May 11, 2011

Passion Smassion

It’s that time of year again – graduation. Now is the time for families and seniors to pile into auditoriums to hear speeches about finding passion and pursuing vocational nirvana. Which means it’s time for me to stand up like the curmudgeon I’ve become and declare: Passion Smassion! Forget the passion and just get on with your life!

Nice message, huh? I’m a real hit on the graduation speaker circuit. Here’s the thing: I’ve had two-plus decades of counseling confused job seekers who were trying to follow their passion into the work world. Some have spent their whole lives waiting for the muse to tell them their passion, while others have chosen the profession of their dreams only to find the work is intolerable. I hate to say it, but these days I’m having that conversation most often about teaching careers than almost any other field. There’s something about helping kids while simultaneously dealing with bureaucracy that is taxing even the most passionate new educators.

Does that mean one should drop the idea of being happy with one’s work? Well of course not – what kind of career counselor say that? The problem I’ve seen is that seeking one’s passion and being happy at work seem to be almost diametrically opposed in practice, no matter how similar they may be in theory. The harder you try to be happy, it seems, the less likely you’ll actually be happy. It’s like constantly asking your date, Are we having a good time? The more you ask, the more likely you are to wreck the date.

I see the same thing happen with passion-seeking careerists. The more they poke around in their own psyches to discover their true vocational path, the less any of their choices stands up to the passion test.

You may not want to hear this, but as far as I can tell, only a small percentage of people are "born" to be something vocationally. The rest of us have talents and skills that we can enjoy and profit from developing, and which can translate into dozens of different jobs. So here’s my advice. Do yourself a favor and skip the passion question. Ask yourself instead, which skills do I enjoy using, and of those, which ones are marketable? Then strive to be happy in your job, rather than passionate about your career and see if things don’t work out better.

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