career passion is not a compass

People often say you should follow your career passion. It sounds like such great advice in all its catchphrase forms. I was always especially fond of the saying, “do what you love and success will follow.”  It’s also been accurate to describe me as someone who has selectively chosen to spend my work time doing something about which I was passionate.  I’m protective of my time, energy and devotion.  Except for temporary gigs to make rent during the down times or to get myself through the college years, it’s been characteristic of me to follow my passion in my career.

With that in mind, it would be easy for me to join the bandwagon and preach syrupy slogans as career wisdom. In today’s world of instant gratification and endless demands for our own self interest and comfort; it seems like good advice for building happiness. Except that it isn’t good advice. It’s not even advice. It’s just an empty slogan.

When it comes to finding joy in life, following your passion isn’t enough. Even for building a meaningful career, following your passion alone could leave you without a legacy.  As good at it sounds (and I still like the sound of it even as I write this), following your passion is a passive way to live. It’s a good way to miss out on depth and meaning while just letting life happen to you.

Here Are Three Reasons Following Career Passion Is Not Enough–and What to Do Instead

Life is More than Passion

This is a trap we ensnare ourselves in all the time. What is it that we love so much about easy answers, quick fixes and romantic ideas?  Each one of us knows that the best things in life are deeper than good times, infatuations and thrilling adventures. Sure. We all want those things and the memories will last a lifetime. But meaning doesn’t come from the thrill of the hunt or the excitement of that first glance. It comes from connection, building relationships for the long haul and living out in love and friendship.

The same is true of our work relationship. If all we chase is passion, what happens when the work becomes familiar or hits a plateau? Passion tends to be a fast-burning wick. Eventually newness and excitement wears off, and there needs to be something deeper to dig into for long-term fulfillment. It can get old to continually repeat patterns of chasing new work challenges. At some point, you’re going to want to love the act of working itself to feel truly fulfilled.  Next comes why:

Work is Service, not Punishment

We’re selling work short more often than we realize. I believe in working in my strengths and will always be drawn to doing work that fits me and where I can best contribute. I encourage that for everyone. Yet there are times when we all can appreciate any work—and will find personal value and self esteem through any valid and ethical form of work. Perspective changes everything. When I have the choice in how or where I work, I will choose the best fit I can find. However, when the most important needs are security and productivity, there are many more work opportunities I will gratefully seek.

What really changes in those situations are not the work (nor my natural career passions). When the focus is placed on immediate needs rather than long-term desires, the scope is changed. More than that, when the focus is more broadly on what work in general can provide, expectations regarding what is meaningful and fulfilling shift as well. What we expect from work—and how we perceive work—have tremendous impact on how fulfilled and pleased we are with any of the work we do.

When we see work as punishment, if we allow that perception to pervade our thoughts, we quash our own fulfillment from the start. The truth is that work in all (legal and ethical) forms is a good and virtuous endeavor.  I know people who would find happiness working in almost any capacity so long as it allowed them ability to provide for their household and they could do the job well.  They don’t share my need to work in certain fields, so long as they can work somewhere.

It works because they see the act of work as the thing that provides meaning. Other people, more like me, find the meaning in the type of work. Most of us have more than one type of work that will do that for us, so long as we have a healthy perspective overall.

It’s possible because of one universal truth: Work is service. We were made to be in relationship and serve others. Work gives us that opportunity daily. To work is to contribute to the world around us. That’s the part that brings much more lasting fulfillment than feeding our passions. But there is also a more personal reason that following your passion won’t be enough…

You are Not Defined by Your Career Passion

I love to write, and I enjoy calling myself a writer. For many years I honed photography skills and enjoyed building a portfolio as an avid photographer. I also love American politics and our founding history and can be heard enjoying long conversations about people, policies and the pros and cons of various programs. My work life has included all these passions in the past, but none of these define who I am. That was hard for me to say for a large part of my life. I guess that’s why following my passion in work seemed to be the best thing to do for so long. Good thing that trait was (mostly) work focused!

Following your passion is a good start and can be fun. There is nothing wrong with enjoying what you do and how you spend your time. It’s just not the only thing that’s going to matter to you. You are not what you do. You are not what you enjoy doing. And you are not defined by who you love, where you live or what your cultural background is. Those are all qualities and experiences you have. They may even make up most of how you see the world and how you relate to the world. Yet they are not the sum of you.

You are a fearfully and wonderfully made human being. That’s all it takes for you to have value and definition. Keep growing and your passions will change with you. You might even say your passions will follow you. That’s the right order, don’t you think?

How to Put Passion in its Place

Here’s what I’ve learned: You don’t have to passively follow your passions and hope that success and fulfillment will follow. That game leaves you vulnerable to finding emptiness behind the curtain. It’s sort of like chasing happiness. Happiness is more of an outcome you get from living with joy. It’s not a destination worthy of chasing in and of itself.

There’s also a better way to live with passion. You can teach your passions to follow you. Doing this gets you beneath the surface and helps you find more meaning in whatever you do for work. Don’t settle for temporary thrills from doing things you love. Turn what you love doing into a way to contribute and serve, providing value to others with passion and commitment.

Passion follows action and commitment. It can be that simple. For example, say you want to get fit but can’t think of any exercises that you enjoy doing regularly. The way to change that is through action. Start working out your body every day, and your body begins to crave the energy elevator created through the activity. Be careful. Stay committed long enough to build a habit, and you just might create a new passion.

This can happen in career too. You can start with something you enjoy (like art or numbers or medicine) and add several doses of natural talents (like painting or analysis or research). Put your interests and strengths together with some ideas about how you can help your community or provide value to others. Then you can build an exciting vision about what you want to do in the world. Imagine all the ways you can use your talents in various jobs, careers or business ventures.

Build a vision. Commit to a plan. Take consistent action. Your career passion will follow you.

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