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2021-10-10

1. Stop following your heart


If you dive into the self-help canon, you will stumble across the advice to discover your talents. We are all born, the story goes, with a unique set of fixed strengths: intelligence, creativity, athleticism, musicality, even our personality—abstract qualities like neuroticism and extraversion—end up etched in stone. So too, our interests, whether we prefer art and music over science and math or vice-versa, become inherent to who we are.

The obvious conclusion of this thinking is that, in order to make the most out of our education and careers (to be "successful") we should match these pursuits to our own strengths, qualities, and interests. We should respect our learning styles, cultivate our talents, find our passions, and follow our hearts.

This is awful advice.

Not because this line of reasoning is flawed but because the underlying assumptions are fantasy. In all the cases that matter, you are more flexible and adaptable than you are fixed or predetermined. You are, fortunately, a growing, adapting, dynamic mess of a person.

That's not to say you are a blank slate. On the contrary, each of us is born with a palette of preferences, occupying a unique, amorphous region on the personality-intelligence spectrum. Whether these early tendencies are ultimately genetic or environment, you remain a being of the biological world, and that world sets some hard limits. But with the right strategies, your initial position need not limit you. The abilities and qualities that define you most are the abilities and qualities most open to development.

Take innate talent. Sure, you probably won't flourish in the NBA if you're 5'2", but disqualifiers of this extreme are rare in ordinary life. As for measurable versions of "intelligence" and "creativity," scores like IQ and various creativity quotients are largely a farce [0] that is propped up by a fraudulent psychometrics industry peddling self-perpetuating pseudoscience. In the knowledge and service economy what matters are skills and tools—skills anyone can develop and tools anyone can acquire.

The same for "personality." Even the standard-bearers of the psychological literature (the 5- and 6-factor models, aka OCEAN and HEXACO) have rather unimpressive predictive power outside the confines of the academic questionnaire.1 Your personality is too high-dimensional and dynamic to reduce to a limited set of fixed constants. Derivative ideas like a "learning style" fare even worse.[0]

In their defense, personality measures can be a source of useful vocabulary and good old-fashioned fun. But personality measures decide hiring practices, the fun stops. Just as flexible skill trumps static talent, what decides your behavior is not an immutable core of personality but a learned set of habits. Once you understand how habits form and fade, you will understand that your behavior and its outcomes are yours to shape. No personality needed (though certainly appreciated).

Even grit, the shiny new kid on the self-help block turns out to be a poser. It is not so much about imperturbable grit and will-power but unthinking, habitual momentum. Will-power is for suckers. Experts cultivate laziness—a special kind of laziness. They engineer their surroundings to make focus easy and undesirable behavior impossible. They know that the agent is only as static as the environment forces them to be. Change the input; change the output.

But most of all, the follow-your-heart cult fails because their foundational pillar, passion, is not innate.

Passion, like intelligence, creativity, and personality, is not hard-wired. To reiterate, we do already display different preferences at birth—for such things as faces, toys, and crying nonstop. However, preferences do not a passion make. (What fraction of three year olds actually ends up becoming firemen?) The causal link is opposite the standard picture: it is rare to acquire a sustainable, lasting passion before practicing it in person. Only by sowing the seeds of effort may we reap the fruits of passion. Rather than a hedonistic pursuit of spurious passions, we should consult the more durable pursuit of meaning. Do not do the things you impatiently want to do. Do the things that matter.

To find sustainable meaning, pursue higher purpose, and create lasting passion is the mission of a lifetime, and it does not come naturally. One has to train this ability with the right set of heuristics, tools, and systems. There's enough to fill a book.

But the message fits a paragraph...

Do not follow but lead your heart. Start with subtle preference without the expectation of enamoration. Find what matters and what is meaningful, not your heart’s destiny. Fuel your progress with the unstoppability of habit, and equip yourself with the skills and tools you need to achieve your higher goals. Once you chart a course, you will discover that passion follows close behind.


Footnotes

Footnotes

  1. Just one example (a more thorough and up-to-date breakdown will come later): A review by Costa and McCrae (1986) claims that "Over the past decade, a series of longitudinal studies have demonstrated that personality traits are stable in adulthood: There are no age-related shifts in mean levels, and individuals maintain very similar rank ordering on traits after intervals of up to 30 years." In the very same article, they "back" this claim up with the results of eight longitudinal studies. They write: "Personality scales tend to show longterm retest correlations of from .30 to .80 over intervals of up to 30 years." Now, .30 to .80 sounds good until you realize that even an upper limit of .80 means the first test score explains only about 64% of the variance in later test scores. At the median retest correlation of .57, almost 70% of your personality is explained by something other than your continuity of existence. I don't know about you, but I prefer to see this glass as half-full. [0] ↩


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