So Passionate You Never Stop Improving: The Secret Behind the Success Of Asimov, Jobs, Seinfeld, Oprah, Buffett, Newton, And All The Greats
The top performers in the history of art, science, entrepreneurship, and leadership all swear by the power of Infinite Devotion.
Over the last year, I’ve spent several hundred hours researching the concept I present in this article, which I will also expand on in a series. This research included collecting dozens of case studies, studying the academic research on motivation going back more than 100 years, and experimenting with how to incorporate the lessons into my own life and helping others do the same.
In many ways, it is the culmination of spending thousands of hours over the last 8 years studying and assimilating the lessons of the great scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs, creatives, and leaders of all time.
Like a picture slowly coming into focus, I feel that I’m finally able to express in words what I’ve been grasping at for years. Steve Jobs’ famous quote is apt:
You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
It is my hope and dream that I can do all the research that I’ve found justice and weave it together into a series that can have a profound impact on the world.
Bottom line: This feels like the series I was meant to write. I hope you enjoy.
PS: At the end of the article, paid subscribers receive a template for how to use video clips to construct a longform article like this one.
PPS: This is a super long article (6,500+ words), so I’m combining the Tuesday and Wednesday posts into one day. As always, I’ve included lots of headers and bullets so you can easily navigate to the parts of the article that are most interesting to you.
Isaac Asimov published 500+ books, making him one of the most prolific writers in the history of human civilization. Not only that, he was considered one of the "Big Three" sci-fi authors of his era.
Yet, he did not set goals, make deadlines, time block, or study habit design.
This should not happen according to conventional wisdom.
If you watch this interview, you would almost think he doesn’t really even have a system…
Every line of the interview is full of hidden meaning…
Interviewer: It seems like you’re in some sort of race.
Isaac Asimov: Well, I’m not. It seems so, but it isn’t so. Actually, what it amounts to is that I’m not happy except when I’m writing. It’s almost the only way I can think of to spend my time pleasantly. And so I’m naturally drawn to the typewriter at all times. The day is lost in which I don’t type.
Interviewer: Deadlines hold no terror for you?
Isaac Asimov: No, because I know that if I have an article to write, I can generally write it without trouble whenever I sit down.
Interviewer: It’s a book a month?
Isaac Asimov: For the last four and a half years, it has been a book a month. It’s not something that I’ve set for myself as a goal. I just worked it back and said, “My goodness. It’s a book a month!
At every step, the interviewer is asking the wrong question and Asimov corrects him. The interviewer’s assumptions, which represent conventional wisdom on achievement, can be summarized as this…
If you have a crazy output over a long period of time, it must be because you’re making it a goal and using hacks like deadlines to keep you on track.
Asimov seems to be operating in a different paradigm.
What’s going on here?
How does one of the most prolific creators not use basic time management techniques?
Is he just a quirky individual?
Or is there something deeper we can learn about the flaws in conventional wisdom on time management, habit design, and greatness overall?
The more deep dive articles that I’ve created of top entrepreneurs, executives, and creatives (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Ray Dalio, Thomas Edison, and Elon Musk) over the last 8 years, the more that I’ve seen that Asimov’s motivation system isn’t unique among top performers. Rather, it is the standard.
Not only that, the things we teach people about motivation, habits, and time management in school, research, and culture aren’t just different than what top performers actually do—they are diametrically opposed.
In other words, we need a new paradigm of greatness, creativity, and career happiness if we want to account for how world-class performers actually become successful.
This article will provide the contours of this new paradigm by exploring the “odd” beliefs of top performers like Isaac Asimov, Jerry Seinfeld, Barbara Cartland (700M+ books sold), Richard Feynman (Nobel laureate), Ray Bradbury, Einstein, and many others.
With that said, let’s jump into exhibit #2, an interview with one of the greatest comedians of all time, Jerry Seinfeld. It’s worth its weight in gold...
Exhibit #2: Jerry Seinfeld And 29-Year Old Comedian Speak Completely Different Language
Source: Comedian Documentary (2002)
In this clip from the Comedian documentary, we see a fascinating interaction between Seinfeld and an aspiring, 29-year-old comedian in the back of a comedy club. Here’s a core part of the back-and-forth:
Young comedian: I’m 29. I feel like I’ve sacrificed so much of my life. The last three years have been a blur.
