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Which Comes First, Work or Passion?

Think passion precedes hard work when it comes to building a successful career? It might not be so simple.
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The claim that finding your passion is the key to a happy and successful work life is so often repeated that the idea has attained the status of annoying old saw (and inspired plenty of impassioned rebuttals). But a couple of recent opinion pieces by career experts suggest that the standard wisdom on work and passion isn't so much dead wrong as totally backwards.

You don't find your passion and then work. Instead, you work--and then find your passion.

That's the gist of computer science professor Cal Newport's recent piece for The New York Times anyway. In it, Newport tells how, during his senior year of college, he had to choose between three possible life trajectories. His first impulse, as per the standard advice on these occasions, was to look for his passion. Was there a rumbling in his gut that showed him one of these paths was the one he was destined for and to which he would give his impassioned all?

There was not. But that's fine, writes Newport. Instead of listening for passion to lead us to work, we should let work build us a passion. He explains:

As I considered my options during my senior year of college, I knew all about this Cult of Passion and its demands. But I chose to ignore it. The alternative career philosophy that drove me is based on this simple premise: The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job's specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world. Decades of research on workplace motivation back this up. (Daniel Pink's book "Drive" offers a nice summary of this literature.)

These traits can be found in many jobs, but they have to be earned. Building valuable skills is hard and takes time…. Today, I'm a computer science professor at Georgetown University, and I love my job. The most important lesson I can draw from my experience is that this love has nothing to do with figuring out at an early age that I was meant to be a professor. There's nothing special about my choosing this particular path. What mattered is what I did once I made my choice.

This advice may befuddle generations of guidance counselors with their insistence that love should precede career choices rather than follow them, but Newport isn't the only person challenging the passion orthodoxy. Founder Kent Healy recently said something similar on the Young Entrepreneur Counsel blog.

Addressing the great many people who despair early in their careers that they're unsure about their passion, Healy writes:

Passion is one very important element (of many) that produces extraordinary results.

What frustrates me is that the process to attaining this "transformational" passion is often overlooked or described as though the gods endow it….

It's time to stop searching and start doing. And no, they are not the same thing.

Searching for your passion is not proactive; it’s actually quite passive, because embedded in the pursuit is the erroneous belief that when seen, it will be immediately recognized. The reality is that a lifelong passion is most often revealed through working passionately on something you have immediate access to.

He concludes, like Newport, that "before passionate (and successful) people find their true life's passion, they are passionate about doing great work--whatever that work entails. On but rare occasions is the subject matter alone the cause or origin of passion."

Waiting around hoping your passion will dawn on you not only can make you miserable, it's also often an excuse for not putting in the hard work to achieve extraordinary things--and with them, find your passion.


How would you advise a young person who is worried that they haven't yet found their passion?

 

Last updated: Oct 12, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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