Wednesday, October 10, 2018

What's so great about following your passion anyway? Reflections on whether you should do what you love.

When I was in my late teens I read a lot of books by American self-help authors like Wayne Dyer and Anthony Robbins. There was one thing those books all seemed to agree on: the most important thing in life is to do what you are passionate about. ‘Do what you love’, Wayne Dyer would write, ‘and the money will follow’. That very quickly become something I believed in with all my heart, and it influenced many of the choices I made as a student. If I devoted myself wholeheartedly to my biggest passions, I reasoned, I was bound to become happy and successful. This led me to devote a huge amount of time to music, creative writing, and studying philosophy. The results, however, surprised me. Instead of becoming blissfully happy and achieving instant success, I also encountered failure, stress, and anxiety. It was certainly the case that following my so-called ‘passions’ also led to many moments of satisfaction and happiness, but not constantly, and that ran counter to my expectations. Also, some of those endeavors didn’t lead to success at all - instead, I crashed and burned in some areas of my life. ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans,’ John Lennon famously said, and that has certainly been true for me.

Our culture, however, has embraced the ideas of thinkers like Dyer and Robbins in a big, big way. The fact that people should follow their passion has become such a mainstream idea that most of us take its truth for granted. People who claim to follow their passion are put on a pedestal, and as a result almost everyone at some point in their life ends up asking the kind of questions I asked as a nineteen-year-old student: what is my passion? What is my ‘thing’?

It’s a hard question to answer, though. And asking it frequently stresses people out - a lot. After all, not everyone has a passion so huge that it’s crystal clear that devoting the rest of your life to it is sensible. And what if you have several passions, like I did as a student? How do you divide your time? How do you decide which passion to give priority?What if you have no passion? Does everyone have a passion? Should you be able to earn money with your passion? What is a passion anyway? Does drinking coffee count as a passion? The list of questions you can ask yourself about this topic goes on and on.

In my case, after many sidetracks and dead ends, my struggle to answer these kinds of questions led to a career as a University teacher, and in that capacity I frequently end up discussing these questions with my students. What should I do, they ask me? Should I go this way or that way? Focus on music or law? Should I do what I love or choose something that I think I will be able to earn more money with? And what do you do if you can’t choose? What if a thousand possible directions to take all look good? What if none look good?

It’s hard for me to help out when students ask these kinds of questions. Everyone is different. What’s sensible for one person is poisonous advice for another. So I don’t have clear-cut answers. I’m not an oracle, and I can’t make the decisions for them. In the end, what I almost always end up doing is this: I recommend stuff for them to read or watch. I end up recommending books, youtube clips, blog articles, newspaper articles, in the hope that it will help them to clarify their thinking. So here, in no particular order, are my favourite reading and viewing recommendations for figuring out that eternal, pesky question: what is my passion?

Youtube clip. Viewing time: 5 minutes.
Question addressed: Should you follow your passion?
Answer: Yes.

Before authors like Dyer and Robbins made a career out of bringing the ‘do what you love’ philosophy to the masses, there was Joseph Campbell – a hugely charismatic, deeply wise academic specializing in myth and religion who taught at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York for most of his life. Campbell shot to fame in the eighties when a series of televised interviews with him unexpectedly drew viewing figures in the millions. This clip comes from that series of interviews (the whole series is worth watching, and is called ‘The Power of myth’). Campbell explains that throughout his career he has advised his students to, in his words, ‘follow their bliss’. While that phrase might sound cheesy, Campbell’s explanation about how he came up with the phrase is anything but. I dare you to watch this clip and not be moved by Campbell’s energy and charisma. Although he doesn't address this in the clip, Campbell himself often acknowledged that following your passions will not lead to permanent bliss, commenting jokingly that a more accurate phrase would have been ‘follow your blisters’. 

Internet article. Reading time: 5 minutes.
Question addressed:Sshould you base what you study at University on your perception of what will lead to a job?
Answer: Probably not.

Glaser makes a point I believe in with all my heart: It’s very wise for students to use their bachelor degree to experiment. Take courses in a wide variety of fields, and don’t worry about the economics too much. A liberal arts degree, in this regard, is a perfect way to spend the first three years of your academic life. And if you’re passionate about the humanities - which have a bad rep in terms of job prospects - then go head and take that humanities major anyway (and after that, why not do a master in the same field, if you still love it?). In all likelihood your understanding of those poor job prospects are false anyway. The transferrable skills students learn in the humanities are tremendously valuable assets in a wealth of different jobs, as Glaser argues in this short article.

