What do you Cherish?

What do an author, a social entrepreneur, and a swimsuit designer have in common?  If they were at Biola University in Los Angeles three weeks ago, the answer is probably Praxis Academy.

A couple of weeks ago I boarded a plane from Bozeman, Montana and flew 1,000 miles to the city of angels in search of insight and inspiration into the ever popular buzzword “entrepreneurship”.  If you read my last blog, you already know that I’m an entrepreneur at heart, so when a close friend and mentor of mine urged me to attend Praxis Academy, I bit the bullet and signed up just shortly before the event. 

To summarize why Praxis exists, the organization states that their objective is to teach entrepreneurs how to dwell within the intersection of culture, theology, and entrepreneurship, stating, “at Praxis, we believe the future of culture depends largely on the next generation of entrepreneurs.”  You can find out more about Praxis on their website, but I thought I’d focus on a topic that was brought up during our first session: the “cherished topic” that is.

This idea was promoted on day one of the conference and I felt compelled to share it with all of my readers (I promise it’s not the title of a women’s book for better marriage).  From the very beginning of the morning, we were asked to begin searching ourselves for what it is in the world that we either can’t stand or that lights a fire within us.  Maybe for you its helping people live healthy lives, or maybe it’s giving justice to the oppressed, or maybe you’ve always just wanted to help people by working with your hands.  The cherished topic is something that makes you become alive and it is a fire that cannot be (easily) put out. 

Unfortunately, for many of you ambitious go-getters, identifying your cherished topic can be a confusing and angst-producing ordeal.  In fact some may have even been told that pursuing a cherished topic or “passion” as a line of work is impractical and should be avoided.  In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, author Cal Newport assumes the role of antagonist in his supposition that the pursuit of passion in work is energy ill-spent, saying that “telling someone to ‘follow their passion’ is not just an act of innocent optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.”

However, Jena Lee Nardella, the founder of Blood:Water Mission (an organization that has brought clean water access to more than one million people in Africa), might say otherwise.   Nardella claims that it is possible to find one’s cherished topic, stating that it lies at the intersection of what she refers to as “my deep gladness” and “the world’s deep hunger”. 


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As I listened to Jena describing this relationship and how it led to a vocation for her that not only changed the world but also brought great satisfaction, I found myself appreciating the idea more and more the more I considered it.  On one hand, one can find themselves pursuing work that grants them greater power, wealth, or affluence yet leaves the world in a deficit, it’s “deep hunger” left unnoticed or, even worse, abused.  On the other hand, said “hunger” can also become all-consuming and turn deep gladness into deep sorrow in an altruistic heartbeat. 

One important point that begs clarification is what type of hunger is meant by this analogy.  Initially, my mind thought only of work that solved great humanitarian need, as evidenced by Nardella’s mission to bring clean water to Africa.  Yet the more I considered this statement, the more I began to realize how encompassing the statement was.  Perhaps you see the world’s deep hunger for faster and more efficient accounting software, and you experience great gladness in filling that need.  Maybe your soul feels insatiably drawn to the hustle and bustle of Wall Street.  That’s great!  Because there is a near infinite number of needs or “hungers” in the world today, it is silly to be coerced by society into thinking one is more worthy or valuable than the other.  Therefore, my encouragement to you is to CELEBRATE your chosen hunger!  Only when you have come to embrace what this hunger is, confirmed by your “deep gladness”, will you come to discover your cherished topic.

Great.  Cherished topic detected.  Nailed it.  Now what?

Now it’s time to IDEATE (yes, that’s a word).  Once you have discovered a general idea of a direction in which to head, what do you do with that?  Jessica Munro, founder of Entrepreneurs by Design, has some thoughts.  In later sessions, I was privileged to be able to spend time with Jessica as she shared with us on how to create ideas that propel one towards their cherished topic.  Munro shared a lot about this topic, but for brevity’s sake I will condense it to one idea.  What most stood out to me in her message was the idea of the age old “work harder, not smarter”.  Munro proposed that often times the smartest thing one can do to produce new and creative ideas is to add disruption to your life. 

That’s right, go get disrupted.

For some this may mean blasting some Nirvana and pounding a couple of Red Bulls while jumping out of an airplane.  For everyone else, this means finding big or small ways to shake things up a bit, add some flavor to your life.  As they say, variety is the spice of life, and if all of the ideas you’re able to produce are bland and stale, maybe you could use a little “Jamaican-me-crazy” (if this spice has never entertained your taste buds, you haven’t lived).  In addition to this, Praxis co-founder David Blanchard added that in addition to placing oneself in an environment conducive to idea creation one must also “train your mind to ideate”, instead of just searching for good ideas.  To do this, one must spend time learning what good ideas look like.  Often times this comes from immersing yourself in the experiences and ideas of others.  Author Austin Kleon referred to the person who does this as a “scenius”, or one who produces what is perceived as “genius” ideas yet does so through the accumulation of the wisdom and creativity of numerous sources or “scenes” (for more on this idea I highly suggest reading his book Steal Like an Artist).

Finally, after the identification of your cherished topic, the intentional act of ideation, it’s time to DEVELOP your ideas.  Nardella imbued us with some parting wisdom based on her experience with the creation of Blood:Water Mission.  While filled with great triumph and success, the organization’s story is also filled with deep struggle and perseverance.  Nardella shared with us how she learned to operate in a manner she referred to as “slowly by slowly”.  Understanding that, contrary to the zeitgeist of our time, good things come more often than not with time.  If you are doing something that is worth doing and is worthy of your skillsets and abilities, it will take time and you will make mistakes. 

I am reminded of a keynote lecture I heard by Welby Altidor, the creative director of cirquedusoleil, where he encouraged creatives to design margin into their creative process by allowing and even structuring a reasonable margin for failure and mistakes.  I live by the mantra that any worthwhile success is built upon the foundation of failure.  In saying this, I must distinguish between dumb failure and smart failure.  I like to say that smart failure is when the first brave pioneer boldly bit into that poisonous mushroom and died.  Dumb failure is when his friend finished it for him. 

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I remember quite strongly a post-adventure meeting with the outdoor youth organization I was a part of.  During our backcountry, winter adventure, one of our members had experienced a nearly tragic accident and came close to death.  After the trip, our leaders took the opportunity to instill us an extremely valuable life lesson: don’t live with NO risk, but rather KNOW the risk.  Developing your ideas in pursuit of your cherished topic should leave you constantly questioning whether you have actually have lost your marbles after all. 

As 184 of us departed from Biola University that Friday after a week of intense yet inspiring inspiration and information, I was left contemplating these thoughts of cherished topic.  What would be different if all of the world-changers out there took time to discover their cherished topic at the intersection of their deep gladness and the world’s great hunger, pursued ideas for working within that topic, and then slowly yet boldly developed them over time?  Careers aren’t made overnight just like visions aren’t honed in a week, so I boarded the bus with the anticipation for the future yet unknown.  While I’ve got a pretty good idea of my cherished topic (social impact design) and where I’m headed, you never know where the road will take you. 

So what is your cherished topic?  Feel free to comment below!

Jacob DeNeui