The Two-Year (Scratching the Surface of) Mastery Itch

We've all heard of the term "the seven year itch." These days given the pace of society, with instant gratification at our fingertips, many people start scratchin' for change at two years — if not sooner — and in many areas of life, not just relationships.

In the career space people talk about "following your passion" but it rings hollow without the grit of developing marketable skills.

What do these two things have in common? Both refer to searching, re-calibrating, growing, getting to know yourself, and dealing with discomfort.

The Myth of Overnight Confidence

In just about every major skill I have set out to add to my arsenal, the two year itch rears its head. Not just on day 730, but for almost every day of the two years preceding it. And you know what? I've decided that's normal — at least for me.

In my experience, the two-year itch actually describes the two full years of growing pains and roller coasters that go into a mastery-related undertaking, rather than whatever happens at the two-year mark. I felt awkward and uncomfortable (though hid it as well as I could) during my first two years of coaching, teaching yoga, working on my book . . . and its coming up quite strongly now as I celebrate my upcoming two year-anniversary of self-employment on July 5.

But hitting two years is not just an itch, it is simultaneously a huge relief. The itching has subsided, and even though the growing pains continue, I feel more comfortable, more confident, and more relaxed. Just as uncertain as ever in some ways, but I can live with it now. The pinching fear and anxiety and conscious incompetence moments have lessened. And The Itch is what keeps me on my toes, ferociously learning and embracing the challenge of figuring out how all the jigsaw pieces fit together.

Don't Follow Your Passion, Follow Your Effort (and Time)

When attempting something new, we sometimes feel bad if we don't experience overnight success or insta-zone-of-genius, but this two year itchy period is vital for the core skills that we build throughout our career.

Mark Cuban said it perfectly in Don't Follow Your Passion, Follow Your Effort:

I hear it all the time from people. “I’m passionate about it.” “I’m not going to quit, It’s my passion”. Or I hear it as advice to students and others “Follow your passion”.

What a bunch of BS.  ”Follow Your Passion” is easily the worst advice you could ever give or get.

Why ? Because everyone is passionate about something. Usually more than 1 thing. We are born with it. There are always going to be things we love to do. That we dream about doing. That we really really want to do with our lives. Those passions aren’t worth a nickel . . .

If you really want to know where your destiny lies, look at where you apply your time. Time is the most valuable asset you don’t own. You may or may not realize it yet, but how you use or don’t use your time is going to be the best indication of where your future is going to take you.

Let me make this as clear as possible:

  1. When you work hard at something you become good at it.
  2. When you become good at doing something, you will enjoy it more.
  3. When you enjoy doing something, there is a very good chance you will become passionate or more passionate about it
  4. When you are good at something, passionate and work even harder to excel and be the best at it, good things happen.

Don’t follow your passions, follow your effort. It will lead you to your passions and to success, however you define it.

Cal Newport has also written extensively about this in his book, So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Newport writes:

Asking “what are you good at?”, in my opinion, can be essentially the same as asking, “what is your passion?”

In both cases, you’re placing the source of career satisfaction in matching your job to an intrinsic trait.

And this is dangerous.

As readers of SO GOOD know, career satisfaction almost always follows: (a) building up a rare and valuable skill; then (b) using this skill as leverage to take control of your working life . . .

The key thing, in other words, is to direct expectations away from match theory — which says passion depends primarily on making the right job choice — and toward career capital theory — which says passion will grow along with your skill.

Why the Itchy Period is Essential to Success

Oftentimes we are so quick to give up a skill, a business, a project, or a life choice because we don't achieve instant mastery. Hogwash! We've got to learn to let things itch a little bit in order to grow.

So rather than panic at the thought that we are not immediately in love with our new pet project or passion (Did I choose wrong? Am I not cut out for this? Am I a giant fraud?! Are people going to find out?!?!) perhaps we should take the long-view . . . not be so quick to jump ship or quit . . . and stick it out for a while. A two year probation period, if you will.

It might be time to fold if your gut is screaming at you to run of course, or if you are stating to see negative signs manifest physically (weight gain, trouble sleeping, stress, etc), but if not, how about a dose of discipline even in the thick of your self-doubt?

I'd love to hear from you in the comments: Do you agree or disagree? What's your mastery itch of the moment? What's your wait-it-out threshold?

Around the Web