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Passion paralysis

I was eyeing my dinner companion’s parmesan-encrusted truffle fries while listening to a bunch of 20-somethings talk about their jobs. Some were enthusiastic, some were ready to leave, but all were keenly aware of the skills they were developing and the experience they were gaining. The ones who were ready to leave their jobs felt that they had tapped out the growth potential while the satisfied ones felt they still had a lot to learn in their current positions or with their current organizations. Made perfect sense.

They also shared a somewhat surprising sense of optimism about their ability to quickly find a new job, even if it meant changing functions, careers, locations, industries, or all four. As I waved futilely at our server, who was apparently trading stock tips with the bartender, a 26 year-old Google software engineer was ruminating about wanting to work in marketing, for a start-up…maybe in Europe.

Passion paralysis image

Then a recent college grad piped up. “I don’t have a job because I haven’t found anything I am passionate about.” This generated a lot of nods and encouragement from the group. They agreed that finding your purpose and discovering your passion can be really hard. So I asked the obvious question, “How many of you who are happily employed are following your passion?” One out of six.

I asked the “non-passion-following” group why they liked their jobs. They all wanted to feel that what they were doing was socially meaningful, but agreed that it was more important that they were learning, developing new skills, building experience, and working alongside colleagues they liked and respected. They appreciated being listened to, having their opinions valued and respected by management, and getting compensated reasonably for their time, personal sacrifices, and many contributions.

So these employed young people are generally happy with their work—even though they are not necessarily following their passion. All-in-all not breaking news. But then why are so many young job seekers searching for their passion—even if they don’t know what it is? Because somewhere along the way they were convinced that they need to find this in order to be satisfied with their work. Hmmm.

I was reflecting on this when the woman across the table from me announced, “My dream is to start my first company before I’m thirty and sell it before I’m thirty-five.” I asked her what she was doing now. “I’m a management consultant and I like my job but I know I need to follow my dream.” Support all around. “What type of company do you want to start?” I asked. “I don’t know but I just feel like I really need to follow my dream and do it before I get too old.” Perhaps because I was being unfairly deprived of parmesan-encrusted truffle fries, I cynically started wondering whether her dream was to be a successful entrepreneur or to simply add a new section to her social media profile.

Then I realized that I had done exactly the same thing when I was in my twenties. I was happily employed as a commercial banker but felt a strong, somewhat irrational desire to start my own company. I quit my job, started a retail business, and five years later I had learned many painful but valuable lessons. Instead of selling my business, I closed it, but that wasn’t the original plan. I smiled at her and said “Good for you! Go for it. You’ll learn a lot and it will be a tremendous experience.”

Following your dream and discovering your passion is a noble quest. And finding your fit is one of life’s most satisfying experiences. Just ask Hollywood. Much has been written about how to find your passion. There are methods and techniques galore along with colorful diagrams and descriptions. And some people find theirs this way and are happy. Others seem to hone in on their passion and purpose by instinct—unwavering—often from an early age. Those are the ones who say things like: “I always wanted to sing; I always wanted to be a doctor; I always wanted to blow things up.” For most of us however, our passion and purpose are elusive characters and searching for them can be a frustrating pursuit.

A different approach is to let your passion and purpose come to you. This can be done by trying new things, putting your heart and soul into what you do, and honestly reflecting on how these roles fit. Passion and purpose are more often created than bestowed. And they are more often discovered through experimentation and active engagement than introspection.

Passion is personal. Try finding your passion by being passionate about what you do. It may be less about saving the world than about helping a neighbor. Maybe it’s making small progress on big issues. Or finding happiness in today—whatever your situation.

Passion can be a powerful motivator. But like for the recent college grad, a search for passion can be demotivating. Treating passion as a source of energy (like the management consultant/entrepreneur) versus a thing or a destination or a challenge is motivating. We all will find things we are passionate about. A lucky few will get to make a living from their passion. And they will be happy. But most of us will find that putting passion into what we do results in happiness.

So don’t let the search for passion keep you from trying things—like jobs you are uncertain about—and growing from the experience. Suddenly a tap on my shoulder. The server smiled pleasantly “Can I get you anything?” Maybe I thought, maybe. The woman beside me said “Just pick something—the truffle fries are fabulous, or maybe try something new?”

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