Seinfeld [puzzled]: Do you have something else you would rather have been doing? You got other appointments or other places you gotta be?
Young comedian: Not necessarily, but I see all my friends are making a lot of money on Wall Street.
Seinfeld [scrunches his nose in confusion]: What?!?
Young Comedian: I've seen that my friends are moving up and I'm worried.
Jerry Seinfeld [shocked]: They're moving up!?!? Are you out of your mind? This has nothing to do with your friends. This is a special thing. This has nothing to do with “making it” or...
Young comedian: Did you ever stop and compare your life and go, “Okay, I'm 29. My friends are all married, all having kids, they all have houses, they have some sort of sense of normality… What do you tell your parents? How do you deal with that?
Jerry Seinfeld [falling over laughing]: What do you tell your parents??!? Your parents???
At this point, Seinfeld can’t take it anymore. He plants his palm into his forehead with one hand and uses his other hand to sturdy himself.
After regaining his composure, Seinfeld tells a famous show biz story.
In this story, the legendary Glenn Miller orchestra is forced to land in a field on a stormy, snowy, winter night. As a result, they now have to walk to the gig through the cold, wet, slushy snow with all of their heavy instruments. As they walk, they come across a little cabin, and they look in a window.
There, they see a picturesque scene of a family enjoying each other’s company—a husband and wife along with their two kids, warmed by a fire, sit around a table as they laugh, smile, and eat.
The performers take in the scene as they stand around in their suits. They’re wet and shivering while holding their instruments. Then one guy turns to another and confusedly says, “How do people live like that?”
Seinfeld then drives the point home…
“That’s what it’s about!”
This short vignette captures the essence of how Seinfeld views himself in contrast to how others do…
From the outside, it looks like his life is hell. He’s doing things that others wouldn’t happily put themselves through. For example, the documentary is about Seinfeld struggling to rediscover his comedic voice in small clubs around the country after 10 years of not doing standup because of his TV show’s success. For the first few months, he’s just floundering.
From the inside, he loves what he’s doing—warts and all. He would much rather live the life that makes him happy than live the life that makes someone else happy. He’d rather be uncomfortable pursuing his passion than comfortable doing something boring.
In other words, Seinfeld fundamentally challenges the young comedian’s paradigm of:
Worrying about what other people think
Comparing your progress to other people’s progress
Doing things to make your parents or others happy (rather than yourself)
Sacrificing now in order to “make it” in the future.
Rather, he’s talking about a completely different reality:
He isn’t focused on each achievement. He’s focused on the process.
He isn’t focused on the future. He’s focused on now.
He isn’t focused on what other people think of him. He’s focused on what he thinks of himself and the love of his craft.
In other words, “making it” is simply getting to practice and improve at your craft now. Achieving conventional success is the cherry on top.
Although Seinfeld and Asimov come from different industries and different generations, they’re also similar in surprising ways. And they’re not alone.
For example, consider exhibit #3…
Exhibit #3: Puzzled Reporter Can’t Understand Why A 76-Year-Old Author With Hundreds Of Millions Of Books Sold Still Works So Hard
Barbara Cartland, one of the most famous writers you’ve never heard of, wrote 763 books that have sold over 700M+ copies. I particularly enjoyed a 1977 interview she conducted at age 75. At the time, she had only written a few hundred books, and the interviewer is puzzled by how hard she continues to work…
What really makes me wonder is why you keep on writing them, Barbara?
Cortland's response puts the interviewer in her place and begins with, “Well darling…”
For the interviewer, it seems crazy for Cartland to be working so hard after achieving so much success and fame. For Cartland, it’s the opposite. Writing is the one thing she loves. It would be crazy to do other things that she doesn’t love.
Therefore, even though she’s 75, she…
Writes several books per year
Responds to several thousand fan letters per year
Advocates for causes she believes in
With Cartland, we see the same pattern again that we saw in Asimov and Seinfeld—just at a different stage in life.
