Hi Cal

I recently read your blog post: Following passion is Different than Cultivating Passion, and something about it really struck a chord with me. It even made me start this blog, something that I’ve been thinking (and procrastinating) about for a few months.

So, I’m going to take you up on your challenge to help you: “carefully separate the goal of developing passion from the flawed strategy of following it.” Why am I qualified to contribute? Because I’ve done both. First, I lived the life on the road as a professional gambler. And after that, I’ve become a highly valued project manager at a multinational materials technology company.

Since I’m officially a blogger now, let’s satisfy the lifestyle designers first: I’m currently writing this from my hotel room in Spain, to the soundtrack of the Mediterranian sea crashing onto the beach. But there’s a twist. I’m here, not because of some romantic notion about the travelling lifestyle, but because I think it makes sense to invest in real estate in Spain in 2012. And I am only able to do this because I’ve become so good at my core business that I can leverage this to realizing my dream: a home by the Mediterranian sea.

But before we can get to that, an introduction is needed.

The beginning

I’m not going to expand on dropping out of college after four years of studying engineering (1997-2001) and I’ll be brief about doing manual labor for two years (2003-2004): it sucked and I didn’t see many other options at the time. My world was very small. I couldn’t see far into the future, I didn’t have much imagination or ambition, and life was as expected: I drank a lot of beers, both at work and after. I didn’t have any responsibilities. Eventually… I hit rock bottom.

So, I grabbed hold of myself and paid my own way through the last two years of college (2004-2006), graduated, and secured my first job as an Industrial Engineer. I was to manage the installation of equipment and utilities for a very small manufacturing company that was looking to expand.

Poker Player

By this time, I’d already taken an interest to the game of Texas Hold’em Poker. As many professional poker players (which I would eventually become), it all started when I saw the movie “Rounders” (2004). In it, Matt Damon’s character drops out of law school to compete in the World Series of Poker. I was immediately hypnotized by the game, and started playing poker with a free $10 promotion at an online poker room. I turned that initial $10 into $100, then $1000, and I never looked back.

After two years of working at my first job (2006-2007), the factory I was helping to build, started up production. I felt like I was no longer necessary, and the money from playing poker was getting better every month. I told the owner that I did not see a future for myself in his company, and quit.

And so I followed my passion: playing No-Limit Texas Hold’em Poker. I loved it. And I’m sorry, lifestyle designers, but the poker players beat you to it. They were printing money from every data connection available, no matter what country it was in. I mean, you didn’t even enter into it if your hourly rate was less than $100/hr. I loved it. In 2008, I spent about 50 nights in hotel rooms all over the world, including Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker. There were no limits to the influx of money into the game, the number of players available… it was a free money fest – first come, first serve.

So Cal, to get back to your challenge: there is no doubt that I was following my passion then. The love for the game (even before I knew the rules) came first, and I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. First, I learned the rules. Then, basic strategy. Then, I found the discussion forums, the books, the coaches. It was deliberate practice, for sure. But the passion pulled me through the effort required. (the cash obviously helped).

Selection Bias

As the game of online poker matured, much of the same dynamics emerged that we now see in lifestyle design. Some players gained notoriety, because of fluke results, or well-earned results, or Paris Hilton-esque results (none at all). Some leveraged this into a cash business by getting sponsored or by offering coaching. ($500/hr was not unreasonable). The most savvy started affiliate or coaching websites. (Why the most savvy? Because it scales.)

There is only one problem with this evolution: selection bias. The guys that busted their bankroll didn’t blog about it. The guys who lost their way in drugs and gambling addiction didn’t show up in Cardplayer Magazine. The guys that never made money in the first place, but in a sad display of addiction could only fool themselves into thinking they were winning, well, they were the suckers, not the stars.

It’s the same with lifestyle design. There’s no doubt that there are great stories out there, about working poolside, for 4 hours a week. But as with any statistical population, are those just the outliers? (I use this term not without irony.) Are they really building assets that will allow them a comfortable old age? Are they really building a family base (I dare not write “home”).

Where are the blogs from the guys who tire from being on the road and return to live with their parents? Where are the stories like the one from my collegue who moved to Brazil for three years but had to return home because he was forced to keep his kids behind bars – at home, at school? Where are the entrepeneurs that start up a company, pour their life into it and file for bankruptcy after two years? (Sorry Corbett Barr, but you didn’t blog about that at the time.)

Cash out

So, to get back to poker, unfortunately, the money dried up eventually. In the US, online poker was outlawed. In many others countries, it was regulated. Cheating scandals erupted onto the scene. And the professional players? Many fell into a black hole. 20-year old kids who never worked a day in their life, but had hundreds of thousands of dollars in online accounts… continued to party. And then partied some more. And then maybe saw if any quick money was to be made in internet marketing. Or in day trading the stock exchange. But in the end, they too hit rock bottom.