Blog article. Reading time: seven minutes.
Question addressed: Should you follow your passion?
Answer: Probably. But be aware of the caveats.
Question addressed: What is my passion?
Answer: You already know.

Manson is a superstar blogger and author of the recent best-seller The subtle art of not giving a f*ck (which I also heartily recommend). Of the many excellent points he makes in this blog post, two stand out for me:
1. What you’re passionate about is often so obvious that it’s staring you right in the face. We overcomplicate this issue frequently, as if we’re waiting for some kind of mystical ‘eureka’ revelation that lets us know that this is our thing, this is what we should devote the rest of our life to. But reality isn’t like that. Most of us don’t get messages from the Gods about what direction to go in. So we need to try stuff out. Following your passion often entails not just going with your gut-feeling, but a messy series of trial and error.
2. If you do what you’re passionate about, you’re not going to be 100% happy all the time. Accept that, and expect it to happen.

Blog article. Reading time: nine minutes.
Question Addressed: Should you invest all your time into following a single passion?
Answer: No.

Another article by Manson, this one a riff on a concept by famous productivity author / polyglot / speed-learner / angel investor / cookery writer / podcast host  Tim Ferriss (yes, Ferriss is really all those things!). Ferriss – whose blog I recommend – coined the term ‘identity diversification’, a concept which he explains as follows:

When you have money, it’s always smart to diversify your investments. That way if one of them goes south, you don’t lose everything. It’s also smart to diversify your identity, to invest your self-esteem and what you care about into a variety of different areas — business, social life, relationships, philanthropy, athletics — so that when one goes south, you’re not completely screwed over and emotionally wrecked.

Ferriss himself hasn’t elaborated much on the concept other than mention it in passing in interview, so I therefore recommend this blog post by Manson, which digs deeper and gives more food for thought. For me, the idea that you should diversify your identity is very, very wise advice. The reason that the whole ‘follow your passion’ idea leads to so much stress is that we start identifying with our passions. We put all our eggs in one basket. We invest huge amounts of time into making one area of our life a success – our so-called ‘passion’ – and as a result we feel under huge pressure. It is wise, therefore, to diversify our identity. This means we don’t necessarily have to follow just one passion - we can follow several. If I look back on my own career, this is something that I’ve always done, and I always felt slightly guilty about that. In hindsight, I see that it was actually a very sensible strategy.

Newspaper article. Reading time: 15 minutes.
Question addressed: Is failure bad?
Answer: No.

This article from the British newspaper the Guardian introduces the main ideas covered in Oliver Burkeman's book The Antidote, which is one of my favorite books of all time. It's a deeply wise book about the psychology of happiness which has had a huge amount of influence on my own thinking. I wish I’d read it twenty years earlier – it would have saved me much heartbreak and frustration. The most important take-away from the book for me? Make your peace with failure. Instead of seeing at as something to be avoided at all costs, see it as something natural, which is often-times beyond your control. I strongly recommend the entire book, but this short article does an excellent job covering the book's main ideas and can be read in under 15 minutes. I love the part where Burkeman describes his visit to the famous museum of failure - a huge collection of products that were on the market for only a few weeks because no one bought them. Failure, in other words, happens to the best of us. If you are going to follow your passions, then do so – but don’t stress yourself out by thinking that you must succeed at all costs. Convincing yourself that something beyond your control must happen is a surefire way to depression and anxiety. Failure is natural, and not something to be afraid of. If you combine that idea with Ferriss's 'diversify your identity' strategy you will have an approach to following your passions that is far, far healthier than most people's, and one I'd known about twenty years ago. 

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Rediscovering the 'Make Lists Not Fists' method

University College Roosevelt Alumnus Amand van Rossum recently wrote a facebook post about how he rediscovered the Make Lists Not Fists method of staying organized, when the workload for his Master program became too intense. Amand has kindly given me permission to share his post about how he got back on track here. Enter Amand:

"Recently, I started feeling more and more stressed. My Master was becoming more intense, my projects here in Moscow were becoming more demanding, and while trying to keep a healthy social life and getting those valuable 8 hours of sleep every night; it turned out to be quite a task.

