The Vitruvian Life

Why Mastering Skills Trumps ‘Pursuing Your Passions’

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Advice for the young conservative in the modern world.

Welcome to the Vitruvian Life, NR’s weekly advice column for young conservatives in the modern world. Send in your questions about living a balanced, virtuous life: mind, body, and soul. Include your name (anonymous or not), and town in an email to Vitruvian.Life@nationalreview.com. Questions might be lightly edited for publication, but they’ll never be made up.

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I am a 17-year-old male from a middle-class family in a small suburb of Pittsburgh. At the bare minimum, I want this out of my life, in no particular order:

1. Fulfilling work that I am passionate about and that provides financial stability

2. A wife who is dedicated, loving, and beautiful

3. Children

4. A home somewhere far from the city

5. Strong faith

6. Good health

No career is of particular interest to me. People are becoming more progressive and having open relationships with no children. The countryside is urbanizing. The population is becoming less healthy. Faith is disappearing. What is the next step that I take? How do I get what I want in a world that is decisively moving away from all of the aforementioned things?

Nathanael, Western Pennsylvania

First, a word about passion. As Cal Newport, the Georgetown computer-science professor, documents in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, today’s ubiquitous “just follow your passion” career advice is some of most hippie-cliché-ridden, poorly thought-through counsel ever given. Yes, you’ll hear the admonition to “follow your passion” in pretty much every high-school and college commencement speech this spring. But just because a phrase is everywhere, doesn’t mean it’s true. Our grandparents would have been astonished at this advice — and not in a good way. We should be, too.

In his book, Newport lays out the evidence that long-term professional satisfaction derives not from following your passion, but from acquiring a skill and then achieving mastery of it. Passion for your work comes as a byproduct of becoming really good at your job, not from attempting to match your job with some fuzzy preconceived notion about your passions.

Second, while I like your list of what you want to “get out of life,” at 17 there’s no need to stress out too much about how you’re going to get there. Besides, a couple of your priorities (marriage and children, especially) are — as all great literature and even a decent RomCom will tell you — pretty much metaphysically resistant to planning.

Growing up is one-third adventure, one-third transformation — and only one-third a checklist. If you’re not interested in any particular career right now, don’t sweat it. If you decide to go to college, as a freshman take a wide variety of challenging general-education classes in differing fields in order to expose yourself to an array of different subject matters. Or consider joining the military. I can guarantee you that the 22-year-old version of yourself, fresh off a four-year enlistment in the Marine Corps, will have a lot more maturity, motivation, and direction than the 17-year-old you has right now.

If you’re still lost, read Jim Geraghty and Cam Edwards’s Heavy Lifting: Grow Up, Get a Job, Start a Family, and Other Manly Advice. If you’re looking for a first step, that’s not a bad place to start.

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1. Who is paying the NRPLUS membership fees for all the leftists on the NR comment boards? George Soros? The DNC?

2. Who is paying the NRPLUS membership fees for all the Trumpists on the NR comment boards? I think that one might answer itself.

Anonymous Old Man

It’s a free country, my dear Anonymous Old Man. If Americans want to pay for the privilege of hate-reading National Review, who am I to tell them to go away?

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* * *

I am a young writer, mostly of poetry and unfinished prose. I feel a disappointment, a dissatisfaction, a dis-ease. I cannot support myself on my current income; despite working a full-time position, I live with my parent. It is frustrating. And so, I write. I write nearly pauseless. My hope: My writing will pick me up, just enough, that I may be free. I am free, but I hardly feel free.

People tell me my writing is good, but I find getting feedback as difficult as amputation. I don’t want to be told that I am good. I want to be told why it’s good, where it could be better, and what’s bad. I have sent to publications, but have never been published, and only gotten back lifeless, economical responses. What do I do?

Nobody Joe, Athens, Georgia

If you step back and think about it, the concept of coaching is wild. A professional runner or gymnast or shot putter pays someone to tell him everything he’s doing that’s wrong. A good coach is hard on his athletes. He grinds their gears and bruises their egos. He makes life difficult and forces the harder path, the tougher path, the longer path.

The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that “no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”

Translation: Getting coached sucks, even if we know it’s good for us.

Nobody likes to be coached — okay, maybe some psychopaths like to be coached. (Have you ever noticed how so many truly elite athletes are nuts?) The rest of us, however, would prefer to listen to our lizard brains and take it easy.

My friend, the truth is that right now, you’re acting like an amateur. Now, I don’t mean “amateur” as a slur or an insult. I mean it as a cold-blooded descriptor.

An amateur writes (or plays music, or paints, or woodworks, or . . .) for the love of it. You need to turn pro. And a professional gets coached. In your case, as a writer, that means you need an editor — an editor who’s not afraid to hurt your feelings or tell you that your writing isn’t as good as you think.

How do you get that kind of coaching? You need to actually write for an editor — not your journal or your blog or your Facebook friends. (The feedback you get from friends and family is generally worth what you paid for it, i.e., nothing at all.)

If you’re a young writer, submit your work to local literary journals, magazines, and newspapers in order to get it in front of that editor/coach who can begin the hard work of sharpening your craft and building your skills. They’re not all going to publish you, and you need to be prepared to hear “No” a lot at first. But what’s the alternative? Trust me, you’re unlikely to hear back from The New Yorker if you submit an unsolicited short story on spec. And even if you do hear back, you’re definitely not going to get a lot of concrete, constructive feedback.

None of the above is pleasant, simple, or easy. But who ever said anything about good things being easy? It’s time to turn pro.

Remember to submit your own question about living the Vitruvian Life to Vitruvian.Life@nationalreview.com. See you next week.

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