It’s clear that Cartland didn’t just put up with hard work for decades so she could eventually make it and then stop working. Rather, it was the other way around. She did hard work for so long because she loved it. And as a result, she became a better and better writer and created an incredible body of work. As a result, she became rich and famous.
For Cartland, the causality looked like this:
Devotion (pull) ➜ Hard work over decades ➜ Skill + Body Of Work ➜ Success
For the interviewer, the causality is reversed:
Goal ➜ Strategy ➜ Discipline (push) ➜ Focus ➜ Success ➜ Do what you actually love
Explained in more detail, in the conventional paradigm…
To accomplish something big, we must set a big goal (ie - Sell X books).
Then, we must create a strategy that turns that long-term goal into medium-term goals into short-term goals into today’s tasks.
Then, we must use discipline to push ourselves to complete the tasks of the day every day whether we want to or not.
Next, we must focus. In other words, when something happens that’s outside of our to-do list, we label it as a distraction and avoid it. Curiosity and play are distractions.
As a result of doing this for a long time, we achieve success.
As a result of achieving success, we can stop doing the stuff we don’t want to (the work) and start doing the stuff we want to (the play).
In other words, Cartland is playing an “infinite game” propelled by devotion while the conventional paradigm plays a finite game propelled by discipline.
In the finite game, we work hard on stuff we may not like in order to have money and freedom in the future to actually do the stuff we love.
In the infinite game, we find what we love early on, and our goal is to keep lovingly playing it regardless of the outcomes and our life stage.
Exhibit #4 challenges the prestige dimension of the conventional paradigm…
Exhibit #4: Why A Nobel Laureate Physicist Hates The Nobel Prize
Source: BBC Interview With Richard Feynman, 1981
Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman is known for his ebullience. This clip is the only one I’m aware of where he’s frustrated.
The frustration is triggered by a simple question…
Interviewer: Was it worth the Nobel prize?
Feynman gives a few minute response:
I don’t know anything about the Nobel prize. I don’t understand what it’s all about. Or what’s worth what. And if the people in the Swedish academy decide that X, Y, or Z wins a Nobel prize, then so be it.
I don’t have anything to do with the Nobel Prize. It’s a pain in the [you know what]. I don’t like honors…
I don’t need anything else… I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish academy decides that someone is noble enough to win a prize.
What could possibly make a Nobel Laureate dislike the Nobel prize so much?
Feynman explains his antipathy:
I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out. The kick in the discovery. The observation. Other people using it. Those are the real things.
The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors. It bothers me.
Honors is epaulettes [ornamental shoulder pieces]. Honors is uniforms… I can’t stand it. It hurts me.
Once again, we see the same pattern that we saw in Asimov, Seinfeld, and Cartland. Feynman isn’t doing research in order to win awards or to belong to an exclusive group. Rather, he’s driven internally by his desire to follow his curiosity in order to figure things out. And, he’s driven by the purpose of discovering things that are useful for others.
The reward is the process and the impact. It’s not in the recognition. To summarize his viewpoint on honors, Feynman does not mince his words…
The whole thing was rotten, because the purpose was mostly to decide who could have this honor.
Implications: Cultures often fetishize arbitrary endpoints (fame, wealth, recognition) rather than the fullness of the process that got them there and the impact it had.
As this “achievement” porn becomes endemic in schools, workplaces, and culture more broadly, toxicity takes hold…
The education system’s focus on grades, test scores, and getting into a good college saps the innate curiosity of billions of people every generation.
The academic research system’s focus on citations and a hierarchy system based on titles leads aspiring scientists to aim for progressing their careers rather than being moved by wonder and the joy of figuring things out.
The work sector’s focus on short-term goals, promotions, and retirement rather than intrinsic motivation often leaves employees with jobs that pay the bills, but leave them unfulfilled.
So far we’ve seen how Infinite Devotion is just as important at several stages of the mastery process—amateur, expert, and master. It’s also key for beginners who are just getting started.
Passions often aren’t profitable or prestigious for years. Thus, unless someone is willing to be “impractical” or under-estimated for years, they will not even start. Or if they do, they’ll likely give up in months.
To persist through this early "no money, no respect” period, we must have a strong internal drive. It’s tautological, because without external rewards, the only thing left to drive us is internal.
