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Watching the Corners: On Future-Proofing Your Passion

On May 16, 2010, at 10:02 AM, "Xx" wrote:

You mentioned you gave a talk at Rutgers about future proofing your passion. Is this available as a podcast? I'd love to listen!

This poor kid emailed me to ask a really simple question. And I went and saddled him with the world's most circuitously long-winded answer. Surprise, surprise.

Hey, Xx,

Thanks for the note, man. No I'm sorry its not up as audio AFAIK.

FWIW, it's a talk I'm asked to do more often lately so I wouldn't be surprised if it turns up sooner or later.

Since you were kind enough to ask, the talk—which comes out super different each time I do it— consists of a discursive mishmash of advice I wish I'd had the ears to hear in the year or five after graduating from college: primarily, that we never end up anywhere near where we'd expected, and that most of us would have been a lot happier a lot faster if we'd realized that we were often obsessing over the wrong things—starting with how much the world should care about our major. ("Liberal Arts," with a concentration in [ugh] "Cultural Studies," thanks.)

The talk started as a way to encourage students to learn enough about what they care about that any temporary derails and side roads wouldn't scare their horses too badly. But, today, I see it as something a lot bigger that's demonstrably useful to anyone who hopes to survive, evolve, and thrive in this insane world.

A handful of bits I'm (obviously) still synthesizing into something notionally cohesive:

My Kingdom for Some Context!

For myself, I wish I'd known the value of developing early expertise in interesting new skills around emerging technologies (rather than just iteratively pseudo-honing the 202-level skills I thought I "understood"). Alongside that, I wish I'd learned to embrace the non-douchier aspects of building awesome human relationships (as against "networking" in the service of landing some straight job that, as with most hungry young people, locked me into a carpeted prison of monkey work at the worst time possible).

Also how I wish I'd paid more attention to events, contexts, relationships, and change that were happening outside my immediate world —rather than becoming, say, the undisputed master of fretting about status, salary, and whether I was "a success" who had "arrived".

Hint: I was not a "success," and I had not, by any stretch, "arrived."

To my mind, "success" in the real world is much more the equivalent of achieving a new personal best; it's not about whether you won the "Springtime in Springfield SunnyD®/Q105™ 5k FunRun for Entitilitus," and got a little ribbon with a gold crest on it.

Truly, pretty much anyone who feels they've "arrived" anyplace is about to learn a) how much more they could be doing outside the narrowness of an often superficial ambition and b) the surprising number of things they had to give away through the opportunity costs and trade-offs that lead up to every theoretical milestone. It's a real goddamned thistle, and it's more than a little depressing.

Do You Still Really Want to be a Fireman?

[N.B.: I really hope you're taking bathroom breaks here, Xx]

Related, I think this is about how being an adult is not only unbelievably complicated in ways that you can't begin to imagine—that it's frequently defined by impossible decisions and non-stop layers of "hypocrisy"—but that there's an invisible but entirely real risk to doggedly chasing the theoretically laudable notion of "following your dream." Especially if it's a dream you first had while sleeping on Star Wars sheets in a racecar bed.

Not because it's a bad idea to want things or to have ambitions. Quite the opposite. More because, for a lot of us, the "dreams" of youth turn out to be half-finished blueprints for wax wings. And not particularly flattering ones at that.

By starting adult life with an autistically explicit "goal" that's never been tested against any kind of real-world experience or reality-in-context, we can paradoxically miss a thousand more useful, lucrative, or organic opportunities that just…what?…pop up. Often these are one-time chances to do amazing and even unique things—opportunities that many of us continue to reject out of hand because it's "not what we do."

It took me a full decade to learn to embrace the unfamiliar gifts that kismet loves to deliver on our busiest and most stressful days, and which gifts might (maybe/maybe not) even end up bringing the real-life, non-racecar-bed, now me a big step closer to something that's 1000 times more interesting than a hollow, ten-year-old caricature of "what I wanna be when I grow up."

Finding Your "Old Butcher"

Also related, it strikes me that the indisputable wealth of information and options that are provided by the web often comes with a harrowing hidden tradeoff. While we can certainly learn a lot on our own and become (what feels like) an instant expert on any topic in an afternoon, we usually do so in the absence of a mentor and outside the context of applying expertise to solve actual problems. In my opinion, a cadet should have to survive more than a few Kobayashi Maru scenarios before he gets to declare himself, "Captain."

