Interest and Purpose

I was surprised by how many of the lessons in Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit” resonated with me, as though I’d come to loosely understand some of the ideas she writes about in the past, but never had the words to explain them. You may recall that I quoted a Duckworth in a recent blog post I wrote on Grit (having watched her TED Talk) and it’s something I’ve been making a conscious effort to have more of. While her talk gives one a brief sense of the ideas discussed, her book is far more insightful. Years of failed side projects, failed attempts at learning instruments, hobbies I didn’t pursue; It’s the book I wish I’d been able to read ten years ago.

“Grit…”, Duckworth writes, “is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it… It’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love―staying in love.” Fortunately, she reassures us that the tenets of grit (interest, practice, purpose and hope) aren’t “You have it or you don’t commodities. You can grow grit from the inside out”, she writes.

The book’s chapters on interest and purpose particularly struck a chord with me because it seems so rare in life that I encounter things I’m both interested in and that have purpose, which Duckworth describes as “the intention to contribute to the well-being of others”.

Many of the side projects I’ve worked for example have had either, but so rarely both. It’s interesting to look back and classify each of them: Reportship, an analytics tool I worked on had value to others but wasn’t something I was particularly interested in; Squadwipe, a gaming video platform, was interesting to me but nobody else; Postkit, an API prototyping tool was interesting and had some purpose to others, but not to any great extent. It’s impossible to understate the importance of building something people want.

In “How To Get Startup Ideas”, Paul Graham discusses what he calls the “unsexy filter”: choosing not to work on an idea because it doesn’t seem interesting, in the face of the value it offers to others. He writes, “[The unsexy filter] keeps you from working on problems you despise rather than ones you fear. We overcame this one to work on Viaweb. There were interesting things about the architecture of our software, but we weren’t interested in ecommerce per se. We could see the problem was one that needed to be solved though.”

I’m sure there are times when an activity doesn’t immediately have purpose to others but instead is acquired over time. Take for example the story of the Javascript library Vue.js of which a documentary was recently made. For its creator Evan You, its initial purpose was to scratch his own itch: to bind Javascript objects to the DOM. As its popularity (and importance to the Javascript community) grew, Evan realised the opportunity to bridge the gap left by established frameworks Angular and React and began to work on the project full-time. In his words, “It’s like my gut’s telling me, this is the thing you should do.”

I think you can apply this idea to many other walks of life, like discovering new hobbies. Cooking is one of the few activities that meets this criteria for me (as I both enjoy doing it and I can cook for others) and I’d imagine that many creative hobbies have the same potential (anything that involves producing something to demonstrate or give to others.) As Duckworth writes however, “…you can’t really predict with certainty what will capture your attention and what won’t. You can’t simply will yourself to like things”. Inspired by this I’ve recently been investing my time in a range of different hobbies, initially focusing on creative ones. I recognise the importance of not trying to do too much at once but also that I may develop interests through several different interactions with a subject, perhaps over the course of months or years.

Subjects that have both our interest and purpose to others are the ones we’re most likely to want to work on for a long period of time. In the context of work, this isn’t necessarily an indicator for success, but still highly important.

I’m Tim, a Software Engineer from the UK. I like to write code, cook, read & run.

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