Ray Bradbury is a case in point for what it really takes to go from zero to one…
Exhibit #5: Sci-Fi Writer Ray Bradbury Made Almost Nothing For Years
One of the most famous sci-fi writers of all time, Ray Bradbury, was once asked how much money he made in the beginning of his career.
This was his response...
Year 1 - $0
Year 2 - $0
Year 3 - $10
Year 4 - $40
Year 5 - $80
Year 6 - $200
Year 7 - $800
Year 8 - $1,200
Year 9 - $2,000
Year 10 - $4,000
Year 11 - $8,000
$8,000 dollars back then is the equivalent of $100,000 today.
This means it took Bradbury 10 years after setting out to become a professional writer to actually become one and make a middle-class $50,000 salary.
While these numbers may sound brutal, they reflect reality. At least the typical reality for almost anyone capitalizing on a skill whether it be a creator, an innovator, an artist, or an entrepreneur.
Bottom line: Cultivating infinite devotion is the prerequisite for becoming great in any field. The external rewards typically take so long to appear that the people who ultimately persist to success are the ones who cultivate their internal motivation to the point where the external rewards are just the cherry on top, not the core goal.
From the outside, these individuals appear crazy in their early years. From the inside, they are on fire.
While Asimov, Seinfeld, Cartland, Feynman, and Bradbury may seem odd, they only appear so because our culture is odd. Today’s culture goes against what we now know actually motivates people and makes them the most happy at work.
Collectively, they are examples of what it looks and feels like when our innate potential is released. They demonstrate Infinite Devotion, a universal property of iconic greatness throughout time and across fields. In fact, there is no case of lifelong iconic success that I’m aware of which isn’t smothered with Infinite Devotion’s fingerprints…
Asimov, Seinfeld, Cartland, Feynman, and Bradbury are not alone
Rather than just being exceptions to the conventional paradigm, they are the norm in the Infinite Devotion paradigm, which I will explain later in this article.
Over the past year, I’ve spent 100+ hours collecting diverse case studies to illustrate this paradigm.
The diversity of these examples is important because they reveal that there isn’t just one way it happens. Rather, the message here is a few-fold:
Anyone from any economic class can develop it
It’s never too late to start
It can work in different fields (science, art, entertainment, business, innovation) and domains of life (sports, hobbies)
It works throughout history
And, it can work for different personality types
Each story is curated to paint a different lesson. The story either adds an extra level of nuance or even challenges the fundamental premises of infinite devotion.
Again and again, the same pattern appears: Top performers have an Infinite Devotion for their craft that is misunderstood and labeled crazy by the outside world.
#1: Charlie Munger (self-made billionaire) said he’d learn Braille if he ever lost sight in his other eye
Legendary investor and Warren Buffett’s long-time business partner, Charlie Munger, is a lifelong reading fanatic. Throughout his entire career, he has spent the majority of his time on his passion for reading in order to think better, which then helps him invest better. To illustrate the extent of this devotion, after Munger lost an eye earlier in life due to cataract surgery, he was later told by doctors that he was at serious risk of losing the eyesight in his remaining eye. His response to his friends? “It’s time for me to learn braille.”
Munger is still actively investing at 99 years old, once again showing that Infinite Devotion is a powerful way to stay productive and healthy as we age.
#2: Warren Buffett ruthlessly eliminated anything he didn’t love from his life. As a result, he spent 80% of his career reading and thinking
Similar to his business partner, Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett knows what he loves and has ruthlessly removed everything else as I illustrated in Warren Buffett: “Really Successful People Say No To Almost Everything”. Whereas almost all CEOs of major companies spend a lot of their time traveling and hopping from meeting to meeting, Buffett travels surprisingly little and his days are almost completely free of meetings and devoted to learning. When describing his lifestyle, he says, "No CEO has it better; I truly do feel like tap dancing to work every day." This is why Warren Buffett’s #1 advice for others is to:
Find your passion. I was very, very lucky to find it when I was seven or eight years old... You’re lucky in life when you find it. And you can’t guarantee you’ll find it in your first job out. But I always tell college students that come out (to Omaha), ‘Take the job you would take if you were independently wealthy. You’re going to do well at it.’
