People tend to switch off when you start to talk about the importance of doing something you love. There’s something that seems naive—and therefore immature—in the idea. We all want to do something we love when we’re young, but then the realities of life creep up on us, and before we know it we have settled for a job that may not be fulfilling, but performs the function of granting us stability and security—so the argument goes. The best many of us hope for are brief moments of enjoyment or fulfilment. Many more derive their only pleasure in work from their interactions with their colleagues, or their only satisfaction from the vague sense of having done a ‘good day’s work’.
But those who take jobs they don’t enjoy shouldn’t be characterised as sell-outs or quitters. In fact there’s something admirable in giving up your own aspirations for the sake of others, or learning to find and embrace the small moments of fulfilment in a job that is, on the whole, unfulfilling. But in a rapidly changing world of work, these questions are not as straightforward as they once were. And since doing or not doing what you love is not a binary decision but implies a spectrum of options, young people graduating today have a much greater likelihood of finding satisfying work than maybe their parents or their parents did.
They should take advantage of this opportunity for health reasons as well as reasons of interest. Studies now show that the people most likely to experience burnout—chronic stress leading to withdrawal and disengagement—are those who feel their work isn’t significant or doesn’t make a difference. Unlike stress, burnout is more emotional than physical. Stress, which is both inevitable and often desirable, usually manifests in low energy, headaches, loss of appetite and a general feeling of lethargy. Burnout’s emotional impact creeps up on us and overwhelms us, which is why we often need someone other than us to point it out. Burnout is also detrimental to those around us, too. When we’re burned out, we’re more likely to watch the clock, complain and speak cynically about work with our colleagues and generally make the professional atmosphere unpleasant.
Some of this is intuitive. Doing what you love gives you confidence and energy, and the quality work to which this inevitably leads propels a virtuous cycle of passion, engaged quality work and deep satisfaction. This spills out into our personal lives, saturating it with feelings of optimism and giving us confidence as we go about our day. It strengthens our instinct for knowing when exactly to take on more responsibility or step back and recover. It enters us into a rhythm of life which gives us a sense of professional progression and personal growth.
Not everyone can simply leave a job that gets them down and find the one that will fulfil them. Plenty of people make sacrifices every day, damaging their own emotional and physical health to try to give a better life to those around them. But people in these positions can cultivate a better attitude to work with time: if you’re satisfied with your job, say, 45 percent of the time, you might consider all the things you enjoy and don’t enjoy, and look for ways you might improve your professional circumstances. Sometimes—time permitting—you can carve out some time each day or each week to explore a hobby or interest. In doing so, you no longer feel enslaved to your job, your and this can make it a more satisfying and less stressful experience.
Young people leaving school or university find themselves in a period in their lives which is both exciting and highly stressful. But in a changing world of work, in which new jobs and new tools for finding them are appearing every day, it’s worth taking time to consider the things that would be most rewarding to you. Not only will your career benefit, but your health will, too.