To find your Ideal Work you will want to find the Intersection of 3 things: Love, Skills, and Market.
Here’s this “Holy Trinity” of Work Happiness as a graphic:
Without The Three Legs
People often make the mistake of taking an outside-in approach: for example seeing that there is a market for something in the world, and they have or can acquire a certain skill for it, and therefore think it’s what they should do. It’s logical but it doesn’t work over time. We are not machines that can be forced to do things forever. One way this inharmonious approach can happen is when we think an object – in this case more money – will make us happy, so we start with the object (more money) and work backwards. But when in harmony with ourselves at a deep level, life evolves naturally for us from inside-out.
Without the three legs of love, skills, and market, what happens? The stability isn’t there. I’ll show examples from my own life.
1. Only Love and Skill:
If you have love for a subject and skill for it, you might have some great output to show for your time, but of course you’ll have a hard time making a living.
Example: I loved making art, and thought I could have a career as a painter. I took to it like a sponge, gained lots of skill fast, and made some great abstract and realists paintings during this time, but I didn’t have a market (wrong city in part) or a marketing bent or drive or interest in self-promotion, so I only sold a few pieces over the years. I couldn’t make living at it (but I have some nice paintings for my home! No regrets).
I also tried my hand at photorealist painting because I thought realism would be more marketable, and I was fascinated by the examples I saw, and wanted to have great realism as a tool under my belt. I got very good at it, and learned how to be extremely focused (which served me later as a programmer) but it was extremely difficult and time-consuming such that I ran out of time and had to find another way of making a living. I still loved many aspects of it, such as the creative ideas that flowed, the energy of being inspired, the visual emphasis, and the right-brain holistic perception experience, and the interesting people I met, and so forth.
At one point I tried deliberately making more marketable art (for eBay) – a more commercial and decorative product – but it quickly started to feel forced, and it just didn’t work for me. I thought I might as well go into real estate or banking, which paid better, if I was going to work this hard and didn’t like what I was doing! In short I had the skill and market but no love for commercial painting, which brings us to the next:
2. Only Skill and Market:
If you have some some skill in a field, and a market, but little or no love, you can make a living for a while, but you will be heading for burnout, frustration, stress and struggle. This is not sustainable, or if sustainable, leads to health problems (mental and physical), addictions and dis-ease and stress on relationships. It’s not a happy situation and often affects the quality and/or speed of the work, which in turn affects the client’s feelings and your ability to make a living.
Unfortunately a lot of the world works this way, and our intellectually-oriented schooling and career testing feeds the underlying misunderstanding and the misuse of the mind and body.
Example: I did web development and app software programming for a few years. I had some skill with computers, and had been involved with programming as a hobby and occasionally built websites for clients over the years. There was also an obvious market for software development, and I was able to find clients and work. However I didn’t have a true love for the subject – it was fun at times but it often felt like a struggle to keep on-task and focused enough, and I was never fast enough. Programmers with a real love for the subject were running circles around me. I felt a little like I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. Although I could solve problems, find creative solutions, play the part, and fool people playing the part of the developer, it was not an inside-out, grounded way to work and live. And I wasn’t fooling myself: at some level I knew it wasn’t quite right. It was stressful, extremely time-consuming – not leaving time for my other interests and loves – and I took to drinking large amount of Kava Kava in the evening while working to deal with the anxiety of programming and the struggle of pushing my mind towards the solutions of problems. And then there was the constant need, as a developer, to learn and keep up with a rapidly changing, expanding, and extremely complex technical field, with deadlines looming.
I burned out on this lifestyle, not being able to meet timelines I’d set for projects with clients, running out of money, and realized I had to do something different.
3. Only Love and Market:
If you have love for a type of activity, and there is a market for it, but you lack skill, you will obviously run into a situation of not being able to offer quality work, and you will lose clients or not be able to find customers or clients in the first place. The good news is you may be able to gain the skills.
An example I can think of from my life is several decades ago in the early days of personal computers, I was fascinated by electronics and digital computers, and felt I had a pretty good general understanding of them, and there was a market for consultants. So fresh out of college I threw myself into computer consulting, confident that I could solve problems as I went and BS my way along with my general philosophical knowledge and ability to talk to people. Well, some clients quickly figured out I didn’t know what I was doing, and I realized I was stressing to find solutions fast, when I was expected to already know them. I didn’t know as much as I thought: one really does need highly detailed, specific knowledge and can’t rely on general understanding in such a highly technical field. (It seems obvious now, but I was young then!). I did eventually gain enough skills in a particular area of computer consulting that I felt more at home in (Apple Macintosh Consulting – I loved Apples design and philosophy) and learned from doing and study. I did that for many years, while doing my writing and art on the side. In the long run my love wasn’t deep enough, and my marketing ability was limited, and being an artist, writer (and gardener) was taking time away from business, so it was not a sustainable career path.
