In recent times, fashionable career advice has been dominated by a theme of passion. Famous speakers have discussed the topic of success and personal fulfillment, and encouraged young people to “follow their passion.” For example, Steve Jobs’ Standford commencement address about passion at work, or Professor Larry Smith’s TED talk on passion entitled why you will fail to have a great career.
Steve Jobs described passion as the only route to fulfillment from work:
Sometimes life is going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced the only thing that kept me going [after being fired from Apple] is that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. That is as true for work as it is for your lovers.
Your work is going to fill a large part of your life. The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking, and don’t settle.
Professor Larry Smith challenged people to consider the excuses they give for not pursuing passion in their careers:
- I’m too lazy to have a great career
- I’m afraid of failure, afraid of looking ridiculous
- Great careers are too hard
- Great careers are just a matter of luck
- People who pursue passions are geniuses, and I’m not a genius
- Passionate people are weird, obsessive, or strange; nice normal people don’t have passion
- I would pursue a great career, but I value human relationships more than accomplishment
He made an excellent contribution to the “follow your passion” discussion as one of the few speakers that actually defined what he meant by passion:
Passion is the thing that will help you create the highest expression of your talent… it is beyond interest.
Careers Affect Your Character
Steve Jobs is right that since you spend so much of your life at work, it is worth taking time to find a tolerable and rewarding job. People need to find a career that suits their nature. This means avoiding:
- Employers that encourage you to violate your personal values or act unethically
- Employers that cause you unnecessary stress by treating you inhumanely (frequent yelling/fighting, unreasonable hours etc…)
- Employers that waste your time making bad products, or working under poor business models that generate useless work
Whether you like to admit it or not, your career defines a large part of your character for two reasons:
- Most people spend the majority of their waking life at work, or training for work
- Every occupation comes with a culture that influences how you think
When choosing a career, you first pursue an education that allows you to practise your art. This influences your character by defining where you live for a few years, the topics you study, and the social group you interact with. It comes at the expense of spending your time elsewhere, studying other topics, and socially interacting with a different segment of society.
When you begin working in your chosen field, you are again allowing your career to define a large part of who you are by influencing where you live, what you study and learn (both at work and at home), and who you interact with. Some careers may be more demanding of your time, whereas others will give you more leisure time.
Your thoughts are heavily influenced by the culture that you live in, that is, the people and ideas you are surrounded with. Honest self reflection is a skill that takes years to develop. Escaping or even merely identifying and acknowledging cultural influences in your thinking patterns requires great effort and self reflection. You cannot prevent the culture you live in from influencing how you think, but you can decide for yourself what culture you want to live in, and the extent to which you participate in it.
Passion and Obsession
I think the most destructive aspect of the “follow your passion” advice is that the term passion usually implies obsession: pursuing one goal to the exclusion of all else. This is a romantic notion for charismatic speakers to latch onto, but is it reasonable to advise someone to be neglectful of almost all aspects of life in ruthless pursuit of one thing? Can you really expect to find success and fulfillment in life while neglecting most of it?
Obsession is a sure path to failure and unhappiness for most people because it advocates two very destructive ideas:
- Being dissatisfied with anything less than ideal
- Pursuit of a goal regardless of practical considerations such as limiting factors
Obsessive people are often admired as experts or connoisseurs. This allows them to feel superior to others because of their advanced knowledge, ability, or refined tastes in some aspect of life. Imagine the professor who devotes his life to studying his obscure branch of science, the aspiring writer who withdraws from the world to immerse themselves in literature, a snobbish food or art critic, or the athlete who lives and breathes their sport.
I think these are unhealthy lifestyles because they lead you to becoming a very one dimensional character. Sure you have advanced knowledge, ability, or refined tastes in some specific area, but you attain this at the cost of ignorance of everything else! Not only do you miss out on most of what life has to offer, your ignorance even hurts you within your narrowly defined passionate goals. I have worked with an obsessive professor, struggling with his failing company because he was overly academic and lacked knowledge of the business world. His disinterest in affairs unrelated to the narrow scope of his research left him critically vulnerable when he was presented with life challenges that required other skills he had neglected to develop.
Another important weakness of obsession is that you are destroyed if you meet insurmountable challenges that force you to change direction in life. I had a cab driver who lamented his short career as a mason because it destroyed his health. Although he had enjoyed his work, he was forced to retire at 30 years old and seek a new career because his body was so destroyed from heavy lifting that he could no longer be a useful mason. He told me that some masons could be promoted to management within their company, but this cannot be the path for all workers since there are fewer managers than workers in a profitable business. For my cab driver, his new career wasn’t a dream job, but it allowed him to sit in a warm environment, perform a useful service for society, and earn a living. Few people dream of driving a cab, but life will present obstacles that you cannot predict.
Stoic Passion: Virtuous Life Is Passionate Life
If pursuing passion means finding the highest expression of one’s talents, then this is also the goal of the Stoic. Recall that Stoics seek to attain tranquility by living virtuous lives, and excelling at the function of a human. Finding the highest expression of your talent is achieving virtue: being the best human you can be! Stoics believe that humans have two functions: to be rational, and to be social.
Careers are the expression of your rational nature as a human. A career is what you spend your life studying and creating – your accomplishments. You can use your career to manipulate the world, advance human knowledge, and develop ideas that influence generations. Careers represent half of the fundamental meaning in your life.
Human relationships are the expression of your social nature as a human. Your acquaintances, coworkers, friends, spouse, and children are all profoundly influenced by your life. How you treat people affects how they treat you in return, but also influences how they treat others. Human relationships encompass the other half of the fundamental meaning in your life.
You will never be truly fulfilled unless you fully commit to both aspects of your life: your career as an expression of your rational nature, and human relationships as an expression of your social nature. Do not pursue one without the other and expect fulfillment. Although Professor Larry Smith used the misleading term passion, he had the right message:
Great friend, great spouse, great parent, great career, is it not a package?
Is that not who you are?
How can you be one without the other?