The Illusion of Passion in Career and Work
A few years back, I developed this obsession with my career and my life. Perhaps, it was a bit of existential angst or maybe I had been reading too many self-help books. I’m not sure. But, several times (or sometimes more often) each year, I would begin grappling with this idea of passion — or what it was I was truly passionate about in work and life. It was as if I were a twenty-something just coming out of college, trying to find their path in the world. But, I wasn’t. I was well past my twenties and well into my career.
I’d obsess over this idea, worry about it, but most of all — I’d worry I had no passion…for anything. Sometimes I would worry about simply not knowing what it was I was passionate about. But, mostly I feared the very idea I was some apathetic being – a slough, if you will – trudging my way through life, truly loving nothing and aimless.
This is not to say I wasn’t driven. I always seemed to have a vision of where I wanted to be in life and which mountain I wanted to climb next. I had accomplished quite a bit in career and life. But, I became preoccupied with the question of whether I would still do everything I did if I were independently wealthy. Would I still work the same job or even in the same profession? And if not, then what would I do as the hours of my life tick away?
I suspect I am not the only person in the world who has ever felt this way or had no idea what they are passionate about, what they want to do with their lives or how to best spend their time on this earth. Much of this worry, angst or fear was central to my daily work — my career, not my family or personal life. After all, I figured I spend a good percentage of my life working to support my existence (and often to buy things I don’t truly need). Since so much of our identity is tied up in our careers, this, I think, is not a peculiar obsession or fear.
And so it seems I was frequently visited with this fear that the life I am living, the work I am doing, my career and who I am are little more than mechanized responses to the social structure of the existence I’ve found myself in rather than a path carved at my own choosing and liking. But, given the opportunity to choose a path of my own liking or dance to the beat of my own music, what would I rather do than what I was currently doing? Problem was: I just couldn’t find an answer to that.
About 6 years ago, I took a break from work. I’m a user experience designer and had been working on a rather large software project. I wasn’t necessarily burnt out. But, I was close to it and I had a thesis to finish for my master’s degree. So I decided to use some savings (and my wife) to string me along for 6 months. During that time period, I really thought about what I was going to do when I went back to work. I thought about not going back to work. I even put myself in hypothetical situations pretending as though I were retired and asking myself what I would do? What was most frightening was: Once again, I didn’t have an answer and I couldn’t find one.
Let’s suppose you won the lottery tomorrow and didn’t have to work for the rest of your life. What would you do with your time? Most of us can come up with a basic list of activities — maybe fishing, spending time with family, travel etc. But, most of our answers don’t move us closer to understanding what our passion is. Let’s ask the question another way. If you won the lottery today and didn’t have to work the rest of your life, what would you produce? What would your contribution to the world be from that point on? That was my question. Consumption is easy. Binging on Netflix while scarfing down bags of chips on the couch is pleasant enough. But, not very fulfilling. I was interested in a “fuller” life and it seemed the fullest lives involved producing something – something that exemplifies a life lived, something you can look back on with some sense of pride.
I had absolutely no problem coming up with activities I would pursue (if I were independently wealthy) involving consumption (such as walking my dog, spending time with family, etc.). But nothing really stood out in relation to what I would produce – what I would actually passionately pursue as a profession or living being in a community of other living beings. This was not only frightening, but it also made me feel as though there was something broken within me. Even my most cherished activities where I have some talent such as writing or photography, I couldn’t necessarily say I was passionate about them. Writing can be a real chore and some days it isn’t fun at all (like when the words don’t come). Photography can be a great joy for me, but not all of the time and my outlook might change if I had to do it for a paycheck where the work becomes much less self-directive.
The more I thought about it over those months, the more elusive any passion seemed to be within me. I am a UX designer by trade and it’s how I make my living in this world. But there are a lot of days where I feel less than enthused about creating another wireframe or prototype. This has led me to wonder over the years if I haven’t had my ladder leaned against the wrong wall. Maybe I just haven’t discovered my passion and that’s my only problem.