Interestingly, despite being in a profession that is all about money, he has lived in the same house for almost his entire adult life. More so, listening to Buffett’s interviews, it’s clear that his life was never about making the most money to buy things so he could have a certain lifestyle. It was about practicing his craft with Infinite Devotion.
Similar to Cartland and Munger, Buffett is still incredibly active and productive into his 90s. He is now the oldest CEO of a Fortune 500 company ever.
#3: Isaac Newton worked an 18 hours a day, 7 days a week work schedule for his whole career
Isaac Newton is regarded as one of the top scientists of all time. He made breakthroughs in optics and invented Calculus by his mid-20s. Then, he invented the Newtonian paradigm for physics, which much of the modern world is built on.
When describing Newton’s energy, one of his biographers said he had:
... an almost voluptuous intellectual energy, one amounting to mania. Newton’s day-to-day life was disorderly; he slept when sleep overpowered him. He read continually, he meditated without pause, often for days on end. He was often too distracted to eat.
—David Berlinski (Newton Biographer)
When asked how he made his remarkable discoveries, Newton replied:
I keep the subject constantly before me and wait until the first dawnings open little by little into the full light.
Understanding how he was misunderstood by others, he once said:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
#4: Mr. Rogers didn’t care about the numbers
Mr. Rogers was on the air for 33 years and 870+ episodes, in one of the longest-airing shows in television history.
To create the show, he combined several passions/skills:
Desire to support children
Understanding of child development
In a fascinating clip when Charlie Rose talks about reaching a large audience, Rogers quickly clarifies that this isn’t and was never one of his goals.
Source: The Charlie Rogers Show, Interview #1 and Interview #2
Charlie Rose: How many kids do you think are out there that in 30 years you have influenced or made a difference with and made them feel something special?
Mr Rogers: I don’t care how many, even if it’s just one. We get so wrapped up in numbers in our society. And the most important thing is that we’re able to be one-to-one (like you and I) with each other in the moment.
In another clip, Charlie Rose talks about the world leaders he gets to interview. Rogers immediately responds that what feeds his soul is not fancy people, but individual children…
Source: The Charlie Rogers Show
In this clip, like the other clips throughout the article, you can sense authenticity, sincerity, and focus on what gives their soul nourishment—even if it’s not prestigious.
#5: Bill Gates worked 56 hours per week on his passions in high school
Bill Gates grew up at a fascinating point in history:
After the advent of computers.
Before the advent of personal computers.
That means, to get access to a mainframe computer while in high school, he and his friends had to go to the University of Washington. Consider the following passage from Outliers:
Gates and his friends began hanging around the computer center at the University of Washington. Before long, they latched onto an outfit called ISI (Information Sciences Inc.), which agreed to let them have free computer time in exchange for working on a piece of software that could be used to automate company payrolls. In one seven-month period in 1971, Gates and his cohorts ran up 1,575 hours of computer time on the ISI mainframe, which averages out to eight hours a day, seven days a week.
Let that sink in. At the age of 16, Gates was traveling to a college and spending 56 hours per week on computers while also going to school full-time in a period of life when most kids are just hanging out with friends, relaxing, or doing athletics. He put everything into his passion.
Describing this period in his life, he says…
It was my obsession. I skipped athletics. I went up there at night. We were programming on weekends. It would be a rare week that we wouldn’t get twenty or thirty hours in.
I found out Paul [Allen] had found a computer that was free at the University of Washington. They had these machines in the medical center and the physics department. They were on a 24-hour schedule, but with this big slack period, so that between three and six in the morning they never scheduled anything. I’d leave at night, after my bedtime.
No wonder why years later, Gates’ mother said,
We always wondered why it was so hard for him to get up in the morning.
Through this story, we can see how Gates’ early Infinite Devotion combined with timing helped make him a world expert in what turned out to be one of the highest potential fields in history.
#6: Steve Jobs believed that great work requires great passion
Throughout Steve Jobs’ career, he emphasized the power of Infinite Devotion over and over…
You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you're not passionate enough from the start, you'll never stick it out.
The journey is the reward.
