Do you want to love what you do for a living? Follow your passion! This advice dominates our current thinking on careers and happiness. It also happens to be dead wrong.
I don't disagree with the goal of feeling passionate about your work, but based on the years I've spent researching and writing on this topic, I do disagree with the strategy of identifying a passion in advance.
For one thing, there's little evidence that most people have pre-existing passions that can be transformed into a career. For another, decades of studies on workplace motivation and satisfaction point toward the importance of more general traits like autonomy and a feeling of competence -- traits that can be cultivated in many different jobs. In other words, there's no perfect position waiting for you to discover. Instead of daydreaming about what else is out there, turn your attention toward getting the most out of what you have now. Aim to cultivate passion, not follow it.
Here are three strategies that will help.
Strategy No. 1: Focus on what you offer your job, not what your job offers you.
In studying the issue of workplace satisfaction, one observation came up time and again: The more valuable you are to your organization, the more satisfaction you'll get out of your job. There are two explanations for this rule. First, as generations of craftsman can attest, a feeling of competence is exceptionally rewarding. Second, the more value you offer, the more freedom you gain over what you do and how you do it. This autonomy is also a source of great satisfaction. The implication is that when you're new to a job, you should never ask, "Do I love this?" Because you're new, you're not yet very valuable, which means you're not yet feeling the competence and autonomy that leads to passion.
Instead, the right question to ask is, "How do I get better?" Focusing on what you offer your job, not what your job offers you, provides the shortest path to a compelling career.
Strategy No. 2: Leverage your value.
Becoming valuable to your organization, as argued above, can bring you a satisfying feeling of competence and autonomy. But those who end up with most exceptional career paths don't stop at simply becoming good. Once they've established real value, they use it as leverage to move closer to their dream lifestyle. If you crave simplicity, for example, you might leverage your value to relocate somewhere idyllic, working remotely at a high hourly rate only a few days out of the week. On the other hand, if you crave action and power, you might leverage your value to take control of a new entrepreneurial unit within your organization, keeping you in the center of something exciting.
This strategy sounds simple, but it's easy to get wrong. Many try to jump into a dream lifestyle before they have real value to back it up, leading to failure. Moving to a cabin in Maine to write books, for example, might sound great, but if you haven't actually put in the years required to become a good writer, it's not a sustainable plan. On the other hand, many others never step up and leverage their value once they've earned it. Be patient in building skills, but then recognize and exploit your value once earned.
Strategy No. 3: Seek flexibility, not specificity.
The advantage of this career philosophy is that it frees you from the obligation to find your one true calling, as there are many different jobs that can be transformed into a source of passion. It doesn't necessarily hold, however, that all jobs are made equal.
A general rule of thumb that works well when choosing between positions, or deciding whether to leave a current position, is to prioritize flexibility. Ask yourself the following: "Will this job offer me interesting options if I start to become really good at what I do?" The more you answer in the positive, the better the position. Don't obsess over the specifics of what you'd be doing -- as this will change as your career progresses and you gain more leverage -- instead set yourself up in an environment that will be most easily crafted as you develop your ability.
Cal Newport is the author of So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (Business Plus). He is currently on the faculty at Georgetown University and writes the popular advice blog, Study Hacks. For more on Cal, please visit his website.
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