“Find Your Passion” — Smooth Ride or Train Wreck?

train trestle

You follow an interest to a career. If you’re really interested, your career might become your passion. So why not go straight for your passion as a career strategy?

It depends whether you operate with a “fixed” or “growth” theory about what interests you. “Follow your passion” might work if you’re a growth theory person. But if you’re a ‘fixed theory” person, it could be a disaster.

That’s the message of “The Truth About Finding a Satisfying Career:  Why Linking Your Work to Your Interests Can do More Harm Than Good.” Medium (Jan. 22, 2019).

“You hear it everywhere. It’s on graduation cards, in motivational speeches, and practically wallpapers the halls of Silicon Valley: ‘Find your passion.’ As if each of us was born with one ideal pursuit that will fulfill us until our final day on Earth. All we need to do is locate it, and everything else will fall into place.

“The problem isn’t just that this is totally unrealistic; according to psychologist Paul O’Keefe, a professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, it’s also selling us short in our careers, our studies, and how we interact with the world. In a recent study titled Implicit Theories of Interest, O’Keefe and his co-authors, two psychologists from Stanford, identified a compelling case against the idea of finding your one true passion.”

“We got inspired because of the saying ‘find your passion,’” O’Keefe said in an interview with the article’s author.

“It’s something you hear all the time, and we were thinking a potentially unintended consequence is that it’s suggesting to people that a passion is there somewhere, like buried treasure: You just need to awaken it, or find it, or reveal it in some way.

“So we started thinking, well, what is the consequence of believing that it’s there waiting to be uncovered? That’s essentially the idea of a fixed theory of interest, the belief that interests are inherent and relatively unchanging. If you’ve already found your interest, and you think you have these limited, inherent interests, then there’s no reason, logically, to keep searching or exploring for other interests.

“But if you have a growth theory, you believe interests are developed. So even if you already have a very strong interest or passion, it wouldn’t preclude you from exploring new things or developing new interests.”

A fixed theory means you believe there’s a career passion out there with your name on it. If you don’t find it, you’ll be frustrated. In fact, “the rallying cry to ‘find your passion’ may actually be the blind spot that ultimately cripples your resume.” Better for you to stay where you are and deepen your expertise instead of chasing after a passion you’ll never find.

On the other hand, if you operate from a growth theory, you’ll “expect [your career] to be a developmental process that has difficulties from time to time.” As a result you’ll accept career disenchantment as part of “the nature of things,” and be energized, not demoralized, by the need to try something new — a useful outlook in today’s job marketplace:

“Growth theory, we think, is extremely advantageous for people’s careers. The world is becoming more globalized, it’s becoming more complex, and it’s about seeing how information is integrated, and how solutions can be much more interdisciplinary. We think people with a growth mindset might be drawn to these interdisciplinary careers, while people with a fixed theory might just want to live in their silo of interest.”

O’Keefe and his collaborators are unequivocal that “the idea that people must find their passion [is] sending, we think, a pretty terrible message to people.” Sure, “if a career can align with your interests or passions, that is the best-case scenario.” The trick to getting that best-case alignment is to know your theory of interest. But how would you find out?

You might try one of the study’s experiments:

“In one experiment, the researchers observed self-identified ‘techies’ and ‘fuzzies,’ Stanford lingo for liberal arts geeks, as each group read an article that pertained to their field. Not surprisingly, the participants enjoyed the articles relevant to their interests. But when they switched to read the less relevant article, the researchers made a discovery: Those [with a fixed theory] were less interested in learning about an unfamiliar field. By contrast, those [with a growth theory] were more engaged with the article outside their expertise.”

Your response might explain your patchwork resume — and maybe also why you’re okay with it.

Or it might save you from a career train wreck.

Loving, Loathing, and “Sparking Joy” in the Workplace

konmari

https://konmari.com/

My research has been digging up lots of “in all things exercise moderation” career advice lately:  don’t expect too much meaning from your work, don’t get overly inspired, keep your day job, learn to love the job you’ve already got, set goals you can’t achieve…. I’m sure it’s a sign of the times — gone is the bravado of past decades about doing what you love and the money will follow and all that other buoyant commencement address advice.

I came across more of the same this week in — of all places — a Mayo Clinic study of physicians, as reported in “How to be Happier at Work” New York Times (Apr. 7, 2019). The writer invites us to scale down the job satisfaction question all the way down from the existentialist search for meaning to the nitty gritty of what  your job requires every day.

“A study from the Mayo Clinic found that physicians who spend about 20 percent of their time doing ‘work they find most meaningful are at dramatically lower risk for burnout.’ But here’s what’s fascinating: Anything beyond that 20 percent has a marginal impact, as ‘spending 50 percent of your time in the most meaningful area is associated with similar rates of burnout as 20 percent.’

“In other words: You don’t need to change everything about your job to see substantial benefits. A few changes here and there can be all you need.”

Are we getting the “transform the job you already have” speech again? Yes we are.

“‘When you look at people who are thriving in their jobs, you notice that they didn’t find them, they made them,’ said Ashley Goodall, senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco and co-author of the book Nine Lies About Work.

“‘We’re told in every commencement speech that if you find a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life. But the verb is wrong,’ he said, adding that successful people who love their jobs take ‘the job that was there at the beginning and then over time they transform the contents of that job.’”

Okay, but how do you do that? By thinking small.

“Do you like what you do?

“Now, I don’t mean that in the broad sense of wondering whether you’re on the right career path. I mean on a day-to-day basis, if you thought about every single task your job entails, could you name the parts that give you genuine joy? What about the tasks you hate?

