Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt often references his mentor, E.O. Wilson, the best ant scientist in the world.
He argues on several occasions that being passionate about your work is an immense competitive advantage. His mentor is the best ant scientist in the world because he absolutely freaking loves ants. He loves studying them, and he thus studies them more intently and more often that someone who’s just in the ant science game for the paycheck and the glamor.
Sounds pretty plausible to me.
Let’s leave aside for a minute the debate about whether “doing what you love” or earning a good paycheck so you can do what you love is more likely to make you happy. Being passionate about your job almost certainly will make you better at it. And finding work that you are uniquely more passionate about that anybody else is probably a good way to find work that you have an unbeatable competitive advantage in.
Here’s another little economics gem: Revealed vs stated preferences. Experiments have shown again and again that humans terrible forecasters of what makes them happy. When asked to state their preferences — purchases now or savings later, a new TV or a weekend in Paris, and so on — the choices they tell rarely match up to their actual decisions. Economics use the concept of revealed preferences, those trade-offs people express through their actual decisions, to determine what truly makes people happy… or if you prefer econonomist-speak: what maximizes their utility.
I think it’s not too far to stretch to say that humans probably are not great at forecasting what they are actually passionate about. So maybe we should use the same toolkit of revealed preferences to think about revealed passions.
So I’ve been doing this thought experiment over the last few years. What do my actions actually reveal about what I am passionate about? What do I consistently spend my idle time thinking about, tinkering with and improving without any obvious economic benefit?
The thought experiment is to think about this first as objectively as possible, then if you strike something interesting, contemplate how you could work or get paid from it.
Here’s an example for me. I freaking love travel bags. I’ve lived a large portion of my adult life out of a single carry on suitcase or backpack. I currently live out of one. I don’t have a home, just some flexible storage space with Makespace and I still personally own eight or nine different variations of backpacks and luggage. I’m constantly upgrading, constantly looking at reviews of new gear and constantly checking out other people’s bags in airports — taking notes, evaluating features and generally spending way too much time thinking about travel bags.
Maybe I should start a travel bag design company. Why not?
I don’t think this is some secret formula and I’m not dropping everything to start a travel bag company. But I never even considered it until I did this revealed passions thought experiment. So it was a useful 30 seconds of brain work.
And now I’m thinking about it! Maybe it is a good idea. That thought prompted me to start researching, learning about manufacturing and design. If anything it spurred me to learn a bit more about something I’ve never dug into before.
What are your revealed passions? Give it a shot.