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Curious Minds - Developing Expertise

Developing Expertise


You hear it all the time: To find a job you love, “Follow your passion.” Sounds like a plan.

Well, maybe not. “If you believe that we all have a pre-existing passion, and that matching this to a job will lead to instant workplace bliss, then reality will always pale in comparison,” writes Cal Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, in a piece for based on his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

Newport notes that according to research data, finding a job in a field that one is passionate about isn’t as gratifying as one that offers the kind of general benefits—Newport calls the “traits”—one deems important. Such traits are different for everyone, and may include, for example, a desire for creativity, respect, or autonomy; the opportunity to make an impact; or the challenge of working in a fast-paced environment. “These traits are agnostic to the specific type of work performed, contradicting the idea that you must find the exact right job to be happy,” Newport writes.

Another problem with the call to “Follow your passion: Very few of us can identify, early on, exactly what it is we are passionate about. Some have no idea. Others, including lots of advanced learners, are deeply interested in many, many subjects. Most often, Newport says, true passion emerges “slowly, over time” and only after following “complicated paths.” 

In a presentation at the 2012 World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon, Newport offers the example of author and activist Bill McKibben, who as an undergraduate at Harvard wrote for the Harvard Crimson, ultimately becoming its editor. After graduation he landed a job as a staff writer for The New Yorker, where—working hard and for excellent editors—his skills improved and he began to gain notoriety.  

Read more: Off to Follow Your Passion? Not so fast.

It’s a common enough, seemingly innocuous question heard all the time. No wonder, given the need many of us have to know exactly how we’re going to allocate every precious minute of every single day.

Maria Popova, best known for her blog Brain Pickings, knows the feeling, pointing out in a recent post titled “Stop Making Plans: How Goal-Setting Limits Rather Than Begets Our Happiness and Success,” that “. . . we try to abate the discomfort of uncertainty by making long-term plans and obsessing over everyday to-do lists.”

Ah, yes, those to-do lists. What would I do without them? Perhaps quite a lot more than I’m doing now, if some of our leading thinkers and writers are to be believed.

Last November in the blog entry “The Perils of Plans: Why Creativity Requires Leaping into the Unknown,” Popova noted that “[John] Keats termed the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity ‘negative capability’ and argued that it’s essential to the creative process; Anaïs Nin believed that inviting the unknown helps us live more richly . . . .”

Read more: "So, What's the Plan?"

In a world where Hollywood’s greatest blockbusters are built on the back of effects created by computer-generated imagery (CGI), it’s hard to imagine a movie that doesn’t have some character or location that isn’t computer generated. When an entire industry leans in one direction however, it is the duty of the avant-garde designer to seek the new and different. Often, such a quest leads to the past, and, for the film industry, this is no exception. Consequently, when a highly recognized film director and special effects producer such as Peter Jackson (Lord of The Rings,The Hobbit) takes time to honor the life’s work of a lesser-known special effects pioneer, the creative community takes notice.

In 2010, Jackson and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts/British Film Industry (BAFTA/BFI) presented Ray Harryhausen with a ninetieth birthday award honoring a lifetime of great film making. And while Ray Harryhausen’s name may not be easily recognized in today’s pop movie culture, it is recognized by many of today’s pop moguls. Joining together to honor this special effects great were: George Lucas (Star Wars), Steven Spielberg (Shindler’s List, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park), Tim Burton (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Beetlejuice), and James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar), all of whom identify Harryhausen as the inspiration for some of their greatest works.

Harryhausen was a master of stop motion, a process where models are moved in small increments and photographed to make a character appear to move on its own. All but replaced by computer animation, this process has been used in modern films like Coraline (Laika), Chicken Run (Aardman), and Nightmare before Christmas (Skellington Productions).

Read more: Design That Builds Character


Thanks to two University of Wisconsin-Madison athletes, students in my Wild World of Sports online Academy class got some insight into what it takes to compete at the top level when it comes to college sports.

John Zordani, a member of the UW Men's tennis team, and UW football player Matt Miller (pictured left to right in the accompanying photo), participated in a question-and-answer session at a class Face-to-Face meeting last week in Madison. This experience allowed my students to gain first-hand knowledge of the commitment needed to simultaneously play college-level sports and carry a full academic load. It is a topic touched upon by the Wild World of Sports class, in which students also study subjects such as: famous athletes, the concept of cooperation vs. competition, salaries, sports facilities, and the history of sports. 

My students were prepared with excellent questions to ask Miller and Zordani, such as: What prompted you to want to play sports in college? Do you envision playing professionally? What is your daily schedule like? Who are you role models? What would you be doing if not playing sports? What are you studying?

According to Miller, "Football is like a religion where I lived in Ohio." As for playing after college, he said he "would like to play professionally but cannot because of numerous concussion issues." This was good for my students to hear given all the news coverage recently of head injuries to athletes. 

Zordani, on the other hand, said he “would like to finish school first, then look into giving professional tennis a try. 

Read more: UW Athletes Share Insight on What it Takes to Compete at College Level


Up for a fascinating read on the intersection of culture and achievement? Check out “What Drives Success,” by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, a piece that ran in Sunday’s New York Times.

Professors at Yale Law School, Chua and Rubenfeld are the authors of the soon-to-be-published The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Groups in America.

The three traits: (1) a superiority complex, (2) a sense of insecurity, and (3) strong impulse control. The first two may strike you as mutually exclusive, and indeed, according to Chua and Rubenfeld, “It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure.” However, they go on to note, “. . . it’s precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself.”

Chua and Rubenfeld contend that certain cultural groups place more value on “instilling” these traits than other groups. The good news: anyone can “develop this package of qualities.” 


Priscilla Pardini is WCATY's communications coordinator and editor of Curious Minds.