Passion's Role in Career Fulfillment

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After freelancing for more than two years, I’m about to start looking for work in a more structured environment. For reasons that may be obvious, I’m a little nervous about this prospect: I’ve run my own life so long that submitting myself to someone else’s rules is quite daunting. Being a believer in research, I sought the advice of experts in how best to go about finding a job that would offer advancement potential, fulfillment and opportunities for originality.

That’s when the cognitive dissonance struck.

It first appeared in the form of Cal Newport’s “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” in which he claims that too many people live their lives according to the “passion hypothesis.” Simply stated, this is the widespread belief in Western culture that career happiness comes from following a pre-existing dream. Following this dream should, according to the passion hypothesis, lead to career fulfillment, control, creativity and meaning.

I’m with him so far. I’ve heard this all my life.

Alas. According to Newport, job satisfaction is actually much more accurately predicted by length of time on the job, and therefore the level of mastery attained. So long as you don’t hate a given kind of work, grinding it out until you become good at it is the best strategy. On the other hand, trying to match your working life to a pre-existing love often leads to job-hopping and dissatisfaction, because work rarely ends up being as glorious as we imagine it will be.

Not what I was expecting.

Enter Daniel H. Pink and his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” In it, Pink uses psychological research to show that people aren’t actually moved by traditional reward and punishment systems. When people can only look forward to externally based promotions and financial gains for reward, and a variety of sanctions if they slip up, they aren’t that happy and don’t perform that well. On the other hand, when they are allowed autonomy and creativity to direct their own working life, they do much better.

And now I’m lost.

If I’m not supposed to go after pre-existing passions, but rather to use what skills I have (dubbed “career capital” by Newport) to build a vocation about which I’m passionate, then almost any work I have the necessary skills for should do … eventually. If, on the other hand, I require autonomy and creativity to feel fulfilled by my work, shouldn’t I let a pre-existing passion lead me there?

Serious thinking leads me to believe that both writers are correct. When trying to choose jobs that will lead to meaningful, long-term careers, we should look for the ones that offer the most autonomy and creativity. However, it’s important not to bug out simply because our workplaces feel overly structured or our bosses’ styles fail to align neatly with our own. To a certain extent, workers earn creativity and autonomy by putting up with, in the short run, rules and regulations.

Combining the two approaches, I should target jobs that offer chances to distinguish myself and advance. However, I should also look for work that will significantly develop my skills, contributing to my career capital. Lastly, I should make sure I don’t hate the work.

That part, at least, I could have figured out myself.

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