20 Hours: The Skills-Passion Compromise

What comes first, the chicken or the egg?

This classic hypothetical can also be played out with skills and passion:

  • Do skills come first, and passion follow once competency is built?
  • Or does passion come first, the intersection of curiosities that gives us intrinsic fuel to even develop skill out of the gates?

The former camp is that of author and professor Cal Newport, whose work has gained immense popularity as featured in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Deep Work, and Digital Minimalism.

Decidedly, the subtitle to So Good is “Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.” He’s even got a Career Craftsman Manifesto.

The latter group would suggest that we naturally pursue that which brings us positive emotion and engagement by playing with multiple curiosities. Stacking those feel-good neurochemicals, dopamine and norepinephrine, breeds anticipation to even more pleasurable experiences we can return to, however Pavlovian that may be.

We’re still back to square one — Team Skills or Team Passion?

Yes and.

I propose a compromise through combining the two.

One of my favorite examples of skill acquisition is and was that of Josh Kaufman, who in his book The First Twenty Hours, re-examined how long it takes to get “good” at something.

While world-class expertise through deliberate practice certainly takes thousands of hours (which flow can short circuit), Josh was right.

Gaining proficiency, zero to something, is marginal. Twenty hours.

His TED Talk on the same topic is a must watch.

To satisfy Team Skills, take that initial twenty hours and dedicate yourself to the deep work and deliberate practice with a beginner’s mindset.

To appease Team Passion, commit to twenty hours as an exercise in the grit to persevere (versus jumping from idea to idea) while simultaneously playing with different curiosities to see which ones work well together.

If that intersection of curiosities doesn’t work, that’s ok. Try another. If it does, keep developing your skill(s).

In the end I’ll meet in the middle with the twenty hours compromise. Skills or passion, chicken or egg, what matters is not which door gets us moving initially, it’s that we begin the path to mastery in whatever it is that ultimately makes us come alive.



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Kevin Votaw

Kevin Votaw

Flow Coach. Applying flow in school, sports, and life: ❌ Flow x Fiero ♦️North of Happy ⚾ The Pitching DJ 🧠