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Follow your passion?

Growing up, we were told by guidance counselors, career advice books, the news media and others to “follow our passion.” This advice assumes that we all have a pre-existing passion waiting to be discovered. If we have the courage to discover this calling and to match it to our livelihood, the thinking goes, we’ll end up happy.

As I considered my options during my senior year of college, I knew all about this Cult of Passion and its demands. But I chose to ignore it. The alternative career philosophy that drove me is based on this simple premise: The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job’s specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world. Decades of research on workplace motivation back this up. (Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” offers a nice summary of this literature.)

(“Follow a career passion?” Cal Newport)

It may be confirmation bias, but I’m feeling a real sense of relief from these career articles in the New York Times. Growing up, I had a series of plans that I was forced to make. Many of these were foisted on me by well meaning folks who wanted to ensure that I avoided defaulting to petroleum transfer engineering. The experience of these guidance counselors was that if you don’t have a plan, you end up at wits end. There was a series of random events that took me off the path that I’d planned, and brought me where I am today.

As a silly example, if someone had told me that going to an intrusion detection conference in Belgium was going to lead to me writing a book 5 years later, I wouldn’t have even laughed. I would have just shaken my head.

The idea that job satisfaction comes from things other than painting by numbers is important. For a great deal of human history, most people worked on their farm or someone else’s, and received little in the way of cash payment. The idea of the organization man required organizations big enough to stick around for your entire life. Professionals worked for themselves, or really, whoever walked through the door on a given day.

More and more folks are working independently. Some of that is by choice. Avoiding the mind-numbing meetings, politics, and co-workers you don’t like can be rewarding. Focusing on projects, where you can see an outcome and a deliverable can be clarifying. On the other hand, a lot of people are getting forced there, and for a lot of people, it’s a rough place to be. I think much of that roughness relates to the unpredictability (where’s my next job coming from?) BUt i also think a lot of it comes from believing that a successful person is painting by numbers. That they’re following a preset plan. And if you’re “just” consulting or contracting, you are not doing that, and therefore, you’re not successful.

What emerges over the course of a life is hard to predict. Demanding that it be both awesome and according to plan is a much harder expectation to meet than just accepting the awesome which comes your way.

Rejecting the chaos of interesting and random opportunities that came along would have made for a different career for me. Would it have been interesting? Probably. Would it have been as rewarding? It’s hard to say. But I doubt it.

So next time you’re thinking about a career choice, try rejecting the paint by numbers approach, and embracing the emergent chaos that might come from looking for more of a chance to build and flex your skills, to have an impact on the world, or to find co-workers who you can learn from.

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