I realized at some point that things were geting a bit too much and I knew that I needed to do something about the stress I was feeling. I remembered that my professor, Ritske Rensma, at University College Roosevelt in the Netherlands wrote a book about time management called 'Make Lists not Fists'. Even though I was part of a trial group that used the system described in the book, I managed to not read the book at all and I completely lost track of the idea he had put forward. I was too busy to be busy with it.

Understanding the irony of the whole situation, I remembered the book and read it. The book describes an interesting system of time management using the app Wunderlist as its basis. The idea is that you put your tasks, ideas and other things you should not forget in the app, which is divided into several categories. It is a very practical guide of not forgetting tasks anymore, to not lose track of good ideas, deadlines, social appointments and so on. If used properly, it can take away a large amount of worries that can cloud your everyday thinking.
I am currently using his system and it is working like a charm. Due to the system, I am managing the work which needs to be done for my Master, I am doing several projects on the side, I have a social life and I am sleeping enough. There are some points to be made that I am doing a bit too much, but that aside.
Because I am experiencing the benefits of the system he came up with, I wanted to share this with you.

Are you feeling overwhelmed due to your work, education?
Are you forgetful and losing track of things?
Are you having troubles sleeping due to stress?
Do you feel as if there are not enough hours in the day?
Then I would encourage you to try his system."

The book is for sale in hardcopy on Amazon in most countries (for Europe, go with or The ebook version is available on Amazon, Apple iBooks, and Kobo, amongst others. More info at

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Why time management is an essential life skill

Books about how to avoid what has been called ‘the busy trap’ are somewhat of a trend these days. From Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness to Ariana Huffington’s Thrive to Tony Crabbe’s Busy, it seems as if every major publisher wants to get into the stillness game and publish it’s own best-seller about how to slow down and de-stress. The most well known of these books is probably Crabbe’s Busy. Here in the Netherlands, where I teach at University level, it was hard to avoid for a while. Ads for the book were everywhere: in the papers, in magazines. Crabbe was on Dutch television twice and gave a Ted talk at TedxAmsterdam. Some of his Dutch fans even tried to get him to come to Amsterdam for a public-speaking event by crowd-funding it. 
In and of itself, the success which Busy has enjoyed isn’t all that surprising. There’s a lot to like about the book: it’s got jokes and references to movies like Life of Brian and The Matrix, it’s written in a humble and friendly tone of voice, and it’s got tons of references to interesting research to back up most of its claims. On the whole, it’s an enjoyable and inspiring read. I’m not all that convinced, however, whether the book will really succeed in the mission which Crabbe has set for it: to make people less busy and stressed-out. The reason I believe this is because Crabbe claims throughout the book that time management is a useless activity that should be abandoned. In fact, he even states that the use of time management techniques is one of the root problems of the current busyness epidemic. Since one of the topics I lecture on occasionally is time management, and thus have first-hand evidence of how useful it can be to students, this is an opinion that I have a serious problem with.
So why does Crabbe have a problem with time management techniques? In Busy, he explains it like this:

We feel harried and overwhelmed for much of our waking moments. So what strategy do we employ to address this? For most of us, it is time management. We believe that if we could manage our time more effectively, we’d be more in control of our life and more effective. However, in a world of infinite demand, the more we manage our time, the more we can cram into our days.

