Grand emotions tend to get a lot of play in the professional world: “Find your passion,” new graduates are told, as they sally forth into the job market, ready to try their hand at something that will hopefully pay them money. “Figure out where your bliss lies,” mid-career professionals are advised when they’re looking to transition out of their current industry. “If you do what you love, it won’t feel like work,” say others.
Bliss, passion and love are bandied about so frequently in career corners that you’d think you were asking for advice on how to find a soul mate (a similarly daunting quest).
But for all its good intent, “Find your passion” can actually be pretty lousy career advice — and it usually doesn’t leave people feeling as though they’re any closer to finding something they really like doing.
That’s because the idea of “finding your passion” is completely overwhelming — kind of like heading off to “paint the Sistine Chapel” or “start the next Facebook.”
Someone did those things, sure — but let’s face it, most of us aren’t the next Michelangelo or Mark Zuckerberg. And a lot of career advice is written as though we’re all just one step away from setting the world on fire with the sheer force of our creative inspiration. Plus, “Find your passion” is a pretty broad marching order — setting people up to feel like failures when they don’t find something.
It’s easy to see where all this passion talk comes from. For one thing, it’s dramatic. Seminar titles such as, “How To Find Something That Doesn’t Suck” or “Work You Kinda Like” don’t quite have the same ring to them.
So perhaps “passion” just needs a new publicist.
“A lot of people don’t know what their passion is — it’s a monolithic way to describe a career. Also, careers don’t work like that directly,” says Nathaniel Koloc, co-founder of the progressive recruiting firm ReWork. “Your career grows as you learn to give more value. Also, it’s misleading to imply that simply because you like to do something, other people will value it enough to pay you. At the end of the day, you’re talking about the marketplace.”
Instead of the dreaded P-word, Koloc recommends approaching your career choices from a different perspective, and asking yourself two main questions: “Where will I learn more?” and “Where will I provide more value?”
“If you constantly run those two questions, you’ll end up in a good place,” says Koloc. “Now, we can refer to ‘value’ in terms of earning, but it could also mean, where are you helping people the most? It’s not a useless question to ask.”
Other questions that might seem less intimidating than the all-encompassing “now-or-never” of passion include asking what kind of skills you possess and whether you’re independently wealthy.
The latter might sound like a joke, but it’s not: There are entire low-paying industries populated largely by people with trust funds or wealthy parents — people who aren’t relying entirely on their salaries to make a living. (This is not a knock — inherited wealth is nice work if you can get it!) But it’s a helpful thing to know the range of salaries you can expect from a given industry before you enter it.
So if your answer to “Am I independently wealthy?” is no, then move on to the next two questions — namely: “Can I make money doing this?” and, “What are the barriers to entry?”
And then go from there. You can decide the extent to which financial concerns will play into your decision. In an ideal world, you’d move toward something that pays reasonably well — and that you like doing.
Koloc suggests that recent graduates and midcareer staffers are more alike than most realize, pointing out that anyone is between six and 24 months away from their next career decision, whether it’s internal — a promotion, a move to another department — or external.
“The difference with younger folks is that they have fewer experiences to draw from, so my advice is to give your intuition plenty of stuff to work with,” he says. “Explore. Try to do many different kinds of things. The option between having three jobs in five years versus one job in five years, even if the latter pays you more money — choose the first. Earlier on, where you’ve been informs where you can go.”
He counsels everyone to think beyond the concept of a lateral career path, where there are clearly defined next steps. Plenty of people exist who might not have considered entrepreneurial ventures or side gigs to make a bit of money. Those ventures can be great ways to explore other interests and dip your toes in the water while you still have a full-time job — and during times of career uncertainty, knowing you can get by for six months is something to be passionate about indeed.