You should never start a company with the goal of getting rich. Your goal should be making something you believe in and making a company that will last.
The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking, and don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking, don't settle.
The only way to do great work is to love what you do.
The two videos below of Jobs at different ages drive home the sentiments in the quotes even further:
I think most people that are able to make a sustained contribution over time, rather than just a peak, are very internally driven. You have to be, because in the ebb and tide of people's opinions and of fads, there are going to be times when you are criticized and criticism is very difficult. And so when you're criticized, you learn to pull back a little and listen to your own drummer. And to some extent, that isolates you from the praise.
Source: All Things Digital
People say, “You have to have a lot of passion for what you're doing.” And it's totally true. And the reason is, because it's so hard that if you don't, any rational person would give up. It's really hard and you have to do it over a sustained period of time. So if you don't love it, if you're not having fun doing it, you're gonna give up. And that's what happens to most people, actually. If you really look at the ones that ended up being "successful" in the eyes of society and the ones that didn't, oftentimes it's the ones that are successful loved what they did so they could persevere when it got really tough. And the ones that that didn't love it, quit, because they're sane, right? Who would wanna put up with this stuff if you don't love it? So it's a lot of hard work and it's a lot of worrying constantly. And if you don't love it, you're gonna fail. So you gotta love it. You gotta have passion. And I think that's the high order bit.
#7: Oprah Winfrey swore by the power of Infinite Devotion throughout her entire career
In this 1986 60 Minutes interview, 32-year-old Oprah Winfrey is on the cusp of making it.
Two years prior she had taken over as the host of a local talk show. Audiences loved her.
Now, she was about to have her biggest test yet. Her show had been syndicated nationally. It was make or break.
What I particularly resonate with in this interview is Oprah's Infinite Devotion.
The following quote stands out in particular…
I think that the path to our spiritual evolvement is the greatest journey we all take. I think that's part of the reason why I am as successful as I have been. Because the success wasn't the goal. The process was. I wanted to do good work. I wanted to do well in my life.
#8: Elon Musk, The Hardest Working Person In The World, Is Primarily Motivated By Curiosity
Have you ever wondered how Elon Musk musters the energy to run multiple huge, complex, and stressful companies simultaneously?
In the following video clip, a confounded interviewer tries to understand. He asks…
Generally speaking, everything you do is for humanity... Why? Why are you working? Why do you care about politics? Why do you care about multi-planetary species? Consciousness?
In other words, Musk is rich and famous. He has accomplished more as an entrepreneur than almost anyone in history. He’s stated that these work sprints are grueling. So why the ‘F’ is he working 100+ hour weeks and taking on new and impossible challenges (ie - buying Twitter) that are guaranteed to add work and stress?
We get some clues in Musk’s answer…
Notice that he quickly veers the conversation toward existential philosophy. It does not veer toward tactical time management approaches that are now delivered as the panacea of hard work. It does not veer into personal achievements he’s hoping to make.
In another interview, he gives an answer to the same question in more concise terms…
Interviewer: What drives you on a day-to-day basis to do what you do?
Elon Musk: I really want to make sure that there is a good future for humanity. And that we’re on a path to understanding the nature of the universe. The meaning of life. Why are we here? How did we get here?
And in order to understand the nature of the universe and all these fundamental questions, we must expand the scope and scale of consciousness. Certainly it must not diminish or go out or we certainly won’t understand this. So I would say I’m motivated by curiosity more than anything.
And we have reason to take Musk at his word. At first, when Walter Isaacson, Musk’s biographer, would hear Musk talk about his philosophies, he was skeptical.
But, then he heard it in meeting after meeting for hundreds of meetings. And, he saw it reflected in action after action. Eventually, he came to trust Musk’s sincerity.
To be fair, Isaacson also points out other motivations like drama and power that he thinks motivate Musk as well. Either way, the point stands. Infinite Devotion is an absolutely necessary ingredient of iconic success and impact over decades.
And the list goes on and on…
The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who bears a god within, and who obeys it.
—Louis Pasteur (Chemist)
Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.
—Friedrich Hegel (Philosopher)
I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.
I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think [this] is an eminently important difference.