What Crabbe is describing here is a classic beginner’s mistake, that anyone who’s ever got serious about learning time management techniques will recognise: once you get good at organising yourself it’s quite tempting to want to get to ‘inbox zero’. You want to finish the day with an empty email inbox, and preferably an empty to-do list too. End result: you work even harder than you used to, in pursuit of a goal which is forever out of reach. As Crabbe correctly points out, working like this is not healthy behaviour. What Crabbe is wrong about, however, is the conclusion he draws from this observation: that we should give up on time management altogether. Crabbe wants us to go straight to what he calls ‘mastery’: the ability to make tough decisions about what to focus on. He writes repeatedly that he wants us to manage our attention, not our time. The problem with this position is that you cannot separate managing your time and managing your attention. In order to manage your attention you have to manage your time. Yes, you can manage your time badly, but you can also manage it wisely. Truth of the matter is, though, that you’ll have to manage it in some shape or form if you want to be more creative and less stressed.
In this regard, Crabbe is like a ski instructor who wants to a take his inexperienced pupil off-piste during the first lesson. Forgetting about your to-do list occasionally (as Crabbe advises in chapter 1 of Busy) is great advice - but not for someone who doesn’t know how to handle a to-do list properly to begin with. Such skills - which, for want of a better word, we might call time management - are highly relevant in the complex and ever-changing world we inhabit. In fact, I consider them essential life skills, which should be taught in high schools and Universities. Martin Lewis - the brains behind the hugely popular Money Saving Expert website - has been arguing the same thing about finance skills for years. Time management skills, according to me, are in the same category. If we don’t teach young people that they exist and how they should be used properly, we’re sending them off into the wilderness without a map and a compass. This is one of the reasons why I recently wrote a time management book for students, and why I will keep on devoting some of my research and service hours at University College Roosevelt (where I am a lecturer in the Humanities department) to teaching and writing about time management. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Crabbe’s book, and will certainly be recommending it to my students. But for I get them started on reading Busy I’m going to make sure they’ve learned the basics first. Going off-piste on your first day of skiing is bound to lead to broken legs. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

My top tips for Insomnia

As a tutor, I'm the first port of call for students at University College Roosevelt who struggle with personal problems and health issues. Over the years, the number of my students who report struggling with insomnia has grown exponentially. Here are the top tips I share with students who struggle with sleeping - all of these learned after struggling with sleep myself for some time:

No coffee after 14.00. Really!

No looking at computer screens, smartphones, tablets, after 19.00. This makes a big difference. If you really have to work in the evening, install f.lux on your computer: This filters out the blue light, which blocks melatonine release. You don’t want blue light in the evenings! If you have an iphone and/or ipad, make sure you update it to iOS 9.3: this comes with a function called 'night shift' which does the same as f.lux. Turn it on, also on your phone!

Take magnesium supplements. I take 200mg before going to bed. This is a wellknown sleeping aid. 

Read fiction for an hour before going to bed. No non-fiction, fiction. Works for me!

Have very regular sleep and wake times. Try to go to bed roughly at the same time each day and get up at the same time. This is difficult as a student, I know. Alcohol and parties really mess up your sleep rhythm. So limit that, if not abstain from it, until things go better. 

Organize yourself well so your mind is not so restless. My own system for this is online at This really, really helps me to have a more quiet mind.

Meditation works for some people. I recommend the free ‘headspace’ app for this, if you have no experience with it. The first ten days are free, after that a subscription is necessary. I know a lot of people who found it motivating to have the app as a kind of ‘guide’. Even if it’s just ten minutes in the evening, it can have a beneficial effect. Taking a course on mindfulness could also be an idea, if you are interested in this sort of thing.


If none of that works, you can also experiment with sleep restriction:

If none of this helps, do go and see your student councilor. Sleeping poorly is detrimental to your health and means you will not perform to the best of your ability. Take it serious!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Inspiration for creating lists in Wunderlist

So you've read Make Lists Not Fists. You've set up Wunderlist and you've created the core lists of the Lists Not Fists method. Then what? Which extra lists do you create to get the most out of the system? To give you some inspiration, here is an overview of the lists that two of my students have set up in their Wunderlist.

Camilla van Kooten (class of 2017).

The lists I have are:

·      Active lists
- Today homework
- Today other
- Week to do
- Semester to do (for all the deadlines)
- Waiting for (for example if someone owes me money)
-Put in diary (if there is anything I have to write down in my diary, for example appointments)

·      Passive lists
- Groceries
- Fun stuff
- Buy stuff
- Long term to do
- Movies to watch
- Masters programs

Debby-EsmeĆ© de Vlugt (class of 2016, now Masters student at Oxford)

The lists I have are:

·      Active lists
Today – UCR
-Today – Other
-RSC (=my internship at the Roosevelt Study Center)
-Week to do
-Month (=same as week, but then for the month)
-Semester (=deadlines)
-Waiting for (=mostly money that I still have to receive or pay)

·      Passive lists
-Future Courses (= possible ideas for papers etc.)
-Masters programs I’m interested in
-Veggies&Vanilla (=my website)
-Tabula RASA (UCR’s student paper, which I write for. I mostly put article ideas here)
-Plans Winter Break
-Plans Summer Break
-Books to Read