“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
- Mark Twain
The concept of finding ‘fulfilling’ work has exploded over recent years. With an increasingly connected world and more people sharing how they’ve managed to curate the work-life balance of their dreams, it’s no wonder more of us are sitting down to reflect on how work fits into our lives.
Ideas around work are continually changing. From entrepreneurs, start-ups, portfolio careerists, and the more traditional pathways still holding strong, getting started with your career and what you want to do with your life has never been more complex.
We’re told to ‘follow our passions’ in order to start building the type of career that brings us meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. On the surface, this is good advice: doing the things you’re passionate about can only lead to more good, right?
Well, not necessarily.
Psychologists at Stanford and Yale-NUS College examined theories of interest, specifically fixed theory (our passions are inherent and hidden within us) and growth theory (passions are something to be developed and nurtured over time). Over the course of five individual studies with the same participants, they found those who tested positive as being fixed theory inclined developed less and less interest in articles and media that weren’t linked to their designated interest.
Lead researcher, Paul O’Keefe, advises on the implications of the results:
“Telling people to find their passion could suggest that it’s within you just waiting to be revealed. Telling people to follow their passion suggests passion will do the lion’s share of the work for you. A growth mindset makes people more open to new and different interests and sustains those interests when pursuing them becomes difficult.”
Finding Your Passion
For many of us the idea of picking a passion and following this down a rabbit-hole of a career path is far more complex than the initial advice allows for.
What if you have one core ‘passion’ that you pursue with a single-minded commitment, only to discover a year into it that, actually, you much prefer the pursuit as a personal hobby and making a career out of it is killing the joy you once derived from it? Or what if you realize it’s something you’re no longer passionate about? OR it turns out it wasn’t a particularly strong passion to be turning into a career in the first place?
Then what do you do?
A lot of the young people I work with don’t really know what they want to do for a career in the long run. They tend to have a multitude of ideas they’re really keen to explore. It’s the latter that I continuously encourage, supporting my students to get a ‘taste’ of all the different things they’re interested in. Because being open to new experiences is ultimately what helps to build on our initial ideas and keeps us receptive to any new pathways that may emerge.
Working with young people as they transition from the world of education into the world of work is such a wonderful reminder of how exciting this journey can be. In my role, I’m always seeking to help them keep the doors of experience wide open.
Below are seven ways we do this in the classroom — that can definitely be applied outside it too:
1. Consider Your ‘Flow’ States
You may or may not have come across this concept. It’s one of my favorite discoveries within Positive Psychology, for its simplicity and immediately identifiable applications.
‘Flow State’ was devised by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and colloquially you may know this as ‘being in the zone’. It’s the state we find ourselves in when we are fully immersed and engaged by the activity we’re doing. Flow state is more than just simply being engaged however, it also means that you derive a strong sense of enjoyment from the full process of the activity — not just the end result.
The activities that encourage this state do so because they enable us to utilize our core and innate strengths. The more we pursue them over time, the better we might get at them, but foundationally they already speak to us because we’re doing the things that we naturally feel good at.
If you want to find out what passions might be worth spending more time exploring for fulfilling work, finding the activities that allow you to enter a flow state is an excellent starting point.
“Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”
2. Develop a ‘Growth’ Approach
The ever-popular ideas of Growth and Fixed Mindsets, developed by Dr. Carol Dweck, remain so, again, because they are so simple to understand and yet immediately and widely applicable.
In a nutshell, a Growth Approach (or mindset) means you remain open to new experiences and possibilities. When challenges arise, you see these as opportunities to learn and grow, not barriers saying you shouldn’t or can’t achieve something.
Once you’ve identified your flow states, it’s important to take this one step further and apply some growth to the activities or behaviors that induce this feeling:
- What is it about the activities exactly that fully engages you?
- How could this apply to other activities?
- Where can you build more of these activities into your current work life?
- How could these activities translate into a career or work opportunities?
“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
3. Conduct a Skills Analysis
In the classroom, I have a worksheet I’ve created for students to use that encourages them to think about the careers they’re interested in, the skills needed, the skills they have, and then look at the gaps. We usually end up spending at least two teaching periods on this exercise, and I encourage them to pair up with other students interested in the same careers to brainstorm and share ideas. They need a lot of input and guidance, but that’s kind of the whole point. It gets them thinking.
It sounds like a simple task, and for adults with a strong grasp on their core strengths and skills, and how they apply to the workplace, it’s a straightforward exercise.
But I’ve also used this with graduate students and adults wanting to switch careers. Do you know what I’ve found? They struggle just as much as my high-schoolers to articulate and form a clear picture of their skills, the skills needed, and where the gaps are for the roles they’re interested in. Taking the time to sit down and do this is great because it not only helps you formulate a plan for pursuing a specific idea/s you may already have, it can also help you discover new areas to focus on.
When breaking down your skills consider the two areas:
- Technical/Professional Skills: These will be specific qualifications, licenses, or ‘hard’ skills needed to do the job you’re interested in (for example, there’s no point pursuing a job as a pastry chef if you can’t get a cake to rise to save your life. Invest in your education and technical knowledge first).
