What do highly educated Millennials and many high achieving, hard driving fifty-ish women have in common?
On the surface, seemingly not much. However, because both are groups of people that I coach, one similarity connects them with surprising consistency. Often, both groups are striving to gain clarity about their next professional steps, and have deeply and abidingly bought into what Cal Newport, in his seminal book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, calls, “The Passion Trap”.
Newport’s robust research, and my own professional and personal experience, shows that the more emphasis we place on finding work we love, the more unhappy we become when we don’t love every minute of the work we have. So many of us raised our children to believe (and in the process, converted our own thinking) that if we choose a field and career that we are passionate about, somehow we will sidestep the difficulties, challenges, and general hard work, that is literally the most basic fact and requirement of building a successful business and career. Moreover, unlike in school, we can put in the hard work, and we are still not guaranteed success. When it comes to creating a profession, hard work, long hours, and true commitment is required, but there is not a sufficient guarantee of an ideal outcome. That’s just what it means to be an adult and a professional.
Both young adults, and women wanting to recreate their lives, will often repeat the same mantra to me, “I need to find my passion.” Unless you are an artist, musician, or athlete, almost every other professional option is one of many choices we can make. Choices that have so much more to do with the opportunities that are available to us at any given moment, and far less with our momentary passions.
We change, and what we are passionate about changes with us. I was not passionate about coaching in my 30’s – I’d never even heard of it. And while it appeared as though I was passionate about fashion for 30 years, I might not have even gone down that path if the opportunity had not presented itself for me to open a store at 16 years old. And if there had not been a revolution in Iran forcing my family to flee, well, I can’t even begin to imagine what my “passions” would have looked like under those circumstances.
Cal Newport’s research suggests that we become passionate about our jobs and careers when we are able to find 3 components – autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to control over how we fill our time. Competence refers to mastering unambiguously useful things. Relatedness refers to a feeling of connection to others. In one interview after another, whether with a librarian, custodian, astronaut or entrepreneur, those who say they are passionate about what they do, are folks who are experiencing a decent measure of autonomy, competence and relatedness in their work.
So how do we achieve these 3 valuable benchmarks of work satisfaction? Not through struggle or misery, but through understanding that no matter how we cut it, there is no getting around doing the work. It’s a bit like the trip from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe which I undertake several times a year. The trip is a minimum of 8 hours by car or an hour by plane. No shortcuts and hacks, no amount of passion or worry will make the trip any shorter. The problem with the endless search for our “passion” is that it implies we will somehow be able to get around the necessary work, and yes, the putting up with the unique flavor of shit sandwich that comes with every single job or career. We think just because we are pursuing our passion, that somehow the proverbial car trip should take 4 hours instead of 8. When we find this to be untrue, as we inevitably will, we are quick to question our choice, and likely surrender our efforts altogether. This is the pattern that has sabotaged so many highly educated young adults’ professional efforts.
Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the passion myth, and focus our energy and resources on creating whatever it is that we have the opportunity to create at any given moment, knowing that no matter what path we choose, we’ve got to put in our proverbial 8 hours to get to our version of Lake Tahoe.