Seeking Your Passion: Meaningful Work or Meaningful Life

where's your passionFor about 30 years, under various guises and always targeted, presumably, to the latest “next-gen”, young and not so young people have been advised to seek their passion. I suspect that some bookstores still have “What Color is Your Parachute?” prominently displayed. Commencement speakers, career counselors, and equally anguished contemporaries commiserate with your frustration at a position that [pick as many as apply] doesn’t allow you to be yourself, doesn’t allow your natural creativity to emerge, doesn’t empower you to do anything, doesn’t think you should have a life beyond a 24/7 commitment, expects full loyalty to the boss, thinks you are too young, thinks you are too old, thinks you are too experienced, thinks you don’t have enough experience … [add more as appropriate].

Some years ago, I frequently offered a seminar for career seekers and changers that focused very much on how to determine ahead of time if a job or workplace is right for you and how to use networking interviews to figure that out. I pointed out the limitations of job descriptions [they change all the time so that shouldn’t be the primary determining factor in taking or not taking a position], the importance of the environment and culture of a place [if you are the kind of person who likes solitude, you may not like a very social coffee klatch centered place; if you like constant reinforcement of the quality of your work, you may not thrive in a place which empowers everyone to work as independently as possible; if you want to wear jeans everyday, a wealth management’s suits mandate may not bring out the best in you; you get it.]; the importance of acknowledging that your professional and personal life goals will probably change over time [it is very, very hard to have a life plan which anticipates all of the ways you and your life situation will evolve.]; and don’t assume that any sector is a better or worse place to work [there are private for profit firms which are great and fulfilling places and there are nonprofits which chew people up and spit them out – and vice versa].

All of these and the other advice that I offered still seem true to me. But this post is about what was only an aside in those earlier presentations:

When people come to me for career thinking, and it still happens all the time, a common complaint is that they want to do something that is interesting and meaningful. My response is “what is stopping you?” You won’t do something that you care about or love doing until someone pays you? That is a guaranteed way to get burned out, bored, and boring. In my own career, every single move I made was because I was already finding ways to do the things that reflected my emerging interests long before anyone paid me a cent for them. Not every new interest or hobby or extracurricular commitment led to a career opportunity, but every new career opportunity emerged from finding ways to accommodate my emergent self while still doing the work I was being paid to do.

Your passions and your interests don’t have to be fulfilled in the workplace. Sure, Hallmark movies and human interest stories love to focus on the exceptional person who chucked it all and went off to fulfill his or her dreams, and in the process found love and fortune. Hey, it happens. But you cannot count on it, and sometimes it isn’t really an option. Family and financial limitations are not so easily dismissible for most, and besides, who says that one’s identity must be defined solely by work?

Doing something you love or care deeply about or that gives you gratification makes you a more productive and engaging person. When a potential employer is faced with multiple equally matched candidates, which one do you think she or he remembers? Trust me, as one who used to hire people all the time: the one who is interesting, whose passion for life is evident, and who shows signs of the agility to grow and change as the surrounding reality changes always gets the job.

What really matters is to build in and create time around what gives happiness: people, projects, hobbies, indulgences. Some of us are lucky and a lot of that happens at work. More typically much of that happens outside of the work place. No one is so lucky that every moment of every day in every career stop is transcendent. And everyone, everyone, over the course of a lifetime, and in the course of every week, month, or year along the way, needs to make sure that there is attention to the cultivation of our own selves, our meaning, and, yes, our passions.

Maybe you may end up getting the job of your dreams. More certainly, you’ll be living more of your dream. It’s worth it.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.