Friday, April 13, 2012

A passion for careers

Today I stumbled upon two very different arguments about having passion for your work.  One is a talk by Larry Smith, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo.  I was in Larry's Econ 101 class and was endlessly entertained by his lectures; he was known far and wide for being a professor who both really knew his topic and also managed to entertain.  At least part of his appeal was his willingness (eagerness?) to call everybody idiots and tell them exactly why what they were doing was foolish.  His talk, unlike most TED talks, was not meant to be a feel good, inspirational talk but rather a cold reminder that the great majority of people fail utterly to realize a great career and that it is all their own fault.  He did title it "Why you will fail to have a great career" after all.  He believes that to realize a great career (note he never equates great with profitable) you must find your passion and follow it.  He further believes that there are a great many excuses people use to avoid finding or following their passions and goes on at great length to tell us about these failings.  Classic Larry Smith.

The second article was written by Penelope Trunk and is titled "The myth of career passion and how it will derail you".  Her take is entirely the opposite of Larry's as she thinks that the most important thing to do is to devote yourself to becoming fantastically good at something, anything, and to find engagement in your job.  Rather than drift around looking for the panacea of 'passion' Penelope figures that the best way to love your job is to simply find something you can tolerate and that you are good at and become the best there is.  Specialists make more money than generalists and Penelope thinks that making more money is extremely important.

I figure they are both wrong.  Finding a job you are passionate about is a great thing but it isn't the only thing.  Larry has the idea that if you can somehow locate this passion and then follow it that all the rest of your life is a trivial consideration; I think that is a path to unhappiness for most people.  You may be passionate about saving people from burning buildings but simply not be able to deal with the crazy hours involved in being a firefighter.  You may be passionate about creating art but be quite unable to handle the uncertainty and self discipline required to be self employed.  Sometimes the requirements of following your passion are simply not worth the benefits.  There *are* benefits though to doing something you are passionate about and many times people run away from those passions for the wrong reasons.  Not following your dreams because you are worried about disappointing other people or because your dream job isn't of sufficient status are likely to be terrible decisions.

Penelope has it right when she talks about finding flow and how important it is to happiness.  People who become amazing at a job and can lose themselves in doing it are usually very happy.  The thing is though that everybody has different preferences and talents and it is far, far easier to become fantastic at something you love and are good at than something you are indifferent to and mediocre at!  I could have become an accountant; I have the requisite skills.  I could also have become a game designer.  I could have worked hard, become a good accountant and eventually found a good spot but it is easy, trivial even for me to find flow when building games.  If anything I think becoming a game designer would have been trouble because I wouldn't have ever left the office!  Searching for something that grabs you, that you love, is a fantastic way to become excellent at it and to find that state of flow.

The short version is that finding the perfect career is complicated.  Neither desperately searching for passion nor ignoring it is the best way.  By far the best route is to develop a weighting function and weight passion alongside any number of other variables.  It is complicated, like most things, and defies a simple sound byte.

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