right” and growing an expertise and love for what you do.

Those rare and valuable skills you develop and bring to the table can lead to a compelling and fulfilling career.

Rather than search for a career you’ll love, do the work. Build it brick by brick.

P.S. I still play my guitar.


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