July 17, 2011
I’ve spent a lot of time this summer trying to pin down once and for all (or perhaps just for once) what I might like to do for at least the next 5 - 10 years.
I’m creative, I like making things, and I’m very interested in either starting the right company or in joining one. This is what I know. And I think I’m in a much more knowledgeable position now than I was even a year ago. But as this investigation evolved a lot of the advice I read was a version of “do what comes naturally”. This could be in the form of “doing what you love”, or even “doing what you know”. Or it could be in the form of noticing what projects and themes you gravitate to.
I did purposely take this “naturally” approach, having attempted to plan my way through the post-college years and having met with mixed success. So I just did things that seemed to make sense to try, without worrying about the long-term impact. But I actually wonder what “doing what comes naturally” or any variant of that actually means. It’s sort of like “be yourself”. How do you know what that is?
One thing I noticed is that the concept of meaning is closely tied up with the idea of doing what comes naturally. And meaning, like love, is difficult to define but if you are like me you know it when you see it.
One project I did this summer was to start an (ultimately unsuccessful) 3D printing company. I actually sold a few subassemblies and got the satisfying experience of creating a product, marketing it, and finally generating revenue, even if it was a small amount. In fact, I left the store up since I’ll probably still sell this stuff for a while yet for fun.
Even though the business I ended up starting was extremely small, and even though I have gotten of a lot of dumb, discouraging comments over the past few months (my favorite, from a supposedly smart person: “3D printing? That’s certainly… different!”), I realized that the project continued to be meaningful to me over time. I’d wake up in the morning, or I’d be walking home from school, and I’d notice that I still cared about the project, thought it was important, and worked on it, even though in retrospect it wasn’t going anywhere. (I should mention, by the way, that I did receive a lot of encouraging comments in equal measure - not to make it sound like I was fighting an uphill battle all the way.)
As another example, I love to cook. But it takes forever to cook a really good meal, and often involves incredibly tedious repetition (slicing endlessly, rolling dough, mixing, cleaning). Sometimes, like when I did my first catering gig, I have to stay on my feet for eight hours a day, over several days, doing what is essentially minimum-wage manual labor. This is while I could probably be earning enough money, over the same amount of time, to go to several really nice dinners.
And yet I still come back to it - this is “what comes naturally” as the “repetition over time” approach. All of a sudden, I look back and I’ve made dozens (hundreds?) of really high-quality meals for people I care about. And blogged about them!
“Doing what you love” vs. moving a pile of bricks
At the same time, it’s tempting to imagine that once you find “what comes naturally”, some sort of magical path opens up for you. There is a funny, insightful documentary from about ten years ago called Comedian. It’s about Jerry Seinfeld re-writing his material after the end of Seinfeld’s run on TV.
There’s lots there about the creative process in general, but one comment really stuck with me. Seinfeld is talking about when he first started in stand-up. He says that he really enjoyed writing jokes, but eventually he’d hit a wall and just stop writing.
One day, Seinfeld says, he was looking out his window and he saw a construction worker carrying some bricks. The worker would pick some up, move them, walk back to the pile, grab some more bricks, move them, walk back, and so on.
He wasn’t enjoying it. But it was his job. At that point, Seinfeld says, he had a realization. If he was to be a professional comedian, he couldn’t treat it like a fun hobby. He had to write the jokes, tell them, then go back and write some more. He had to continue doing this even when it stopped being fun.
And I think this is the trap with the “what comes naturally” / “do what you love” approach. It’s easy to imagine that once you find what’s right for you, you will just be able to do it easily, day-in and day-out, and that it will be fun. But it isn’t that way. Even when I blog, for example, I don’t always enjoy it - sometimes I’m forcing myself to do it because I’m trying to get better at it.
Or as another example, I realize that I may need to think much more broadly about the types of companies that I am willing to start. The very first good idea I come up with may not be in a message from the cosmos, delivered specifically to me.