This post was originally published on my newsletter.
I came across this tweet today on a life philosophy to follow that really resonated with me.
everything I do is the most important thing I do…. I will be ambitious with my job and not my career.
The implication of this statement is that whatever you’re doing now is the most important thing for you, not some stepping stone for a future greatness. It means that you fully embrace living in the moment and following the energy for what you can’t imagine not doing. Part of the prerequisite for following this is really understanding your taste and another part is deviating from the traditional philosophy around goal-setting.
Honing your craft
The tweet uses the term “job” to describe your immediate work that is different from your work persona (“career”), but I prefer the term “craft” which encompasses a skill that you want to master.
This reminds me of the difference between a goal-oriented, extrinsic motivation (I only wish I could get that prestigious Google internship) and a development-oriented, intrinsic motivation (I want to be someone who can create software to help people). The former involves entering a cycle of always chasing the next thing whenever you reach a goal post while the latter means abandoning a constant guiding endpoint in favor of regularly checking if you’re moving in the right direction at any given moment.
If I had seen this tweet a couple years ago, I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it. I was wrapping up college then and was still in the mindset that had been engraved into me since I was a child of following the right kind of path, the golden route to success. First it was getting good grades, then it was getting into a prestigious college, and then it was finding a well-paying and supportive job to prepare me for understanding the industry as a whole. At each goal, when I achieved it, there was an easy next objective to move on to, and it felt natural to move on to chasing the next thing when it was right in front of me. If you had asked me if the thing I was working on in the moment was the most important thing, I would’ve been shocked because the standard operating mode in college is that everyone is on a stepping stone to their real end goal, whether it be medical school, a job at one of the big firms, or even to start contributing to “real” society.
Unmoored from a clear path
After I moved out for my job, there wasn’t a clear next goal for me to chase next (especially given the fact I joined a startup that didn’t have a clear leveling system), and that’s how I slowly changed over to this mindset of focusing on my craft rather than my career and trying to ensure that I was constantly going in a direction that was meaningful to me rather than chasing a future reality. This was one of the hardest things for me to internalize because the thing that is engrained in you from the start, especially growing up in an Asian household, is that there’s a proper order to be followed in the real world. You’re not going to be able to start doing the flashy fun stuff right away, not until you’ve put in the hours understanding the basics and the foundations.
I recall being told that I’d have to start at the bottom doing the grunt work—pushing the mail cart, grabbing coffee, other classic unpaid intern duties before I would get to start contributing real work. You see an extreme instantiation of this in Jiro’s Dreams of Sushi, where his apprentices start with learning how to squeeze a towel properly before they even step foot in a kitchen and progressively master the base ingredients before they even touch fish. Although I was taught to always put my full heart into it even if it feels like meaningless work, there are things that I really can’t even imagine being “the most important thing.” This part is where the “everything is important” philosophy comes into conflict with the Asian household philosophy of paying your dues before you can reward yourself.
For some crafts, mastery means perfection at every level, which favors a hierarchical approach like this one. For others, like creating magical software experiences, it takes a lot of experimentation and quirky combinations of divergent ideas rather than a precise, linear process. Since I’m chasing the latter, I had to understand when it was okay to break the rules I had grown up with and instead, follow the energy towards advancing my craft. This is another part of understanding your taste around your craft—knowing what activities give you energy and just make it natural to be the most important thing.
Whatever your craft is, put your heart and soul into it, and make it the most important thing you do. Carry that weight and passion and energy all the way through because it’s infectious. And if you’re still finding that you can’t put your heart and soul into it, it may be time to find something else that aligns better with where you find yourself being pulled.
This is the 8th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here.