A working life amounts to about 80,000 hours. That's a lot of time. How should you spend it?

The most common response to this questions these days is the popular refrain to 'follow your passion.' The thinking behind this common piece of career wisdom is simple — do what you love and the energy and motivation you get from being so invested in what you do will make you successful.

What could be wrong with that? Besides the obvious problem that lots and lots of young (and not so young) people are clueless as to where their passions lie, there's also the not-so-minor issue of obviously passion-inducing jobs being oversubscribed. There are millions of people out there who are passionate about music, but there are hardly millions of available gigs for professional musicians. The same could be said about nearly all the popular passions. Inevitable failure for many is the clear consequence of this brutal math if 'follow your passion' is the last word in career advice.

Do what's valuable instead

What's the alternative? In a recent TEDxYouth talk Benjamin Todd, the youthful founder of 80,000 hours, an organization dedicated to helping people make better career choices, offers a suggestion.

Ditch ‘follow your passion’ in favor of ‘do what's valuable.’

In the talk, Todd notes that the fundamental thinking behind ‘follow your passion’ is simply not true, according to science. “Researchers have tried to show for decades that there’s a strong relationship between interest match and how successful and happy people end up in their work, but so far, they’ve failed to show a strong connection between the two,” he says.

Passions fade, change, or fail to exist, but sadly social problems are always around, and doing good in the world is the most reliable route to fulfillment (no one has ever regretted improving the world on their deathbed now have they?) So Todd and his organization advocate turning the usual career wisdom on its head. Don't expect passion to lead to value and success. Expect adding real value to the world to spark passion.

“Focus on getting good at something that genuinely helps others and makes the world a better place," Todd says, "and that will lead to passion and a fulfilling career.”

The nuts and bolts

Which sounds nice in theory, but if you're flailing around trying to decide on your next career move, it's a little vague. Thankfully, Todd breaks down how to put this insight to use, offering a three-point path to a fulfilling career:

  1. Get out there and experiment. “Learn all you can about the world and test yourself out in different things,” Todd instructs. “You can’t figure it out just by thinking.”
  2. Get good at something. All that experimenting hopefully gave you a tip off about what you like doing and are good at. It's your job to build up those skills. Try to focus on things that are in demand and applicable in a variety of contents. Todd offers computer programming as an example.
  3. Solve a pressing problem. Now, go and find the biggest and most pressing social problem you can and apply those skills. Forget the issue that's attracting the most headlines. Instead, focus on something that has been unfairly neglected by others, Todd suggests.

And voil, a fulfilling career is born. Though Todd cautions against being unimaginative when it comes to the idea of adding value. The obviously “valuable” jobs that probably pop up in your brain first — i.e. becoming a doctor and vaccinating third world orphans and the like — are far from the only ways to make a valuable contribution. “Big social problems can be and often are solved by research, by developing new technology, by spreading big ideas,” he reminds his audience.

What if I'm stuck with the career I have?

This is advice worth thinking about if you're at the start of your career or pondering a big transition, but what it you're pretty locked into your current career path but still hungering for more fulfillment? You're not completely out of luck. Intriguing advice also exists for making your current gig more meaningful, and there are ways to rethink any job that can improve your career satisfaction.

What do you think of this advice for choosing the right career path?

Published on: Jul 16, 2015