Have you ever noticed that highly effective people almost always say they love what they do? If you ask them about their good career fortune, they’re likely to advise that you have to love what you do in order to perform at a high level of effectiveness. They will talk about the critical importance of having a long-term perspective and real passion in pursuing a career. Numerous studies of highly effective people point to a strong correlation between believing in the mission, enjoying the job, and performing at a high level.
So why is it that people are often skeptical of the notion that passion and career should be integrally linked? Why do people often struggle to discern their passions and then connect those passions to a viable career path? When people hear the testimony of a seemingly happy and fulfilled person, they often say, “That’s easy for them to say now. They’ve made it. It’s not so easy to follow this advice when you’re sitting where I’m sitting!” What they don’t fully realize is that connecting their passions to their work was a big part of how these people eventually made it.
Passion is about excitement. It has more to do with your heart than your head. It’s critical because reaching your full potential requires a combination of your heart and your head. In my experience, your intellectual capability and skills will take you only so far.
Regardless of your talent, you will have rough days, months, and years. You may get stuck with a lousy boss. You may get discouraged and feel like giving up. What pulls you through these difficult periods? The answer is your passion: it is the essential rocket fuel that helps you overcome difficulties and work through dark times. Passion emanates from a belief in a cause or the enjoyment you feel from performing certain tasks. It helps you hang in there so that you can improve your skills, overcome adversity, and find meaning in your work and in your life.
In talking to more experienced people, I often have to get them to mentally set aside their financial obligations, their role in the community, and the expectations of friends, family, and loved ones. It can be particularly difficult for mid-career professionals to understand their passions because, in many cases, the breakage cost of changing jobs or careers feels so huge to them that it’s not even worth considering. As a
they try not to think too deeply about whether they like what they’re doing.
The problem for many mid-career people is that they’re experiencing a plateau that is beginning to alarm them and diminish their career prospects. This plateau is often a by-product of lack of passion for the job. It may be that the nature of the job has changed or the world has changed, and the mission and tasks of their career no longer arouse their passions. In other cases, nothing has changed except the people themselves. They simply want more meaning from their lives and professional careers.
Of course, these questions are never fully resolved. Why? It’s because there are many variables in play, and we can’t control all of them. The challenge is to be self-aware.
That’s difficult, because most of our professional days are chaotic. In fact, life is chaotic, and, sadly, we can’t usually predict the future. It feels as if there’s no time to reflect. So how are you supposed to get perspective on these questions?
I suggest that you try several exercises. These exercises may help you increase your self-awareness and develop your abilities to better understand your passions. They also encourage you to pay closer attention to and be more aware of the tasks and subjects you truly find interesting and enjoyable.
Your Best Self
This exercise involves thinking back to a time when you were at your best. You were great! You did a superb job, and you really enjoyed it. You loved what you were doing while you were doing it, and you received substantial positive reinforcement.
Remember the situation. Write down the details. What were you doing? What tasks were you performing? What were the key elements of the environment, the mission, and the nature of the impact you were making? Did you have a boss, or were you self-directed? Sketch out the complete picture. What did you love about it? What were the factors that made it enjoyable and helped you shine?
If you’re like most people, it may take you some time to recall such a situation. It’s not that you haven’t had these experiences; rather, you have gotten out of the habit of thinking about a time when you were at your best and enjoying what you were doing.
After sketching out the situation, think about what you can learn from this recollection. What are your insights regarding the nature of your enjoyment, the critical environmental factors, the types of tasks you took pleasure in performing, and so on? What does this recollection tell you about what you might enjoy now? Write down your thoughts.
Another approach to helping you think about your desires and passions is to use mental models. That is, assume xyz, and then tell me what you would do — and why. Here are examples of these models:
- If you had one year left to live, how would you spend it? What does that tell you about what you enjoy and what you have a passion for?
- If you had enough money to do whatever you wanted, what job or career would you pursue?
- If you knew you were going to be highly successful in your career, what job would you pursue today?
- What would you like to tell your children and grandchildren about what you accomplished in your career? How will you explain to them what career you chose?
- If you were a third party giving advice to yourself, what would you suggest regarding a career choice?
Although these mental models may seem a bit silly or whimsical, I urge you to take the time to try them, consider your answers, and write them down. You’re likely to be surprised by what you learn. Each of them attempts to help you let go of fears, insecurities, and worries about the opinions of others — and focus on what you truly believe and desire.
Passion is critical in reaching your potential. Getting in touch with your passions may require you to give your fears and insecurities a rest and focus more on your hopes and dreams. You don’t need to immediately decide what action to take or assess whether your dream is realistic. There is an element of brainstorming in this effort: you don’t want to kill ideas before you’ve considered them. Again, allow yourself to focus on the what before you worry about the how. These exercises are about self-awareness, first and foremost. It is uncanny how much more likely you are to recognize opportunities if you’re aware of what you’re looking for.
This article was adapted from What You’re Really Meant to Do, by Robert Steven Kaplan.