In each moment we’re writing the story of our life based on the decisions we make, and a big part of that story revolves around the career path we choose. On that point, the sage wisdom of the 21st century is to follow your passion. Which, by definition, implies that everyone has a passion to follow. But in my experience, that’s not always the case.
Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of business leaders, entrepreneurs, professors, veterans and students, developing personal stories that include such career-based decisions, and the driving forces behind those choices.
The word passion does come up during these conversations, but not in the way one might expect. As it turns out, life decisions – both personal and career related – involve a complex medley of intellectual and emotional threads coursing through hearts and minds, often in a most confusing and perplexing pattern.
When the topic of passion does arise – I’ll overly simplify here for the sake of discussion – people tend to fall into one of three camps. They have too many passions, they have clarity on their one, true passion, or passion wasn’t a factor when determining their vocational path.
We’ve all met people who knew what they wanted to do from an early age. They fell in love with science while standing in the backyard watching the night sky, were captivated by art and carried a sketchpad everywhere they went, or they spent hours each evening incessantly practicing an instrument. Decades later they were still pursuing that one passion, as no other opportunity that crossed their path in the ensuing years had caused them to stray.
For those with a handful of passions, life tends to be a blend of excitement and frustration. Too many pursuits with so few hours in each day. In some cases the choices are narrow in scope, such as which discipline to pursue within the field of neuroscience, but the options can also be quite diverse, such as whether to become a doctor or a ballerina.
Sometimes that journey leads to a major/minor relationship. A brilliant surgeon by day, and musician by night, a best-of-both-worlds sort of life, though it must be said this particular combination doesn’t work so well in reverse. Other times the choice is made, often for more practical reasons such as money, and there was no looking back.
Then we have the aimless souls without desire or direction, just stumbling through life. Or so the purpose pundits would have us believe. But when I ask these folks about passion, they smile, and say something like, “Don’t have one, have never needed one, I just enjoy my work.”
“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” – Mark Twain
And that mindset can result in a string of jobs that, in many cases, cover a number of career paths which overlap, intersect, or build upon each other. The graphic designer that shifted to building websites and, ultimately, toward creating content which took them into social media. It’s not a matter of reaching a skill-based pinnacle, but rather a quest to explore and stretch.
Truth be told, I’m a proud member of this cohort. Looking back, I would have to say that my career path wasn’t a result of following a passion, but rather a series of opportunities, each of which offered the promise of learning, which is one thing I enjoy above most everything else.
I’ve enjoyed my corporate adventures in operations, information systems, marketing, and a CEO stint. And my days organizing TEDx events – despite the trials, travails and tribulations – were most enjoyable. The team members I worked with were incredible (I learned a lot from each of them) and there was nothing more gratifying than seeing speakers (and performers) take the stage to share, illuminate and delight audiences.
The thought of having pursued one of these avocations has an appeal, to be world-class in a specific discipline. To be at the top of my game, complete with all the industry adulation. But I would have lost out on the diversity of learning that I’ve enjoyed. The viewing of life from so many perspectives.
So if you have a passion that drives you, then dive in, go deep, and master your craft. But if professional passion is not your cup of tea, it’s okay to just enjoy what you do, and let it feed your passion for life. In the end, it will still be a story well told.