The Passion Paradox: Finding Occupational Fulfilment in 2019

Is it time to change your life by transforming your passion into your occupation; or at least find a passion you can make into your work.  This makes absolutely perfect sense on the face of it – as the saying goes: ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’.  No doubt for some, this is true, but is this really good advice?

Waiting in perpetuity

Whether it’s a friend who made their love of cake-making into a thriving business, or a colleague who quit the rat race to become a personal trainer, we all know someone who has made their hobby or interest their career.  But what if these relatively rare examples of archetypes who have changed passion into career effectively serve to mistakenly reinforce our belief that this is the only way to achieve occupational fulfilment?

Similarly, there are those we know who are fanatical about their occupations, but you wouldn’t exactly call them ‘hobbies’. For example, I know someone in the corporate training sector, who shows customers how to use software; the same software everyday to a new set of faces.  And she positively effervesces passion and enthusiasm for her role, regularly bringing in new learning theories so she can give the very best she can to her clients.

The common thread that could be argued to exist between the person who has started with their passion, and the person who has developed a passion for their job, is they have achieved a level of ‘mastery’.

Cal Newport, in his wonderful book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’, makes this precise point, “there are many complex reasons for workplace satisfaction, but the reductive notion of matching your job to a pre-existing passion is not among them”.  He goes on to cite research by Amy Wrzesniewski published in the Journal of Research in Personality, which concluded that within a group of college administrators, the strongest predictor of an administrator viewing their role as a ‘calling’ was the sheer amount of experience they had gained.

Newport makes the point that with mastery comes greater levels of autonomy and competence, which are key ingredients required to feel “intrinsically” motivated by work according to the Self-Determination Theory (SDT).  This provides compelling evidence that we tend to have the cart before the horse so to speak when we think about our occupation; or as Newport says, “working right trumps finding the right work”.  And unfortunately, bolstered by the firm belief of passion first, many wait in perpetuity for either the passion to come, to then convert it into a money-making venture or career, or, alternatively, the spark of inspiration to take an existing ‘sleeper’ passion and make it into our dream job.

When starting out in an occupation, it is unlikely we will know immediately that it will later become our calling, as we are yet to gain the mastery needed to do so.  In a piece in the Atlantic in July 2018, Paul O’Keefe, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale was quoted as saying with regard to the advice of following your passion “it’s this idea that if I’m not completely overwhelmed by emotion when I walk into a lab, then it won’t be my passion or my interest”.  This is part of the problem with the word ‘passion’, as it implies a strong positive emotional response, which may take years to develop, as experience and confidence grows.

Does mastery always translate to a ‘calling’?

There are undoubtedly individuals who have toiled in a role for decades, far in excess of the 10,000 hours often cited as required to achieve mastery, who still feel their work is an exercise in daily drudgery.  Is a career change warranted, or could small changes reap huge dividends?  For some, no amount of adjustment is going to be effective, but before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, lets consider if there is a missing ingredient, which if added could turn the job with which you have achieved mastery into a ‘calling’.

Perhaps you have the experience but lack autonomy or control in your position; key factors which increase satisfaction and engagement? If so, ask yourself what simple changes could be made to your role to give yourself control and autonomy, and propose this to your boss.  For example, could you shift your role from the front-line to helping others learn from your years of experience?  The challenge in achieving this, according to Cal Newport, is that having achieved mastery, and by now seeking autonomy, some employers would regard you as being so valuable, they will resist the change you are seeking.

He states, “don’t obsess over discovering your true calling.  Instead, master rare and valuable skills.  Once you build up the career capital that these skills generate, invest it wisely.  Use it to acquire control over what you do and how you do it, and to identify and act of a life-changing mission.  This philosophy is less sexy than the fantasy of dropping everything to go and live in the mountains, but it’s also a philosophy that has been shown time and again to actually work”.

In summary

It is tempting to believe that if we wait long enough, a flash of inspiration will overtake us, and launch us towards a new career full of delightful passion.  However, research shows it matters less what you actually do, and more how skilled you have become.  And this is good news because according to Cal Newport’s book, in which he cites a study which asked university students in Canada what their passions were, less than 5% of those questioned had an interest which would be transferable to a career choice.

If you find yourself ready to jump ship into a new career, before you do, ask yourself if there is anything you can do in your current role to make it work for you.  If you have acquired years of experience and skills in a field, could you apply these in a new industry (perhaps a charity), switch to a front or back end role, or give others the benefit of your knowledge.  Just by grasping hold of the autonomy and control you need, you might find the passion you have always sought was right under your nose all along.

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