Eternity Changers: The conjunction of passion, ability, and opportunity

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There are two popular schools of thought on finding what you’re supposed to do. On one side of the spectrum, people say “follow your passion.” To their thinking, passion is the secret sauce that turns the average into the extraordinary. They think that the problem with the world is that not enough people follow their passion. If everyone did, they reason, the world would be filled with people who are excited by what they do and who try to be the best they can be because they are driven to.

There’s some truth to this. I certainly don’t want a doctor who could take or leave medicine. I’d prefer to have someone who reads medical journals in her spare time, who can’t help but study the latest techniques, who dreams of ground-breaking surgeries, not someone who’s just putting in time, waiting to get to the golf course.

The other side of the argument is that if everyone followed their passion, we’d have a lot of people who couldn’t support themselves. No matter how passionate you are about playing a board game you invented, but that no one else likes to play, it won’t put food on the table. Instead, that person could have a 9 to 5 job as a welder or plumber or something profitable and necessary in our society and then pursue his board game inventing as a hobby, secure in the knowledge that his family is well-fed, metal objects in his area are repaired, and the world might just not be ready for “Deluxe Shoots and Opoly-ominoes, Jr.” yet.

I think both schools of thought are correct. Passion isn’t enough. Neither is “putting food on the table.” Some of us crave more.

I’ve spent most of my working life feeling a little defective. Sure, I could file reports, run meetings, answer calls, and do the other things that corporate America finds valuable. I just hated every minute of it.

Part of my personality is that I want to always find the right mix of effort and efficiency. If no one can tell me a good reason why the “TPS Report” needs the special cover sheet, I think it’s a mistake and should be eliminated. For me, money is no consolation for time wasted. Paying me more doesn’t make me hate it less. Giving me meaning is the only antidote for the poison of meaningless or “that’s just how we do it.”

I’ve tried to do things that people told me I should like and I just can’t. I need passion in my life to survive.

So, how do you deal with someone like me? Maybe you’re someone like me and you wonder how to hone the edge of your calling down to specifics.

Here’s what I propose. There isn’t one factor to purpose, but three. I think you need to find the conjunction of passion, ability, and opportunity.

Passion is the driving force behind the extra in life. When people are dating and passionate about one another, they’ll do things that others consider insane. Drive overnight two states away because your love will be somewhere that you can see her for an hour? Yes! The passionate person relishes the opportunity. Sacrifice is worth it for the small reward.

Isn’t that the kind of person you want to help you? Even if you didn’t understand it, wouldn’t you want the person who thinks Excel is the greatest computer program in history to handle your bookkeeping? Wouldn’t you prefer the lawyer who read case law for fun, all things being equal? Me, too.

There’s something to misguided passion, too. I’d hate for a person to throw themselves headlong into a passion that is entirely misunderstood, at best. I don’t want encourage anybody to follow their dreams and have them fail, miserably because they lacked other components than passion.

So, why not add ability and opportunity to the mix?

I don’t believe all abilities are innate, that you’re either born a great painter or you’re not. I think almost anybody can be taught almost anything. It does take work, though.

It’s the work that few people want to do. Still fewer want to complete it.

Let me give you an example from my own life. When I heard a calling from God to devote my life to His service, I couldn’t imagine anything that I wanted to do, or could do that fell into that category. All I knew about were pastors, music ministers, and youth leaders. I just didn’t think I fit the mold of any of those. I did know about musician, though. That seemed like something cool that I’d be interested in.

About that time, I’d bought an electric guitar, so I set out to be a Christian Heavy Metal (don’t laugh; this was the 80s) guitarist. I loved the music; I loved being called. I hated to practice, so I didn’t.

Now, as I’m writing, it’s been 25 years or so that I’ve played guitar. I know several cords and played well enough to play at my wedding in 1999, but that’s about it. I’m not musically talented.

During my freshman year in college, I even took some music classes, which I just barely passed. To me, the music wasn’t art; it was math. I actually thought these thoughts “put a third there and a fifth, but make sure I’m not doing parallel fifths or octaves…and carry the two, remainder three.” Okay, so the last part I made up, but it felt like that to me. I just didn’t know how to nurture any talent I did have.

In contrast, when I started doing video and technology, I was obsessed with everything about it. In another chapter, I told you how I’d turned in a paper a full semester late one time. When I had technology homework, I’d rush back to my dorm to get it started.

One person after another told me I was good at it and I did what I could to nurture the talent. Hardly a day went by that I didn’t do something in order to get better. I’d read a blog entry on lighting one day and watch a tutorial on getting the “film look” the next.

It’s possible to get better at music when it’s math to you, but it’s better to practice your true art when the subtleties are more like poetry to you. That’s the kind of “talent” I’m talking about here. It’s all about growing who you are to become more than what you naturally possess. Whether that takes 100,000 hours or not, I don’t know, but I do know that most people aren’t willing to put in the work to get from okay to awesome.

When you mix the two — passion and ability — you come up with a great recipe. Not only do you really, really like something, but you can do it well. You might think that someone who is talented at a thing and passionate about it has every piece of the puzzle, but I think there’s still something that’s missing.

