Solving human problems

“Follow your passion” is bullshit.

I recently finished Scott Adam’s How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big. He makes the same point as Cal Newport does in So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Newport argues that skills trump passion. Scott Adam shares that view, but he argues that what passion does is give you energy. Adams advises that you focus on increasing your personal energy.


He offers several stories and mechanisms, but the main three that I remember are these:

1) Take care of your health: Sleep well. Eat right. Move. 2) Don’t do things or be around people that drain you. 3) Focus on systems, not goals.

I’ve always considered my time, my attention, and my energy to be my most precious resources. And as such, being in control of where they go and how they are distributed remains a priority. But until this morning, I hadn’t got much further than that. I just saw them as a pretty solid heuristic:

Control over your time, attention and energy will make you happy.

Now I see it as this:

Energy is the key to happiness. Managing your time and attention effectively gets you the most energy.

Or more simply, imagine a pyramid. The bottom two blocks are time and attention. The top block is energy.

I’ve also just started Essentialism. I’m only a few pages in and I’ve already seen something that is worth the cost of the book. It’s this diagram:

​Being pulled in many different directions isn’t effective, or sustainable. Directing our energies down a well-defined path yields more results and more contentment. 

Another thing Essentialism has done for me? It’s reminded me of the wisdom of the ancients.

Greg McKeown cites the definition of essentialism as, “less but better”.

I’m familiar with the work of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Their philosophy of how to live (and philosophy proper is the art of living, not some abstract, theoretical framework) is the forerunner to many of the personal happiness, productivity and self-help books you see today.

Let me give two examples from Aurelius’ Meditations that mirror what McKeown talks about:

​““If you seek tranquillity, do less.” Or (more accurately) do what’s essential … Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.
Because most of what we do and say is not essential. If you can eliminate it , you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?””

And this:

​“A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.”

​A lot of books today, especially ones which claim to have the secret to wealth or happiness or fulfilment, just put a new spin on old recipes. They repackage what the ancients have already figured out. After all, we’re still human. We have the same problems now as we did thousands of years ago.

But the point is not to quit reading books like Essentialism, How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big and So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Or for people to stop writing them. That would be stupid. There’s a lot they can teach us.

It’s to recognise that underlying most of the advice we receive today is a foundation built by men and women hundreds and thousands of years ago.

They had our problems too and they figured out the answers to a lot of them. Solutions to the human riddles like anger, jealousy, despair, avarice, grief and confusion are there. The hard work has been done.

We just need to open our eyes and use them.