Animals were my passion from even before I could speak.
Collectively, all of these examples point to the universal power of infinite devotion. (Though there are certainly nuances, and I will confront these in future articles).
Interestingly, many of these individuals didn’t succeed because of the education system or work culture. Rather, they succeeded despite them. Many of them either flailed through school or didn’t complete it. This shines a light on an important point…
When the successful people in a society succeed despite the system rather than because of it, we should rethink the fundamentals of that system.
The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working
When kids ask why they need to get good grades rather than follow their curiosity, they are told that it’s important in order to get into a good college.
When college students ask why they need to get good grades, they’re told that they need to do so in order to get a good job.
This idea has even impacted sports. As students get to high school, the context of sports becomes more and more about winning and using the sport to get into a good college rather than building a long-term Infinite Devotion toward health. Malcolm Gladwell captures this phenomenon in the following clip:
This is the relevant quote from the clip:
Imagine that I make you the athletic head at one of these local high schools, and you stand up in front of the entire school on your first day in the job. What is the speech you give? You're going to say, I am here to create in you teenagers a set of habits around physical exercise that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Right? I'm going to use my job as athletic director to teach you how to live a healthy life. That's your goal.
You're not going to say, I'm going to try and win as many California state titles over the next five years as I possibly can. Right? You're not going to give that.
And the tragedy is that everybody else who gets that job says, I'm here to win as many California titles as I can over the next five years…
And we are suffering as a country, as a society, as a result. Look around you. 1% of the population in middle age is practicing healthy habits. Why is that? Because no one bothered to teach them at the moment when those habits need to be taught. Right?
Next, employees look for good reviews in order to get promotions.
They get promotions so that they can retire and then actually do what they love.
But the brutal reality at the end of these many decades of sacrifice is, on average, 49 hours of TV per week mixed with loneliness, boredom, and lack of meaning.
This paradigm is broken.
The end of the rainbow doesn’t fulfill its basic promise.
And, we can do better.
Not only that, we need to rethink the tools of our productivity paradigm. Modern productivity over-focuses on tactics like habit design, time management, goal setting and prizes pushing through the pain whether you like something or not. The people who feel Infinite Devotion deeply automatically improve, stay consistent, and persist through hardship naturally as a result of their obsessive curiosity and passion. We are humans, not machines. And Infinite Devotion is our soul. Productivity hacks are helpful, but they are secondary.
Asimov, Seinfeld, Cartland, Feynman, Bradbury, Oprah, Musk, and many others like them paint the contours of a new paradigm.
We may not choose to work as many hours as these individuals do or be as career-focused, but we can still use the lessons learned in our own life to live a more curious, playful, impactful, and meaningful life.
With that said, I’d like to officially introduce…
The Infinite Devotion Paradigm: The Hidden Pattern Behind Greatness
In each of the exchanges above, we see a different perspective of the Infinite Devotion paradigm similar to this picture of blind scientists touching different parts of an elephant and coming to a different conclusion on what they’re touching…
In this section, we tie all of the different perspectives together. At its heart, below is what separates the conventional paradigm from Infinite Devotion.
In other articles, I will go deeper on each point, but for now, that's the big picture breakdown.
I call this paradigm Infinite Devotion because when you whittle everything else away, you are left with two things:
#1: Infinite motivation
Infinite devotion is such a deep alignment with our motivation systems that the duration and intensity of our energy shoot through the roof.
The duration is infinite because it continues to propel us at each stage in the mastery journey.
When most others would “justifiably” stop, people propelled by infinite devotion keep pushing forward…
Beginner Plateau. A lot of people want to learn a skill, but it's so uncomfortable to do so. There's not a lot of external reward at first, because they're not very good yet. So, a lot of people who want to start, never do.
OK Plateau. We’re at the OK Plateau when we get good enough to do our job, and there isn’t a pressure to keep improving. For example, imagine you're in a new job. At first, there's a really quick learning curve. You're not good enough, but then over time you get good enough. It gets easier. You're not at risk of losing your job. You're not making a fool of yourself. At this point, the skill typically plateaus.
