Saturday, January 14, 2012

Charting the Course of Your Life

What principles should guide you when you are planning out the course of your life? If you are young and American you have been told, ad nauseam, to follow your passion.

Some tell young people to follow their bliss; some say that they should do what they love; still others tell them to follow their dreams.

The message is part of their education. It is part of their upbringing. And it is not just being peddled by therapists and schoolteachers. Rarely does a day pass when some billionaire explains to the young generation that he amassed his fortune by following his passion, his dreams, or his bliss.

From time to time I have denounced this value system. I believe that it is useless to the point where it will make lives more difficult and more complicated.

Writing on the Harvard Business Review blog, twenty-something entrepreneur Oliver Segovia explains to his generation that following your passion is a bad idea.

He opens with an anecdote about what happened to one young woman who set out to follow her passion. This woman searched her soul until she discovered her true passion. (It sounds just like the kind of introspection prescribed by therapists.) She then set out to realize it.

Segovia describes the process: “Several years ago, a friend decided she wanted to follow her passion. She loved the liberal arts and the academe. She was a talented graphic designer, a great writer, and was the president of a student club. But the prospect of working a nine-to-five job was never interesting. I can't blame her. After all, ours is a millennial generation, proselytized to pursue our dreams. So she spent seven years getting a PhD, writing an award-winning dissertation in the process. It was a wonderful ride while it lasted, and she was among the happiest people I knew.

“Then the recession hit. The value of university endowments crashed. Teaching and research positions were cut. She moved back in with her family, stopped paying off her student loans, and waited two years before getting a minor teaching role in a small research center. Throughout this time, she suffered the anguish of an uncertain future, became socially withdrawn, and felt a sense of betrayal.”

Segovia recognizes, more clearly than most, that his generation has been induced to worship the “false idols of passion.” His generation has been betrayed by those who would proselytize the values of the therapy culture.

If you have a job and have discovered that you also have a passion, I would also recommend that you do not bring it into your workplace.

Passion can easily consume your good character. Passion will make you insufferable. Passion will make you uncompromising. Passion will tell you that negotiating means selling out. Passion will make a poor team player and an ineffective leader.

If you are consumed by passion you will become self-righteous and self-absorbed. Be assured, if you allow yourself to be driven by your passion, it will definitely consume you.

When you set the course of your life by following an impulse that you discovered by introspecting, you are more likely to try to navigate your way through life’s difficulties by ignoring reality and consulting your gut.

Segovia does not limit his column to a critique of the therapy culture. He recommends an antidote. First, he suggests that you forget about your almighty Self. In other words, stop tormenting yourself about your lack of self-esteem.

Instead of rummaging through your mind, try addressing your attention to real problems in the real world. Ask yourself how you might solve them or how you might contribute to their solution. Then you can ask yourself what you bring to a job, how you add value to a product.

Ask yourself what you are good at. Where does your talent lie?

Do a strict and objective inventory of what you are good at. You might add a list of those things you are not very good at.

See how your skills correlate with the problems you are trying to address. Then, try to evaluate the futures market for those skills.

The more you think about how to correlate your skills with the market’s needs the more you will overcome the negative influence of those who told you to follow your passion.


JPL17 said...

I've seen this particular theme addressed numerous times here at Had Enough Therapy, and always had a slight quibble with it. Granted, "following one's passion" clearly isn't a sufficient condition for happiness -- the story in the article about the woman who spent 7 years pursuing her Ph.D. is an obvious enough example of that -- but is it a necessary condition? To some degree, I think it is.

In particular, when considering a career or trade, I think one must figure out which activities provide one with the most satisfaction, and then look at occupations in which those activities are important. For example, if one gets great satisfaction from working with materials using one's hands, or doing calculations with numbers, I think it would be a big mistake not to consider occupations in which those activities are important.

The problem with "following your passion" arises, I think, if one's thought process stops there. I.e., if after identifying the activities that provide the most satisfaction, one charges headlong into an occupation without considering at least 2 more factors, then one's future happiness is unlikely.

The other 2 factors one must consider are the 2 identified in Stuart's post: namely, "What am I good at?"; and "Will the market need people with that skill by the time I can acquire it?" Without answering these 2 questions, I agree that simply following one's passion is folly. But I also think it's essential to know (and give due weight to) the activities that give one the most satisfaction.

I think the article Stuart cites sums it up well: "Happiness comes from the intersection of what you love, what you're good at, and what the world needs."

Tilda Tally-ho said...

I was at a party this summer and a guy in a white suit (red flag right there) was chatting me up. We made small talk and I described my job to him, how I've been a freelance writer and editor for years and love working for myself because I'm free to go to the gym or go out to lunch.
He frowned and gave me an intense look.
"But what's your PASSION in life?" he asked earnestly.
I excused myself and went to get some more guacamole.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

What amazes me about the "passion" idea is that it has made its way into the worlds of business and finance. If it were simply something that college professors drone on about, that would be one thing. But it has infiltrated the minds of people who really ought to know better. That's just a bit frightening.

JPL17 said...

Stuart -- Granted that "passion" is a loaded word that's been grossly overused. But what if we banned that word from the career counselor's lexicon, and replaced it with something less loaded? Would you agree that one of the first steps in determining a career path is to list activities that one "loves," or that provide one with "satisfaction"? And that figuring out what one is good at, and what skills society needs, can follow that step?

The reason I can't dismiss "love" or "satisfaction" as first steps in career planning is that I have too many friends and relatives who failed at various careers until they realized they hated "X" (e.g., selling life insurance) and loved "Y" (e.g., preparing good food), and then developed and pursued a realistic plan to get themselves from "X" to "Y."

My career also falls into that pattern. I've been happily practicing law in specialty field "Y" for the past 24 years, after unhappily practicing "X" for the 8 years before that. It's no coincidence that I happen to love and am very good at "Y," and loathed and wasn't particularly good at "X."

So I'd be curious as to your thoughts on where "love" and "satisfaction" (vis-a-vis job activities) fit into career planning.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Personally, I believe that love and satisfaction derive from finding something that one is good at and succeeding at it.

Happiness is getting great at what you are good at. It is not getting good at what you are mediocre at.

For the record, I think that Peter Drucker explained this well in his booklet on "Self-Management."

When I use the word passion, I am using it the way Segovia does, and the way more classical authors do, when they see it as almost a maniacal pursuit of something that will never succeed. I see it as akin to obsession.

Someone who thinks he is a great artist and who has no success at it probably does not have the talent to be great in fine art. If he persists beyond the verdict of the marketplace, then he is running on passion.

Without any clear success to provide him with satisfaction, he will probably burn himself out and end up frustrated and bitter.

He may have begun his career thinking that he loved art, but, after a time, that love will turn into something darker.

In some cases these people do have some artistic talent, but they would do best to deploy it in a field like design.

After all, in the art world very, very few people really succeed in having satisfying careers. This is especially true when it comes to fine art.

I think that love and satisfaction must be built on a foundation of talent, but that they need to be directed toward activities where they are needed and acknowledged and rewarded.

JPL17 said...

Stuart -- Thanks for your thoughtful response. Defining "passion" the way you do, my views are quite close to yours.

Your discourse on "fine art vs. design" strikes especially close to home. It reminds me of many conversations I've had with my son, the designer, whose views on the subject mirror yours (and mine) perfectly.