Then, a year or so ago, I came across a TED Talk from Terri Trespicio titled, “Stop searching for your passion.” This talk resonated with me. Perhaps, there is a bit of confirmation bias going on here, but the points she makes in this talk seem to make more sense than the elusive search for this burning passion inside of us. Sometimes work is just work and Trespicio urges us to move beyond our fear and senseless quest for the ever-elusive passion.
It’s interesting but Trespicio makes a point concerning this whole “cottage industry” springing up around finding your passion. She’s right. But ironically, you can find other TED talks such as “How to find work you love” from Scott Dinsmore pushing us in this other direction. Maybe things were different for Dinsmore. Maybe it is easier for some people to find or recognize their passion.
I’ve been reading Ken Robinson’s book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. In it, he proposes we all have a passion — even dishwashers, window cleaners and janitors. He gives a singular example to support this point of a janitor who enjoyed their work immensely because they simply loved to clean. This is a logical fallacy (specifically, an anecdotal fallacy) because he uses an isolated example in attempt to build an argument. Trespicio gives a similar example in her talk stating window washers probably do not find themselves where they are in life simply because they have a passion for cleaning glass.
So, there is a point and counterpoint to all of this. I imagine the truth lies somewhere between the idealist notion we will always love our work and the more dismal view Trespicio gives us. I think our true joy in work and life comes from having some direction and possessing the primary motivational elements we need in our work. We won’t love every minute of our work. We might not always feel great joy in spending the next eight hours in our cube. But, if we have the basic elements needed to motivate us in our work, we find some fulfillment in what we do.
Maybe it is as simple as knowing we are making a contribution and working towards something greater than ourselves or maybe it’s as simple as knowing someone depends on us to just be there, on the job, each day. Perhaps, we don’t have to save the world or be the next Einstein or even be forever passionate about whatever it is we do each day. Maybe all of this talk about passion is bullshit repackaged to sell books and speaking engagements.
Regardless, Trespicio’s talk moved me to wrest my grip from this idea and fear I should be passionate about this, that or the other thing. I love to create — write, design, cook, shoot photos — but don’t always enjoy nor am particularly passionate about the work involved in creating. Prep work in cooking isn’t always fun. Putting the words on paper isn’t always fun. Editing photos isn’t something I am always passionate about. And, I don’t get a great fire deep inside me every day I go to work. Some days are better than others. And, I think this is all mostly a frame of mind. You can be as happy or as miserable as you allow yourself to be.
I do admit, these worries are first-world problems. I could be living in a country or place where I’d need to scratch and scrape my way through life just to put food in my stomach. I live in a country where I can purchase a nice meal, primly wrapped in plastic at my local grocer. I don’t have to hunt Wooly Mammoths to feed my tribe. I needn’t worry about common health issues that would have surely killed my ancestors. These modern amenities in life undoubtedly allow me the luxury to contemplate my existence in this way.
I think the idea of passion in work, life and career is probably just bullshit. Everything is relative in life. It’s our state of mind – our mindset – and how we see life that is the key to it all. Every day won’t be a great day and it doesn’t matter what you do, how much money you have or how wonderful your life is. Win the lottery tomorrow, get the CEO job you always wanted or marry that special person and you just traded one set of problems for another.
You can find a way to be passionate about what you do – maybe not all of it, all of the time. But, you can either choose to be happy in what you do or you can choose to be miserable by focusing on everything you don’t like about your life or career. That is a choice we make. This isn’t always true. There are bad jobs, bad bosses and bad situations in life. There times when being dissatisfied is good because it pushes us to move on and, hopefully up, in life.
But, in all of this thinking, reflecting and worrying over whether I was passionate about this or that, I did come to one conclusion: My time is better spent pursuing meaningful work and, perhaps, ignoring the idealistic notion of passion. So far, that seems to be working out well for me.