All Three, To Some Degree:
The resolution for me was to find and develop work where I was able to use my innate ability and love of visual art and design, plus interest and skill in writing, and an interest and background in psychology & philosophy, and experience with computers and software, and a market in the software field such that I found satisfying and lucrative work doing specialized consulting. This consulting involves designing and advising on interface designs, doing designs for a software company, creating software prototype (demos), writing on usability and other topics, and occasional photography assignments. No doubt things will evolve as I explore, do more writing (and photography), and find ever better unfolding and match between my loves, skills and market. Work life grows and is perfected, if you pay attention and give it presence, as part of one’s life journey.
I wasted many years trying to figure all this out intellectually when I was younger. I spent endless hours writing, thinking, brooding, reading books, talking to people, trying to figure it out: who was I? Was I a writer, an artist, a computer guy? Where did I belong? Did I belong anywhere in the economy or did I not fit in at all. Was I too unique to be able to find a happy niche? I felt like a round peg trying to fit myself into a square hole.
More Notes on Skills, Love and Marketing
“I know I’m fortunate to live an extraordinary life, and that most people would assume my business success, and the wealth that comes with it, have brought me happiness. But they haven’t; in fact it’s the reverse. I am successful, wealthy and connected because I am happy.” – Richard Branson
Skills and Love are not synonymous: this is often gotten backward. One can acquire great skill and still not enjoy doing something. However if you do have a natural love and bent for something – “like a duck to water” or “falling off a log” as the old saying goes – you can more easily or quickly become highly skillful. Not only will you spend more time on it, but it’s going with the grain of your being. Some people hate writing, and though they can gain skills, they never become good or great writers. I enjoy the process of writing, and do it every day: it feels as natural to me as talking (in fact easier than talking and speaking!): like a nearly direct channel between mind and page when I’m in the flow. It’s the same with photography: it felt like a calling, and I found myself doing tens of thousands of photos.
Skills are what is acquired. Love and talent are what is innate.
One of the signs of love is the feeling of joy in action when one is absorbed and free of self-consciousness, in the flow. Love is a feeling natural interest and enthusiasm that cannot be explained. Flow is best found where there is a match between the level of skill and the level of challenge.
However not everything that one has skills at and love is necessarily marketable. A market means people want it and are willing to pay for it.
Often people look at what’s marketable and then try to fit themselves into that. This is a big mistake, and accounts for a great deal of unhappiness and stress in the workplace, and n people’s lives in general.
So if you enjoy poisoning your life with “toxic goals“, have at it – it’s a free country – but why not start today creating a happier world of work for yourself, to whatever degree you can?
This is not to say that there will never be aspects of one’s work that are more boring or routine or unpleasant that you will want to get help with at some point (for example hire a bookkeeper if you have little love or skill for accounting).
The thing is to be free to do what you love and get paid for it. There are degrees of this: it is not black and white. Engaging with pure love and pure skill and getting paid a great deal, and doing this day in and day out is achieved by very few, but nevertheless there is simply no other way that is real and sustainable. So you must aim at perfecting this “art of work” and dedicate yourself to it. Choose happiness rather than misery.
Start from Where You Are; Know Thyself; It’s Not Intellectual
Forget Myers-Briggs personality tests (though they are fun party talk subjects) and the career tests that try and analyze what categories you fit into. Forget the aptitude and interest tests. There is only one way to know what’s right for you, and that is by DOING things, testing where the rubber hits the road and getting the feedback of the world. This feedback includes your own body and mind, and the feelings that are experienced. It includes the feedback of the marketplace and what people are willing to pay for what you do.
This may mean taking jobs as an experiment, even if you are unsure yet if it’s right for you: this is the whole point – to find out! It’s an adventure! (the worst that can happen is that you are fired or fire yourself, and then “good riddance!”). It can be a paid job, a volunteer job, or even a hobby that could lead to future work. An example from my life was photography: I loved doing it, enjoyed making tens of thousand of photos, and got really good: enough that I got paid 4 figures to run around shooting buildings for a client, using a fantastic camera that was paid for by the work. I got paid to have fun doing what I would do even if not paid!
Do not let fear control your life. Many people stay in unhappy work out of fear of what they imagine will happen if they don’t. They think that they have to do it. They are unwilling to take risks. Our imaginations are very powerful but they are a two-edged sword: we can imagine a rocket that will take humans to the moon (Wernher von Braun did it), and build one, and we are also powerful enough beings such that we can sit in a chair and drive ourselves into stress and insanity from mere thinking. It’s up to you. (I believe some form of meditation or mindfulness training, and spiritual-psychological understanding and insight is key to much of this whole subject, but is too much to go into for this article).
This freedom from fear is critical, but it all leaves off the question of freedom and independence in general, which I see as critical to self-realized, genuinely happy life. It works like a feedback loop: you need freedom enough to pursue independent enquiry into who you are, beyond fear and false beliefs, but is also again, inside-out: psychological freedom leading to external freedom. But I’ll leave all this that for future musings…