Recently I have been corresponding with some people on the topic of passion. Given my interest on this topic, I thought it would be good to re-work some emails I sent into posts. The text below is based mostly on the text of the emails, with some modifications.
I will lead off by saying I don’t really think “passion” as it is commonly used to describe work is a helpful or even correct word. I doubt any kid says “I am passionate about being a garbageman”. (For one thing, they may have been told that a garbageman is a “low” job, even though the hourly rates are not too bad.) However, if you ask some people who do go out and take care of our trash, you may hear them describe their work as “fulfilling”. Which suggests to me that we should not necessarily strive for “passionate” work, but instead work which we find fulfilling.
Three Key Aspects of Human Behavior
There are essentially three aspects of human behavior which factor into my thinking:
Humans are lazy. Given the choice between expending huge efforts of will to accomplish a task and simply not doing it, we tend to choose the latter.
Humans crave novelty. We like new and shiny things, and we are even willing to expend some effort to acquire them.
Humans hate feeling they are bad at what they are doing. Unless one doesn’t care about their work, one tends to want to think they are doing a good job. And they want to be recognized for doing so.
As such, I suspect that the people who we tend to say are “passionate” about their work have harnessed these aspects of human behavior to help them achieve what they wanted. That is, if you have validation that your work is good (either internally or externally), and the work you are doing involves new challenges and ideas (so its novel), and you have the skills necessary to make those new challenges surmountable (so not too much will needs to be expended), you will, on the whole, tend to enjoy what you are doing, and you will want to do more of it. I would say most would describe you as being “passionate” about it.
Creating Value is Key
In contradistinction, let’s think about how passion is commonly used in today’s career thinking. One definition is “a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something”. If we apply this to one’s career, what should one do? One should…go out and do those things which one wants to do. Start a yoga studio? Why not!. Backpack around the world? Of course! Play video games all day? Absolutely!
But, when you think about it, who is going to pay you to do that? (And I am not even talking about being a corporate employee.) If you wanted to visit every country in the world, why should anyone give you the money to do so? Economics 101 tells us that people only exchange goods when that exchange generates value for both parties.
Well, how do we create value? By being useful to others. How do we be useful? We develop some skills - probably those in alignment with the kinds of things we tend to be good at - and market those skills. We find people who need our skills and provide services/products to them. We develop and extend our skills to get even better so that we provide more value and then ask to receive more value from others. We can use that extra value received to do fun things like travel the world, and possibly increase our value (especially if we are travel bloggers).
Phrased another way, it is a bit shortsighted to simply take off and “follow one’s passion” if one does not have a way of generating value from doing so. Instead, we may want to focus on developing those skills which:
are related to things we are naturally good at, so we can generate positive momentum early on and overcome challenges
generate value for others, so they will give us value (possibly money, maybe something else) in return
relate to those things we are passionate about, so that when the going gets tough, we can push forward more easily
So a travel blogger had better work on writing excellent posts, search engine optimization, social media, etc. etc. - otherwise they will have a stagnate site, no revenue, and will definitely not be traveling.
The Things We are Passionate About Change With Time
Further, what we are passionate about tends to change with time. When I was 5, playing with Legos was awesome. Nowadays, not so much. Instead I enjoy traveling and great conversation. I hope in the future I am doing something different. Which means that following passion could cause us to jump around in our careers and never really develop a skill set which is valuable. Hence, we will be stuck with a low/mid-level career, never really break into that top-tier level, and may not be able to do those awesome things we wanted.
The in-vogue thinking on passion seems to put the cart before the horse. Blithely going off and “following your passion” is probably going to result in personal economic ruin. (At the very least, a long period of avoidable frustration.) Instead, we should think of building a base skill set, one which is informed by the things we are passionate about and good at, and focus on developing a career which expands that skill set.
Really, as long as you are feeling good about what you are doing and you enjoy it, you will probably want to keep doing it. We feel good about our work when it is novel and challenging, but not so challenging that we feel stuck. We may enjoy learning new skills which help us in our work, and acquiring those skills helps us do even more new and novel tasks. At the end of the day, we end up being “passionate” about our work. What is more, because we have valuable skills, we command even more value for our time. Wouldn’t that be a great state to get to?