Call it a guru, a wizard, an old butcher, or what have you, the mad echo chamber of a young mind often benefits from the dampening influence of an experienced grownup who can help you understand things that raw data, wikipedia entries, and lists of tips and tricks can't and wont ever do.

We benefit from a hand on the back and a gentle voice, reminding us:

  • "Try not to obsess over implementation until you really understand the problem," or
  • "Worry more about relationships than org charts or follower counts," or
  • "Don't quit looking after you've found that first data point," or—my favorite—
  • "Spend less time fantasizing about 'success' and way more time making really cool mistakes."

Conversely, though, I think this means that everything we think we know, as well as all the fancy advice that gets thrown around—absolutely including the material you're reading now—is the product of what one person knows and what another person has the ears to hear. For us. For now. For who really knows what. But it is a transaction that takes place in a very specific time and within the bounds of a set of "known" "facts." So, fair warning, doing your own due diligence never hurts.

What's Almost Not Impossible?

[N.B.: I swear to God this ends at some point, Xx]

One big pattern for "future-proofing" your passion? Keep your eyes open and your heart even "opener." And, be more than simply tolerant of the notion of change—sure, take it as read that nothing is ever fixed in place for more than a little while.

But, to the extent that your sanity can bear it, always keep an eye on the corners, the edges, and especially learn to watch for those infinitesimally tiny figures starting to shuffle around near the horizon. Because a lot of the things that seem ridiculously small and inconsequential right now will eventually cast a shadow that people will be chasing for decades. It's just that we're never sure which tiny figure that will turn out to be.

So, yeah. It really is true that no one but you cares about your major. But, trust me: everybody is interested in the person who repeatedly notices the things that are about to stop being impossible.

For better or worse, every decade's defined by what stopped seeming impossible.

Be the curious one who soaks in all that "irrelevant" stuff. And, even as you stay heads-down on the "now" projects that keep the lights on, remember that the guy who invented those lights made hundreds of "failed" lightbulbs before fundamentally upending the way we think about time, family, industry, and the role of technology in how we live and work. But, yes, first he "failed" a lot a lot at something which more than a few of his contemporaries thought was pointless in the first place.

Ask: What's out there right now that's about to stop being impossible? Where will it happen first? Who will (most loudly and erroneously) declare it's total bullshit? Who will mostly get it right—but possibly too early? Who will figure out what it means to our grandkids? Who will figure out how to put it in everyone's front pocket for a quarter?

Y'know who? I'll tell you who: practically anybody BUT that guy in the racecar bed who wants to talk about his major.

Important: Merlin's Advice is Only Future-Proof to 10 Meters

A few years back, most watch manufacturers decided to come clean and stop categorically declaring that their timepieces were "waterproof." Instead, today, the more credible vendors admit their product is merely "water-resistant"—and, even then, they'll only guarantee the underwater functionality at so many meters, and for so long, and under thus and such conditions.

Truthfully, the same applies here. Nothing can actually "future-proof" anything. Anyone who claims to know the future is either a madman, a charlatan, or, often as not, both.

Thing is, regardless of the passions (or goals or values or priorities or whatever) that we hope to protect or defend, we'd all do well to remember that it is still ultimately OUR passion that's at stake.

That means we're the only one responsible for seeing that its functional components survive and adapt in a world in which each one of us has just north of zero control.

If we embrace the fact that no one can or should ever care about the health of our passions as much as we do, the practical decisions that help ensure Our Good Thing stays alive can become as "simple" as a handful of proven patterns—work hard, stay awake, fail well, hang with smart people, shed bullshit, say "maybe," focus on action, and always always commit yourself to a bracing daily mixture of all the courage, honesty, and information you need to do something awesome—discover whatever it'll take to keep your nose on the side of the ocean where the fresh air lives. This is huge.

Anything else? Yeah. Drink lots of water, play with your kid every chance you get, and quit Facebook today. No, really, do it.

Thanks again for the note, Xx, and sorry for the novella. I'll ping you if the audio ever turns up. Til then, forget your major, and break a leg!

yr internet pal,

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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