After three weeks of no practice, my daughter was feeling nervous.
She had taken off for winter break, which also meant time away from her recreational basketball team (which she loves). But as break neared its end and her next game approached, she grew anxious.
Would she be rusty? Would she still know how to dribble? Shoot? Would all of the skills she worked so hard to acquire suddenly be inaccessible to her?
My advice to her: Don’t worry about being rusty. Don’t even worry about how well you play. Just remember how much you love playing basketball, and just play for the love of the game.
Play for the love of the game
It’s advice we can all benefit from in our own careers. So often, we get so consumed with the day-to-day minutiae that we forget we once loved our work — that we were once passionate about our careers, and approached them accordingly.
Take my daughter, for instance. Her love for basketball was instant. I grew up as an enormous basketball fan myself. I loved to play, and I loved Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers of the ’80s. But my youngest daughter, the youngest of three, was the only one of my children who fell in love with the sport at a young age.
Her skills didn’t come as quickly, however, and it was difficult for her to not immediately be good at something. Basketball is not an activity where simply being athletic equates to success. To invoke Liam Neeson from Taken, basketball requires a specialized set of skills — dribbling, shooting — that you can’t acquire except by playing basketball.
My daughter’s passion for the game got her through. She went to ball-handling camps to improve her dribbling. She played during the summer. She practiced at home. And in a couple years she transformed herself into a vital role player for her recreational team.
Discover your passion and the work will be its own reward
Watching her reminded me of early in my career, when I was young and hungry. I emigrated to the United States when I was 14. Language was a challenge, so I gravitated to math and science. I loved the definitive nature of numbers. Language can be ambiguous, but numbers are black and white, and I found that comforting.
My passion for numbers led me to pursue a chemical engineering degree at Caltech. But the moment I walked into the chemistry lab freshman year, I knew it wasn’t for me. The passion I had for numbers didn’t translate to chemistry, even though it was my best subject in high school.
That was when I discovered the importance of passion. I knew I could do chemistry. I could do what was required to get good grades and graduate with honors. But I knew I would never be exceptional at chemistry so long as I wasn’t passionate about it.
“The difference between being mildly and wildly successful is passion.”
The difference between being mildly and wildly successful is passion. It’s passion that carries us through the difficult times in our careers. It’s passion that drives us to exceed expectations instead of merely meeting them. It’s passion that keeps us striving for greater heights, even after we’ve achieved some level of success.
Every career is ultimately a process. And we usually toil through our work for the monetary reward. But when you’re passionate about the work, the process itself is enjoyable. The work is its own reward.
Be patient with yourself, it’s a process
I switched my major to engineering and applied science, the closest thing Caltech had at the time to a computer science program. I loved programming — the logic of it made sense to me and harkened to my love of solving problems. It was a passion I discovered.
Finding passion in our work is often a process of trial and error. It requires taking on new responsibilities, trying a new role or changing directions altogether. Your passion might not be immediately apparent to you, but you’ll never discover it if you’re not open to new experiences and opportunities. And you might learn what you’re not passionate about, which is just as valuable.
“Your passion might not be immediately apparent to you, but you’ll never discover it if you’re not open to new experiences and opportunities.”
I’ve had to rediscover my passion several times in my career. After graduating from Caltech, I took a job at UCLA working on DARPA projects. I worked there for seven years, and after all that programming, I realized I missed working with people. I took a job at Idealab, one of the first tech incubators, working as a project manager. I loved melding my technical expertise with my enjoyment of managing a team, and it eventually led to me being CEO of UberMedia, work that activates both those passions.
Back to my daughter.
That game she was so worried about turned out to be the best of her very young amateur basketball career. She scored 23 points and hit six 3-pointers, both new records for her. Even more amazing was witnessing the joy she had while playing.
The year is still young, reflect on this
When we’re working passionately — when we’re unencumbered by stress and worry, and working purely for the joy of it — that’s when we’re at our best professionally.
The year is still young, so it’s a great time to take a moment to reflect on whether your current work fulfills you in such a way. And you should remember to do that whenever you feel burnt out or are suffering a crisis of motivation. It might mean it’s time to consider a new opportunity.
Or, it might simply be a matter of reminding yourself why you once loved your work in the first place.
Gladys Kong is CEO of UberMedia, a location insights company, and an expert in mobile technology and data solutions. She is currently on the board of directors for Innovate Pasadena, a nonprofit organization promoting technology innovation and entrepreneurship. In 2015 and 2016, Gladys was named one of Business Insider’s “30 Most Powerful Women in Mobile Advertising”. In 2016, Mobile Marketer named her one of the 25 “Mobile Women to Watch”. Her expertise and passion for innovation has directly contributed to UberMedia being ranked #16 in The Wall Street Journal’s Top 50 Start-ups and listed as one of Fast Company’s “50 Most Innovative Companies”, one of OnMedia’s Top 100 Private Companies, and one of the “Best Entrepreneurial Companies in America” by Entrepreneur magazine.