There’s this popular notion that in order to find your dream job, you need to find a job that relates to your Passion. There is a Passion — capital P given how religiously it is treated by career gurus — floating around out there in your past. Only by aligning your job with this platonic Passion can you truly enjoy your work. Books like What Color Is Your Parachute? peddle this to high schoolers and college grads looking to find work they really enjoy. This is feel-good advice. So many jobs suck and so many people hate going to work that it feels good to be able to say, “if only I had a job that aligned with my Passion! Then I would be happy!”
It’s also bad advice.
There is no platonic Passion floating around out there in the ether for most people. There is no introspective process of hypnosis that they can think back through their childhood and identify the one thing they should spend their careers on. The popularity of personality tests and “find your passion” quizzes and bad goal setting workshops are all testament to this fact that people just don’t know what their Passions are.
This is the career equivalent of the Disney movie advice that you have One True Love floating around out there somewhere for you to marry. It causes the same anxiety as the Disney One True Love idea.
“How will I know that she’s The One?” or “Oh, I’ll just know when I meet The Right Person.”
No. Wrong. A basic understanding of statistics should inform you as much.
In the career space, I hear this as questions like, “how should I set a goal if I don’t know what it is that I Want To Do?” or “I feel like I need to find my Passion before I can really jump into work,” or “I am not sure I am Passionate about this job, should I take it?” or “how do I communicate my Passion in my cover letter?”
Stop worrying about finding your Passion.
Fulfilling work is not a function of Passion. Fulfilling work is a function of growth towards the achievement of meaningful goals.
If you’ve ever read Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, this should sound familiar. The core point of Newport’s book is that this Passion Hypothesis (his words) that infects the popular discussion around careers says that you have to match your job to a pre-existing passion before you can be happy.
Instead, Newport argues, you should find work that allows you to spend time becoming more skilled at something meaningful. As time progresses and you become more skilled, you enjoy your work more.
This aligns closely with the Ambition Mapping tools and resources I use with my clients. Grounded in work from psychotherapy in the 1980s and 1990s, Ambition Mapping focuses on helping people make progress towards the achievement of meaningful goals, not finding some esoteric and platonic Passion. Thinkers like Nathaniel Branden give us good reason to pause and consider that fulfillment doesn’t come from achieving some Passion or Big Life Goal but instead comes from an experience of growth towards something meaningful.
This work usually looks moderately challenging, shows tangible results, and can be improved upon.
If you’ve ever sat down to write an article for ten minutes only to see that you spent an hour writing a manifesto, or if you’ve ever played a game of tennis and spent hours immersed in the small actions you took, or if you sit down to code and look up only to experience hours passing, you’ve experienced the state of flow that is closely attached to feelings of fulfillment. Flow comes from the ability to step into challenging and meaningful tasks. This is work you don’t even view as work - it’s work you appreciate the opportunity to engage in rather than resent.
If you’re hectically searching for some Passion and constantly stressing out over whether or not you are missing out on the secret to a good career, you never get the opportunity to sit down and enjoy engaging in meaningful work. That the work is challenging is not seen as a reward for engaging in difficult but worthwhile tasks, but instead is constantly caught under the question, “why is this so hard? Should this be what I am focusing on?”
Find Your Focus Instead
Instead of chasing a Passion and invoking this FOMO (fear of missing out), niche yourself down in your work. Niche down until you get to the point where you can make progress towards the achievement of something better than what you have now. It doesn’t have to be a Life’s Task. It doesn’t have to be a Passion. It doesn’t even have to be what you want to build your entire career around. Focusing on work that allows you to experience a feeling of growth provides growth. Growth begets growth in work. If you’re engaged in work you resent, you won’t spend the time going above and beyond to learn new skills in that work you resent.
Remove resentful work first, then work towards something better. Stop pining for your Passion while you sit every day doing work you fundamentally resent.
In our Ambition Mapping exercises, this looks like the via negativa sentence stems:
(3x-5x) I feel the most unhappy when I…
(3x-5x) I dread…
(3x-5x) I am good at but I don’t particularly enjoy…
(3x-5x) I cannot imagine … OR I cannot imagine doing … for the rest of my life.
(3x-5x) I don’t understand why anybody would…
(To complete these exercises, sit down and write the stem and finish writing whatever comes to your mind first. This is a good example of a reader applying the via negativa exercises.)
This is the kind of work you should avoid doing because it will make you resentful of investing more time in growth. There is no Passion we’re trying to infer from this. Instead, we want to move you in the right direction. If you want to end up on the west coast from New York, you don’t want to go east.
From here you can get a clearer picture of where you should navigate. The via positiva exercises give you something to aim for. This doesn’t have to be a Passion. It just needs to be something that piques your interest enough to get moving. Steve Jobs worked at a farming commune and a no-name tech company before starting Apple. He at least knew that he liked working around people. That’s all he needed to pursue to get him moving in the right direction.
(3x-5x) I feel the time pass effortlessly when I...
(3x-5x) I feel most fulfilled when I…
(3x-5x) I look up to people who…
(3x-5x) My most constant interests are...
(3x-5x) I would not want to miss out on…
There should be any number of jobs towards which you can plan that avoid the negatives and achieve the positives here. This gives you a focus of the kinds of skills you must learn, the people you must meet, and the tasks you must accomplish. Progress is the root of fulfillment.
(This is also why I harp so much on communicating and networking. Those are the meta-skills behind any number of jobs. A salesman and a software developer both benefit from knowing how to network effectively.)
Now you have something to work towards. Now you have something to focus on. Forget Passion and find focus.