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Follow Your Bliss? Not So Fast!


The most prominent "common wisdom" about finding happiness and success in your career is that first you must identify your passion and then pursue it with determination. This template for career fulfillment was popularized by Stephen Covey almost 30 years ago in his famous book "The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People," and it's been pretty much the dominant narrative thereafter.

Since I discovered the book "Roadmap Nation" late last year I've prescribed it to many clients as a prompt to uncovering obstacles to career progress and as a stimulus for ideas for career exploration. Generally the book is well received, but several of my clients have protested that some of the case histories in the book don't really resonate with them. Why? Because they deal with people who in fact had a passion early in life but then ignored it as adults until their dissatisfaction with their careers led them to a path that wound up directing them back to their passion, ultimately leading them to success and happiness. "But I never had a passion like that" these clients complain.*

Cal Newport, the author of "So Good They Can't Ignore You," takes a different tack. "The conventional wisdom on career success - follow your passion - is seriously flawed. It not only fails to describe how most people actually wind up with compelling careers, but for many people it can actually make things worse, leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst when....one's reality inevitably falls short of the dream," (Or in other words when it turns out that the job on the career path you felt passionate about turns out to be mundane).

Think about it - doesn't it make sense that it's awfully hard to know in advance how passionate you're going to feel about something if you've not immersed yourself in it before?

Newport writes (with quite a bit of supporting data) that most often people discover their passion only AFTER investing a significant amount of time and effort in an area**, an investment that leads them first to increasing expertise (Daniel Pink in his book "Drive" calls that Mastery), which brings with it a powerful sense of satisfaction. The satisfaction arises not just from knowing that you're good at what you do, but from seeing how the good work that you do benefits others or and/or makes an impact. Then, as this mastery is achieved, opportunities for advancement multiply. Newport characterizes this accumulating mastery/expertise as "career capital," which can be exchanged for positions of greater and greater control (Daniel Pink calls that "autonomy"), which he views as the single most important element of career satisfaction.

While all of this makes a lot of sense, the issue I have with it is that it's hard to know where the right place/time is to invest the effort required to develop the mastery necessary. Should you invest in your very first job (or, if you've changed careers, in your very first job on the new path?). I believe the answer is "yes." You've taken your best shot at landing the right job, so give it your best! Develop your skills and expertise. If, after a while, you feel you've made the wrong choice, do some research and craft some "betas" - little experiments in other fields that could reveal a path that's more likely to result in fulfillment. So let's say, for example, you're an associate at a law firm but are discouraged about your long-term prospects for happiness. You might want to talk with some people who have successfully transitioned to other paths, and then engage in some kind of extracurricular work related to those other paths (joining groups related to, volunteering to work in, attending conferences about those other paths). 

Newport suggests that there are three factors which, if any are present in your current job, should make you look to depart. One - the job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself; two - the job focuses on something that you feel is useless or perhaps even bad for the world; three - the job forces you to work with people you really dislike. If any of these are present, look for other work. I highly recommend that you do the exercises in "Roadmap Nation" (or, if you're creatively oriented, in "Designing Your Life" by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans) as an excellent way of identifying a new, promising path. And when you find it, invest in doing the hard, challenging work that will make you valuable in that field and will lead to the advancement and increased control that will contribute so strongly to your career fulfillment.

*Fortunately, the book also contains numerous examples of people who only discovered their passion after extensive experimentation, a bit of luck*, and hard work. Luck often takes the form of conversations with new or old acquaintances or even strangers, who reveal a door to walk through, a door that was undiscovered or invisible prior to that conversation. This emphasizes the importance of connecting with others in the process of exploring career possibilities.

**Newport emphasizes that the effort required to gain the necessary expertise should come not just from an investment of significant time, but from time spent tackling challenges that push you outside of your comfort zone, so that you gain new skills rather than simply improving on old ones.

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