Career Passion and Purpose: Cliches or On Point?
Updated: Oct 10, 2019
One of the main reasons people work with me is to find direction. Usually for their career but it could be for other areas too. Seeking direction is not limited to the young, as some might perceive; most of my clients are middle age and older. They desire it, too. Why is that?
They’re usually dissatisfied that they’re not doing what they’re passionate about or lack meaning in what they do. Passion and purpose are two recurring themes in regards to direction, so I thought to explore both in more depth.
Growing up, the idea of following my passion and making a career out of it was frustrating. I really wanted to but I didn’t know what my passions were. I knew my interests, but somehow “passion” was a bit intimidating. When I thought about my passions (i.e. self-development, learning, travel), I didn’t see how I could make a career out of those things at the time, so I thought I was missing something. I thought my answer lied somewhere else.
Fast forward, along various roads, and now I have created a career in doing what I love. Now I am a Career and Life Coach and it includes self-development and learning. I have the flexibility to travel, too. My story seems like one of those romantic happy endings, although I do not see it as an ending. This said, does passion have to precede career choice and direction or can you find it along the way?
In my case, it did, however, Cal Newport in his talk “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice[i]argues against this notion. He feels the strategy of identifying a pre-existing passion then following it is a bad strategy for achieving that goal because 1) it assumes people have a pre-existing passion that can be identified and followed and 2) it assumes that if you really like something and match that to your job, you will have a long term, meaningful and engaging career which, he claims, there is not a lot of evidence for both.
He is not against the goal of loving what you do, because he provides three solutions to do just that in his talk. He is saying passion comes from a snowball effect: it grows with skill and is often stumbled upon. He’s saying it’s not how you start that matters, but what you do when you get going and that a good working life can only come about when you are really good at something.
Newport’s take is contrary to what a lot of people believe, from Joseph Campbell’s “Follow your bliss” to so many others who believe passion precedes direction. Looking back on my story, I believe it involves both. Yes, I felt some pressure to follow my passion which reinforces Newport’s Law: “Telling a young person to follow their passion reduces the probability they will end up passionate.”
I was in education for many years and miserable toward the end. Not because of my students but for other reasons. This said I did develop a skill to listen and coach others way before I got into formal coaching. I don’t think I stumbled upon it, however. I love people; I love to hear people’s stories and help where I can.
My journey also put me on a path of self-development and improvement from an early age. I have no doubt that passion can be born out of deep work, dedication, and commitment because I see that in myself and my clients. This said I also see it comes from following inklings, whispers, and values...something we cannot prove. A friend of mine said passion is about following what is true for her. What I ultimately agree with is that career direction and workplace satisfaction is not a one-size-fits-all kind of approach and it can be non-linear for many people. Most people I know and coach did not know exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up and went through various positions.
Speaking about this, Michelle Obama in her interview with Oprah about her book Becoming, says the worst question you can ask a kid is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For her, it implies growing up is finite, and if you become something that is all there is. She believes we continue to evolve and we never “arrive.” If we do, she feels that it is sad that we do not continue to learn and grow. Essentially, passions can be fluid.
I definitely didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, the possibilities were endless and, to emphasize Michelle Obama’s point, I felt the question was confining. I struggled with that, and I struggled to follow my passions, and my purpose was no different. It was all an evolution.
Some people do not use the word because it can have spiritual or divine connotations, as in your divine design, but it doesn’t have to be.
Essentially, it is something that is meaningful to you. Your purpose can be your big why or reason for doing what you are doing. It can be an unselfish and giving reason, it can be a selfish one, it can be big or small or it can be both. My purpose is to create and help people achieve their potential. I also have things I desire.
Just like passion, there are people who believe we all have a specific purpose and our job here is to realize it. Our passion is a manifestation of our purpose.
Whether you are spiritual or not, creating meaning for or from your experience seems to be common. Viktor Frankl, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, attests that is how he mentally and emotionally survived being in a concentration camp during World War Two. He found daily meaning, even in the direst of circumstances. This said purpose can also be associated with privilege. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can only self-actualize when other needs are met. It is difficult to find your purpose or meaning if you are trying to find your next meal. Not for Viktor Frankl, but generally so.
Now, what about you? Do you know your purpose or is that not for you? If not, what gives you meaning? What is your why? If you believe you have a specific purpose, does it have to follow passion? Can you have one without the other?
As I said, I believe there are many roads to passion and I believe the same for purpose or a person’s why. Yes, I am biased towards following your bliss, if you know what that is, but I also know following your passion without proper consideration or balance can be disastrous and depleting. This is what I help my clients with, all those angles.
So are passion and purpose overused words or on point when it comes to your career and life? I would love to know.
[i]“Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIMu1PGbG-0
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