It was time to cash out and move on.

I remember very well the moment that I reconsidered my options. I actually made a list. On it were 10-20 items/activities/identities that I could let go, and 5-10 things that I considered most important in my life at that time. Now this was no easy decision. Dropping for example “poker player” from my list, meant giving up a huge part of my ego, identity, social connections, etc. But I had to make some hard choices.

Project Manager

And so we turn into the final straight of this story. In 2010, I decided to go back to industrial engineering, preferably as a project manager. It was not my passion, but you summarized it well, Cal, when you wrote: “pick something that seems reasonably interesting, and stick with it”. At first I had to satisfy myself with a job as construction site supervisor, but I quickly took up many of the responsabilities of the project manager.

During this time, I dedicated myself to understanding the field of project management. I used the project I was working on as a lab for my project management experiments. In February of 2011, I was offered a position as Project Manager with a very large industrial company (€2 billion in revenues, €400 million in profit). They asked me to handle some small projects, working for them only two days a week.

In the year and a half that since has passed, I have worked myself up to become one of the cornerstones of the project engineering division at the site that I am working at. At this moment, I am in direct control of a project portfolio of  €13,5 million. How did I do this so quickly? If I may quote you again, Cal: “If you integrate any amount of deliberate practice into your regular schedule, you’ll be able to punch through the acceptable-level plateau holding back your peers”.


So, with all that in mind, what have I found to be the difference between following my passion and cultivating it?

The problem with following your passion is: what do you do when you’ve achieved it? When I became a professional poker player, that was the dream I’d always wanted to live. But then what? Looking back, I should have cultivated my passion, nurtured it, expanded on it. But I didn’t. And it died. It became a chore to play poker. There’s a reason we called ourselves “grinders”.

I wasn’t able to capitalize on the massive hype that poker had become. And why? Because I didn’t put in the hard work required. I followed the path of least resistance. Yes, there was still good money in it, and no, I didn’t have to work very hard. But I was unable to keep challenging myself and I lost motivation. The magic that always seemed to surround the game, the flying cards, the rattling of casino chips… it faded. And it was replaced by cynicism.

How about now?

This time around, I feel like I’m in the driver’s seat. I have a very clear vision of where I want to go and I see the steps I need to take in order to get there. I push myself every day, and when the going gets tough, I tell myself: “If you want to find the gold, you have to dig deep.”

The experience is richer, more rewarding. The skills I’m cultivating are more marketable, versatile, and sustainable. One of the senior managers of my client told me: “As an employee, your contract is your job security. But as a freelancer, being very good at what you do is your security.”

I have a feeling of contribution. I’m appreciated for the fresh input and new management techniques I bring to the table. This more conventional lifestyle is much better in sync with the rest of society. I can get business loans from the bank. I don’t have to explain to the IRS how I was able to afford my car.

Safe bet

Yes, I like this new life better. It’s not as sexy, admitted. But it’s just as much fun.

So is it possible to identify your passion up front, and follow it? Clearly, it is. But I don’t think it’s a safe bet. It’s not easy to find passion in something you know next to nothing about. And what if you do find your passion, you follow it, and only then you realize that there’s absolutely no way to monetize those skills? But let’s put even that aside, and assume for a moment that you do find your passion, you follow it, and you make a living out of it. At this point, if you fail to cultivate it, eventually the passion will fade and you will have created just another job for yourself.

The real merit of following your passion is that it takes away the paralyzing choice of picking something that seems reasonably interesting, and that it makes sticking with it a little easier at first.

But if you want to be in the driver’s seat and have control over where you’re going, make that hard choice, and then cultivate your passion. It will be a much safer bet. If you can pick your side of the casino table: be the house, not the player.

Johan Bastiaens

PS. If anyone can help me to get Cal to read this, that would be great.

This entry was posted in Career. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Hi Cal

  1. Cal says:

    Johan: I look forward to following your story — your current circumstance is a great example of the career craftsman philosophy.

  2. Shrey says:

    This is a great article on many levels. I came across it while reading the comments on Cal’s blog. Hoping to follow your story and all the best for the future. An inspiring read.

  3. mbbrennan says:

    This is awesome. I’m a regular Cal reader and found this article so great in applying cultivating your passion. Good luck, you seem to good to not be an awesome success in your work.

  4. Friedm says:

    Excellent read.

    You also provided some interesting links for someone who’s kinda new to the whole lifestyle design. I just recently read the 4h workweek and I realize it’s hyped etc, but I’m still interested in the concept.

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