Monday, November 11, 2013

Passion Then Career? Or the Other Way Around?

So you're sitting at your desk, wondering if this is all there is. You've been at your job for a few years and it's lost its novelty. Or you thought you were majoring in the right subject, but now you're not so sure.

Sometimes we treat passion for our work as a resource that slowly (or not so slowly) runs dry. Stamped out by idiot bosses, cruel multinational corporations, the vagaries of a crap economy. But what if it doesn't? What if passion could grow over time as you gain in competence?

I dug up an old Cal Newport post on this. Newport teaches computer science at Georgetown, but also writes about ways students can succeed and be happy. Based on his reading of recent research, he believes passion follows hard work and mastery of a skill. I believe it too. It's why I don't go crazy giving people a billion assessments, or get hung up on their Myers-Briggs type. There's so much more to choosing a career.

In a sense you have to earn passion for something. You start with a hunch that you might like a type of work, might be good at it, and then you set out to learn how to do it.  As you advance in your career, you can trade your skill for more autonomy and quality peers. These are the makings of a satisfying life.

Sounds simple, but careers can derail on several fronts. Maybe you chose the wrong skill to try to master. Maybe everyone is trying to master it too, and you're beginning to resent the competition. Maybe you decide to trade mastery for salary but didn't pay so much attention to finding autonomy. Maybe prestigious titles trumped finding the right situation for you.

And what gets lost in the whole "follow your passion" approach to careers is the fact that there are things that we are better at than other people. It's hard to see your own talent clearly in a world where everyone gets first place trophies, and grades are inflated, and we're all encouraged to have good self-esteem. Failure is hard to detect. A lot of failure isn't loud and embarrassing, it's quiet and polite. No one tells anyone they stink anymore. (And I think that stinks, but that's another matter).

I see so many people dabbling in so many things. They have too many interests, and no dedication to any one pursuit. They're afraid to make a decision, so they double and triple major and burn out on academia altogether. Add to that the trouble we have focusing on any one thing while we text, tweet, and YouTube our way through the day, and we have a mess on our hands.

We need to have the courage to commit to something and give ourselves a chance to love it. A scary proposition. The risk!

But I thought this recent post at Harvard Business Review is right on about making decisions. We need to focus less on the moment of decision-making and instead see a decision as something we can make a success. We don't just decide on a career and then sit back and watch it magically materialize around us. We need to work for it.

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