Do You Need to “Follow Your Passion” to Have a Fulfilling Worklife?

Last week the New York Times ran a story written by a young computer science professor at Georgetown University about the idea of following your passion. The author, Cal Newport, describes how in his final year of university, faced with several prestigious and fairly diverse options for his future, he decided to ignore the advice he received about choosing the path that lead to his passion, and instead made his decision on rather arbitrary geographical criteria.

Newport pointed out that he, like many other people, didn’t have a strong passion that was clear and easy to identify at that stage of his life. He also observed that the downside to buying into the idea that one’s work needs to be one’s passion is that it seems to imply that you need to love what you do all the time.

The author found success for himself by focusing on more general aspects of the worklife he wanted instead of focusing on exactly what he needed his job to be. He identified autonomy and the ability to feel like he was making a positive impact on the world as these traits.

Newport concludes by saying that he now loves the job he chose but that he does not believe this was because he was destined to be a computer science professor. Instead, he loves his career because he put in the grunt work to become a valued member of his profession and is now able to exercise autonomy and direct his own future.

The experiences of the author are not uncommon among the people I have talked to who love their jobs. A small percentage of these people are doing something they imagined doing since childhood but the vast majority had to take a leap of faith into something unknown and work hard until something clicked for them.

The decided advantage for the people in the second group is that they had no implicit notion that their chosen careers would be perfect. They expected some speed bumps and many even considered other options along the way. Had they believed that they were following their one true passion, the speed bumps they encountered could have seemed catastrophically discouraging as they were interrupting the narrative these people had constructed for themselves. However, without this pressure, it becomes easier to accept that no profession is without flaws and no career path is without obstacles.

What do you think?

Is it more important to find a discipline that you feel passionate about and follow that wherever it leads or to define the traits or components you most value about your professional life and strive to maximize them?

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