Greatness Plateau. We reach the next level when, rather than settling for being okay, we keep on improving. After years and decades of improvement, these individuals become top performers in their field. In sports, they might win an Olympic medal. In science, they might win a prestigious award. In business, they might create a breakthrough innovation that makes them wealthy. They’ve made it in conventional terms. So they don’t have the same “chip on their shoulder” to prove themselves. As a result, many plateau.
Iconic Plateau. At this stage, many of the external rewards become negative as the icon becomes criticized, lied about, and gossiped about in the media. They can’t go out in public without being mobbed. Yet, they keep going and keep improving. They can’t help themselves, because they’re propelled by something deeper.
Bottom line: At each stage, Infinite Devotion propels them forward to greater and greater heights.
#2: Devotion rather than discipline
Devotion is a way of working that organically pulls us rather than something we need to force through discipline, grit, shame, and external rewards/punishments.
Every time I have used discipline as my primary motivator, I have ultimately burned out.
For example, as an early-stage entrepreneur, I really procrastinated on doing sales calls. To get myself to overcome procrastination, I found ways to add accountability and force myself to do it. Results started pouring in, which was great.
But, then something surprising happened. Despite getting rewarded for my actions, my motivation actually decreased rather than increased. Eventually, I would start procrastinating again and spend my time on where I was internally drawn even if it wasn’t making any money. I wondered what was wrong with me.
After going through this many times, I realized that there was a cycle I kept going through when I used discipline as my main motivator:
At first, I thought I was alone, but over time, I’ve learned that this pattern is very common. In fact, when it comes to exercise and diets, this seesaw pattern is the norm.
In 2014, after 10 years of using hardcore accountability, I decided to try something different after another burnout—devotion.
For the first time as an adult, I allowed myself to pursue my curiosity in an unbridled fashion. I gave myself permission to write about whatever I wanted to write about, and then I built a business structure that made this possible financially.
I haven’t burned out since, and I truly feel like a kid in the candy store every day that I’m researching and writing. Furthermore, I’ve earned significantly more in take-home pay than I did during the previous years.
In the end, rather than burning out due to discipline or pursuing curiosities in every direction but making no progress, I naturally progressed by doubling down on my strongest curiosities, interests, and passions.
The idea of Infinite Devotion is profound when you consider its implications.
First, as I shared earlier, if you take Infinite Devotion seriously, we would need to redesign our whole education, work, and research paradigm to match what naturally motivates us.
Second, I wonder if it is a major contributing factor to why our society’s productivity growth rate has plateaued since around 1970—the exact point where you’d expect it to skyrocket because of Internet-connected computers. Perhaps, in the shift from blue-collar work to white-collar work and in the shift from routine work to nonroutine work, we need to overhaul our motivation systems. What the research tells us about motivation is that external sticks and carrots are great at motivating us to do simple work faster, but it’s terrible at getting us to do creative and complex work better. I go deeper into the productivity paradox in We’re in a productivity crisis, according to 52 years of data. Things could get really bad.
Third, as we move into a world where AI automates exponentially more jobs, a universal basic income will not solve all of society’s problems. We humans need to do work that is meaningful to us in order to thrive psychologically, and Infinite Devotion is the essential quality we need to cultivate. The future of our society may depend on tapping into this innate and universal drive. As novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad.”
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In the rest of my articles series, I will unpack the specifics of the research, the implications, and the how-to’s on Infinite Devotion. Make sure you’re subscribed to the paid version of this newsletter to get everything.
Behind-The-Scenes On Researching, Ideating, Packaging, And Writing This Article With Video Clips (Paid Subscribers)
Over the last few months, you’ve heard me talk about the power of using video clips to conduct research, build a following on social media, and get constant feedback.
With this article, you can see how video clips fit into longform articles and series:
I repurposed many of the same video clips I posted on social media. Posting these clips on social media first helped me understand which ideas and people resonated the most and least. You’ll see many more of these clips in the rest of the article series.
I’ll be able to post and repost many more video clips related to the article’s topic on social media in order to promote this article over and over in the future.
In short, when writing a longform, there are many predictable places where you can use video throughout rather than winging it. In this behind-the-scenes section for paid subscribers, I share my template on how to fit dozens of video clips into one article series…