- Personal Skills: These are the qualities, values, and strengths that you think are needed to be good at the job. One way to assess this is by looking up people doing the job/s you want and seeing what it is about them that makes them good at it. How do they communicate, promote, or share their ideas/skills? What personal qualities do they exude that help them to be successful? Now think about the ones you have or might need to work on.
4. Get Stuck In
Ideas are just that; ideas. If you really want to learn more about what a potential passion career you’ve got your eye on might look like, you need to transition your ideas from theory to reality. A great way to do this is by undertaking some voluntary work, or an internship, within the industry you’re interested in.
It’s very easy for us to view our passion career from a distance with rose-tinted glasses, but actually taking the icy cold plunge is what will really let us in on some of the realities we might not have considered just yet.
If you’re harboring thoughts of becoming an artist, writer, or musician, then my friend the leap can be a little scarier. You’ve got to put the work out there. You’ve got to be open to rejection and being told your work is no good. If you can make it through that, you can make it into a career.
“Skill is the unified force of experience, intellect, and passion in their operation.”
5. Build Your ‘T’
Something a fellow creative introduced me to a couple of years ago is the concept of a ‘T-Shape’ Career.
The analogy she used was this: there are two kinds of career people. The Pancake and The T-Shape.
- Pancake Careerists have one very specific area that they work within and they spread themselves out over that area (like a pancake).
- T-Shape Careerists have one core area that they focus on as their pillar, but siphoning off from that main pillar, like little tree branches, are other areas they work in that are usually connected to or complement their main career focus (but they don’t always have to).
I love this idea with a passion, and as someone who regularly has their nose stuck in an article or two about the ‘future of work,’ this whole concept seems to me to be the best guidance we can give young people for building longevity and security in their work lives.
It works so well because it means we don’t have to have just one thing as our core focus. We can have multiple roles that we pursue and derive a sense of purpose and meaning from, without compromising on our sense of identity or financial security. Take me for a small example. I would say the main pillar of my ‘T’ career is my work as a Careers Educator. It’s my core role, and one I fully enjoy and find meaningful. Shaping out my ‘T’ is my work as a writer, which involves a whole array of other areas.
From writing on Medium to writing blogs and content, ghostwriting for CEOs and corporate clients, but also writing short stories, fiction and book reviews. I enjoy all of it to different degrees, and it all adds value (personal, professional and financial) to my life.
Finding your passion or fulfilling work need not be limited to only one thing.
6. Review Refresh Repeat
When I work with graduate and adult clients, they tend to work through some of the guidance or exercises, get to the end and then throw their hands up in exasperation because they haven’t had that ‘light-bulb’ moment (or they were expecting me to hand them all the answers on a plate along with the job that magically ticks all their boxes).
In the classroom, we don’t do this. When one of my students completes a round of work experience we sit down and review their skills analysis, adding in anything new they’ve learned or skills they feel more confident with. Then, we have a good discussion about what they learned, what they liked and didn’t like. Finally, we make a decision: do they want to get some more work experience in this area or try something new?
The point is there is no magic formula. Finding your passion and seeing how it fits, feels, and works for you in a career or work context takes, well, work. You have to continuously review and reflect on what you’re doing, deciding if it’s working, if it feels ‘right’, and if it’s still worth committing to.
Only you can do that.
7. Give it Time
When I graduated from university I fully expected to have my ‘ideal career’ sorted within a couple of months.
In reality, it took 5 years to get onto the career path I am now, and that only happened by pure coincidence and right-place-right-time synchronicity. When I was studying, not once did I think I would end up working in education and I definitely had no notions of working within careers!
At the time I didn’t realize it, but looking back I actually did a little bit of all of the above. I tried new things, I chameleoned my way through a host of entry-level roles, trying to see what fit and what didn’t. With each job I worked at, I reflected on what I liked and didn’t like, and when I started looking for something new that list became the basis I weighed each potential job up against.
When I landed a role as an Employability Coach, I knew this was something I wanted to do and I quickly found out, I was really good at it. While it took a few reincarnations of that role to get to the one I now love, everything since then has been a process of evolving to the work I do — and love doing — now.
Just to put it into perspective, I’ve been doing this work for 9 years this month.
Great things take the time they take, so give them the time they need and deserve. There are no quick wins.
Follow Your Benchmarks
There are some of us who jump in a pool when we’re five and realize that competitive swimming is what we’re destined for. Others grow up on a farm and feel breeding and showing rare sheep is their passion in life (genuinely, I have a colleague who does this and loves it). Some people go through a traumatic experience and this shapes the ways they seek to find meaning and bring meaning to others.
These are all amazing stories, but they are not the stories we should benchmark ourselves against. Neither should we benchmark ourselves against the countless of individuals humble-preaching about their amazing discovery of their purpose, passion, or preferred way of living on social media.
The only benchmarks you should be concerned with when seeking out your passion and the work you should be doing with your life are the internal ones. These are the only ones that will lead you down a path that is truly connected with your own innate strengths and qualities.
Shower some growth mindset, savviness, and a pinch of financial-acumen on that and you’ll be well on your way to the career you can be proud of.
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”