You can train to become really, really good in almost anything you decide to do.

Should you do what you’re good at, or rather do what you love? Should you use your talents or follow your passion?

To answer this question, let’s look at actual research instead of gut feeling.1 Is a talent how good you are at doing something? Then it is a function of training time. Is it how fast you move forward? Then you likely already learned from other tasks many of the things you need for your task at hand.

If you’re not competing in top sports or pitting your skills against others every day in objectively measurable competitions where the winner takes it all (so you would have to be the best to earn anything), you can learn to be really good at most everything, if you put your mind to it. But you have to put your mind to it and train. Research showed that even the level of skill that top athletes and musicians possess is a direct function of the amount of training they put in (on logarithmic scale: double the training to become better by one measurable unit).

That’s why I consider telling people to follow their talents instead of their passion to be cynical, though disguised as trying to help people find happiness. To paraphrase: “You are born with fixed talents. Your only choice in life is to use these or to be unhappy.” This isn’t just patronizing and invalidates the very idea of free will. It is also wrong.

The more realistic (and positive) guideline is to do what you love doing, and to work towards becoming great in what you love doing. Which is not the same as doing what you would love to have done: the hero is not the one who loves standing on the tribune but the one who loves doing what’s right despite hindrances. Training is hard, but if you make it a habit, it can become natural:

»The shift from deliberate to natural is powerful and transformational.«
— Thomas Oppong in To Get More Creative, Become Less Judgemental

You can learn to become really, really good in almost anything you decide to do. It’s unlikely that you’ll become world champion if you start into a new skill at the age of 40, but you can come pretty close to the champions with a tenth of the training they put in. If you always did what (others said) you were good at till the age of 40, you still have a choice: When you reach 50 you can be very good at something you chose, or world class at something others chose for you.

But keep in mind that you’ll still need something to eat. If that what you love doing cannot keep you and your family fed, then you will have to settle for something less — for example using what you’re already good at in such a way that you love doing it and finding joy in some aspects of what you do. Those who told you what to do might have had good reason for that (but then, they might still have been wrong).

(also see The 4 things it takes to be an expert or the book Thinking Fast and Slow from Kahnemann)

  1. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, Psychological Review, 1993 

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