“To be sure, transforming your job isn’t easy. But you have to start somewhere, and there’s a wonderfully simple but surprisingly revealing trick that can help.

“For a full week, carry a notepad at all times. Draw a line down the center of a page and label one column ‘Love’ and the other column ‘Loathe.’ Whenever you perform a task, no matter how small, be mindful of how it makes you feel. Are you excited about it? Do you look forward to it? Does time fly when you’re doing it? Or did you procrastinate, dreading every moment and feeling drained by the time you’re done?

“It seems silly, I know. But this exercise — which Mr. Goodall and his co-author, Marcus Buckingham, co-head and talent expert at the A.D.P. Research Institute, write about in their book and practice in their lives — can show you hidden clues and nuances about work.”

Reminds me of the “KonMari” approach to decluttering and downsizing:  go through your stuff, and if something doesn’t give you a burst of joy, out it goes.

“It’s been a whirlwind year for Marie Kondo, the beloved professional organizer and sparker of joy.

“Between her bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and her hit Netflix show, Kondo has reached a level of ubiquity that’s uncommon for book authors. Her approach to cleaning — known as the the KonMari Method — hinges on getting rid of things that do not ‘spark joy.’ She takes a similar approach to her own well-being.

“Kondo chatted with Medium about how she uses her tidying methods in her own life to live better and more balanced.”

“Marie Kondo’s Daily Routine Is Delightful,” Medium (Apr. 10, 2019).

Like the amazingly tidy (and happy) Ms. Kondo, I also take “a similar approach to [my] own well-being.” And, like her, I’m way over 20% with no burnout in sight — although I admit, as I said last time, that it helps to not have a job anymore. But don’t take it from me, try it yourself — grab that notepad and go looking for those sparks of joy.

Ambition [2]:  Keep Your Day Job?

Into the Woods

“Dreams come true but not free.”

Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

The experts quoted in last week’s post were focused on Millennials, but their advice also applies to people making mid-career/midlife changes. No matter your age, it’s the same dilemma:  you’re inspired and ambitious, but the economic realities are unimpressed. What’s a dreamer to do?

This article[1] suggests a middle ground:

The popular mantra [of positive thinking] comes from the actor Will Smith, who said: ‘Being realistic is the most commonly traveled road to mediocrity.’

But ‘mediocrity’ is a loaded term. Who, after all, wants to be ‘mediocre’ or ordinary? And yet, save for a few, aren’t we all? By implying that the only options are superstardom or mediocrity, we ignore where most of us ultimately land – that huge middle ground between anything and nothing much at all.

Mediocre?! Who you calling mediocre?! Well, um… you. Just like the rest of us.

Mediocrity is a hard truth for high achievers to swallow. Will Smith didn’t have mediocre in mind when he said that, neither did Steve Martin when he advised “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Georgetown professor Cal Newport debunks them both on in So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

“Cal Newport [says] that we have got the passion/purpose equation backwards. ‘It misrepresents how people actually end up passionate about their work,’ he says. ‘It assumes that people must have a pre-existing passion, and the only challenge is identifying it and raising the courage to pursue it. But this is nonsense.’

“Passion doesn’t lead to purpose but rather, the other way around. People who get really good at something that’s useful and that the world values become passionate about what they’re doing. Finding a great career is a matter of picking something that feels useful and interesting. Not only will you find great meaning in the honing of the craft itself, but having a hard-won skill puts you in a position to dictate how your professional life unfolds.[2]

Seems reasonable, but not everyone is convinced:

“Newport’s recommendation begs examination of another aspect of the ‘you-can-be-anything’ framework: should we expect to pursue a passion within our career or is it wiser to try to satisfy it outside of one? Sure, it’s convenient (and nice!) to be paid for something we’d love to do anyway. But is it realistic?

“Marty Nemko, a career counsellor in the San Francisco Bay Area and the public radio host of “Work with Marty Nemko,” offers up a resounding ‘no’. He’s all for people pursuing their dreams, as a hobby. ‘Do what you love,’ he says, ‘but don’t expect to get paid for it.’” [3]

I.e., separate your dreams from the economics and there won’t be a problem. How? Keep your day job. Click below for a six-minute look at someone who followed this advice.

Working stiff

“Didn’t Einstein have to have a job in the post office or something?”

“As any artist knows, for every Banksy or Beyoncé, there are thousands of dreamers whose artistic impulse has to be sustained by paid gigs, which tend to be unglamorous. Such is the life of Robert Friedrich, a New York City-based comic artist who splits his time between creative work and a dull cubicle job he’s held down for more than 20 years. Starting with a love of superheroes, he eventually began mining the minutiae of his daily life to create Failing Fast, a ‘visual diary’ of the modern workforce. Finding a refreshing twist on the often fawning sub-genre of artist profiles, the director Sarah Hanssen makes Working Stiff a broadly relatable take on the creative life, in which passion doesn’t pay the bills and every small success is savoured, if fleeting.”

I confess, I tried, but was never good at keeping my day job.  I was too much in tune with the point of view of another cartoonist (click the image below for the full text):

bill-watterson-commencement-speech-1-728

“So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.

“Having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

“You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

Watterson gave that advice in 1990. Economic realities have changed a lot since then, but dreamers still dream. I’d say go ahead — inspiration will make you happy — but then also take Stephen Sondheim’s advice to heart. I sure do these days.

[1] You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015:

[2] Op. cit.

[3] Op. cit.