Two Essential Ingredients of Success

Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.
–Ludwig van Beethoven

I had the opportunity to speak with a writer’s group the other day. They asked a lot of questions, and I did my best to offer honest answers. But if I could do it again, I’d summarize my advice in two words: passion and practice.

Two Essential Ingredients of Success

How do you get good at writing? What does it take to publish a book? How can you get the world to hear your message? 

Here’s how: Love what you do. And hustle. That’s it. Simple, but not easy. And there’s way more to each of those than meets the eye.

You have to love the work

When I took my first job, my boss-to-be asked me one question:

Is this something you can get excited about?

I was in food service that summer and didn’t understand the question. Wasn’t this just a job? Why did I need to love it? He wouldn’t hire me until I could say, “Yes, I want to do this.” So I did, and shortly after that conversation, he hired me.

The job was far from ideal. First, I wrote email copy and then proofread brochures. After that, I edited my boss’s blog and taught our staff how to tell stories on the Web. Then, I was promoted to help other departments with their email copy. Eventually, I started my own team, which taught me many important lessons.

Looking back on that job I almost didn’t take, I now realize it was the perfect apprenticeship. Seven years on the job taught me first-hand what’s required to take a passion and turn it into a reality. I put that same knowledge to work to launch my career as a writer.

And it all began with a shift in attitude. I had to learn to love the work.

If you’re going to do work that matters (which is something we all should long for), you need to be able to love it. In a sense, it should drive you but not own you. This doesn’t mean you can’t get tired or worn out from the demands of the job, but if you don’t wake up excited every day, you need to be doing something else.

Of course, that’s just the beginning. Let’s not forget practice.

Passion is not enough

Life without practice is dangerous. Just watch American Idol. Every season, they have someone (a lot of someones, actually) who didn’t practice, who didn’t put in the work and somehow believed they were good enough. They were wrong.

At some point, someone lied to these people, convincing them that all they needed to succeed was passion. And they failed, sometimes without knowing why or what they did wrong. Nobody wants to be that person, but rarely do we realize when we are that person. The safeguard is to not give your passion too much credit.

Finding your passion isn’t some fleeting feeling of pleasure. It means understanding the core of who you are and tapping into what lights you up inside. Typically, these pursuits are not new things, but old ones. They require us to listen to our lives and take decisive action. It means looking at what you love, but also finding where that intersects with your skills and the needs of the world.

In other words, don’t just practice anything; practice the right thing. Find your true gifts, the things you were born to do, by putting them through the crucible of practice. Forget 10,000 hours of mediocrity; this is about deep practice.

Intensity and frequency matter more than mere quantity of hours.

And let’s be clear: Doing something a few times a month is not practice. It’s a hobby. Practice means pushing yourself to the utter limits of your abilities. It means getting up every day to do the work, because that’s what’s required of you. And because that’s what you love.

What this doesn’t look like

In The Art of Work, I wrote about my failed plans to become a professional musician. Before I could learn what was the right path for me, I had to get good enough at music to realize it wasn’t my true passion.

Turns out, we don’t find our passion and then practice it. Rather, practice is what helps us discover what we ought to be doing in the first place. Discovery accompanies dedication; it doesn’t precede it.

For most of us, this discovery process looks like disciplining ourselves to love the work we do (or changing the situation if we don’t) and undergoing a rigorous regimen of practice. You have to start somewhere, but sticking with something is essential. Otherwise, you drift through life, wondering what to do next.

This process of integrating passion and practice helps us not only grow the skills we need to achieve excellence. It also helps us develop the discipline we need to deepen our awareness so that we know where to focus our efforts.

Passion and practice. They work together. Without passion, the work will feel rote and mundane. And without practice, it will get sloppy. You need both. And when you combine them in just the right way, something magical can happen.

Note: My latest book, The Art of Work, is available for 40% off on Amazon. I have no idea how long that will last, so if you wanted to pick up a copy (or a second one), grab one while it’s available. If you’ve already ordered a copy, it should be on its way later this week.

Are you practicing what you love? Share in the comments.