Sunday, September 30, 2012

Careers: Give Passion the Opportunity to Follow You

Cal Newport has a nice piece titled "Follow a Career Passion? Let it Follow You" in the 29 September edition of the New York Times.

In it he partially debunks the notion that the right thing to do in making career decisions is to "follow your passion."  He notes that, for one thing, it's awfully hard, before you do things, before you have had a chance to know what it feels like to master something, to even know what your passions are.

He does not say, but I think it bears noting, that faced with the imperative to follow passions but not having enough experience and self-knowledge to do so, we often grab off-the-shelf "passions" that are not infrequently "aspiration-challenged."

Traditional advice, he suggests
assumes that we all have a pre-existing passion waiting to be discovered. If we have the courage to discover this calling and to match it to our livelihood, the thinking goes, we’ll end up happy. If we lack this courage, we’ll end up bored and unfulfilled — or, worse, in law school. 
But this generates unhelpful stress. It turns career path decisions into life-sized existential crises under the threat that the wrong choice will ruin your life and prevent you from ever experiencing real passion. And, he adds, it can actually get in the way:
Every time our work becomes hard, we are pushed toward an existential crisis, centered on what for many is an obnoxiously unanswerable question: “Is this what I’m really meant to be doing?” This constant doubt generates anxiety and chronic job-hopping. 
He argues that it's important to realize that what makes a job or career a good one does not lie exclusively in the content of the work. It lies in a feeling of autonomy and a feeling that one is good at something and having an impact. And:
These traits can be found in many jobs, but they have to be earned. Building valuable skills is hard and takes time. For someone in a new position, the right question is not, "What is this job offering me?" but, instead, "What am I offering this job?" 
Sometimes we have the unfortunate tendency to think about engagement and interestingness as if they are traits of the object or activity -- as in "this book/class/conversation is not interesting." But that's backwards: we create interestingness and engagement.  I think Newport hits the nail on the head when he notes that he survived the first few years of grad school because he recognized "that my sense of fulfillment would grow over time, as I became better at my job. So I worked hard, and, as my competence grew, so did my engagement."

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