From time to time, you hear a story about someone who is really passionate about something. They’re so good at it that people share the story with each other. Sometimes though, you hear about it and while it’s fascinating that someone can be both passionate and good at this thing, you wonder, often aloud, “Does anyone actually pay him to do that?” or “Really, you can make a living at that?” Sometimes, the answer to both is “no.”

If your calling is something that you feel like you should spend your days doing, you need to support yourself some how. Ideally, you wouldn’t split your attention. If you’re already independently wealthy or have a passive income, maybe this isn’t an issue for you, but I bet, even in those circumstances, your dream probably needs people to recognize that you’re good at it.

Even if you don’t need money, artists need an audience or following. Teachers, even when they volunteer, need students. Almost every dream needs attention, even if that attention doesn’t come with money.

I call this element “opportunity.” This adds another aspect to the what I’m talking about. People might be interested in what you’re doing if they knew about it, but if they don’t, you don’t yet have the opportunity. If it’s something that some people will pay for when you’re still getting the word out, that’s evidence that there is opportunity out there, you just need more attention to turn small opportunities into larger ones.

Opportunity is discovered as you continue to exercise your passion. We’ll talk about getting the word out in another chapter, but opportunity increases over time, so while you need some of it to justify going full-time with your dream, it should continue to build as you’re getting better and better at exercising your passion and better and better at doing your dream.

How many is enough?
Ideally, you’d have the conjunction of all three of these elements in your focussed dream. There are actually eight possible combinations. You can have none of the three, only passion, only ability, only opportunity, passion and ability, passion and opportunity, ability and opportunity, or all three.

I’d say if you don’t have any, then it isn’t really a dream or calling. This is the mistake that a lot of people make when they think that following God means quitting your job and becoming a missionary in Africa. I think that God is powerful enough that He doesn’t need to talk people into doing something that they hate, that they’re bad at, and that they can’t support themselves by doing. There might be exceptions, but the people I know that are really making a difference have all three of these things.

If you only have one of them, I think you’ll either be bad at what you want to do, but that won’t matter because no one will notice (in the case of having only passion), you’ll be great at, but won’t want to do it and no one will care (in the case of having only ability), or you’ll get an opportunity to do what you’re bad at and that you don’t want to do. I don’t think calling often lacks two of the three. To be sure, there are people in the Bible that had hard callings that no one wanted, or thought they wanted. I’d argue that even prophets, that no one wanted to listen to, had both passion for following God and ability to share His message (with the possible exception of Jonah who tried not to follow God at first).

Mostly, you need at least two. If you have passion and ability, it might be difficult to get the word out. You might need to support yourself some other way, like the Apostle Paul did while he was doing what he had passion to do, that he was great at. He made his own opportunities and took the ones God gave him, but he had a plan to support himself, given that his opportunities usually also ended in beatings and prison more often than a salary.

If you have passion and opportunity, either you need to work hard to improve your ability or the opportunity could disappear at any time. It’s going to be difficult to keep going if you want to be good at it, but aren’t and people are supporting you or giving you their attention. So keep trying, get more training, etc.

If you have no passion, but have opportunity and ability, it’s going to be tough. Maybe you need to just reorient your perspective to at least tolerate what you’re doing. If you hate what you’re doing that everyone says you’re great it, I can’t imagine it would be easy to stick with it very long. Perhaps if you feel like you’re called, it can help, but it’s still a difficult task.

Ideally, you’d want all three. Try and work on your limitations if you’re missing one of the three or maybe, you need to tweak what you feel called to. Perhaps you’re in the right general vicinity, but a small change moves you smack dab into the middle of the conjunction between passion, ability, and opportunity.

When I started doing what I do full-time, I hadn’t honed down my vision, so I spent time freelancing for anyone that needed my help (ability and opportunity). I really wanted to help the church with technology (passion and ability), but hadn’t figured out how to make opportunities. Then one day I got an email from one and then two followed by a third video streaming company.

With that opportunity, my calling rolled into focus in a way that it never had before. I finally saw that I wasn’t supposed to just look for freelancing gigs or try and consult with churches, although I could do both. I was supposed to stream video training for churches every week day.

Notice that I was close, but only when I pivoted my vision a little did I get exactly what I was supposed to do. Perhaps a little tweak is all you need to have your calling clear in your mind.

If you’re not clear at all, why not make a list of all the passions, abilities, and opportunities in your life and see where they come together.

This doesn’t mean that this is a hard and fast rule on finding your calling. If you’re great at killing people, like doing it, and are offered money from the mob, that’s not your calling; that’s a temptation. If you easily meet people of the opposite sex, if you’re craving attention from them because your spouse ignores you, if you get propositioned by one of them, if you act on it, that’s called adultery and isn’t what you’re supposed to do.

Your calling should be for and about others. It should benefit them. If it doesn’t, that’s another way to tell that something’s wrong. Your calling isn’t to be wealthy and famous with people fawning all over you. It could be an outcome that you need to fight so that you’re not overcome by it. It’s just not core to your calling to be selfish.

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