In the midst of the continuing medical crises that have inundated my family this fall (see my last post for the first; this past month it’s been an emergency hospitalization of my mother that’s had me in NY for all but one week–I think a post on “emergency adventure” might be in the offing …), I caught a piece in The New York Times Sunday Business section that really, really needs addressing in this space.
The piece, written by a very young Georgetown computer science professor named Cal Newport, is titled “Follow a Passion? Let it Follow You.” He argues–much as some marriage counselors do–that passion, like love, follows a solid foundation of a job (or relationship) that has certain positive traits. Those traits, he says (pulling from Daniel Pink’s book Drive,) include “a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world.” And, he argues, you can find those traits just about anywhere.
Looking for a passion, he says … or, as he puts it, the “Cult of Passion” …puts undue pressure on young people to “pick” the right thing, and make the “right” decision, worried that the wrong choice will screw up your chances of happiness. What’s more, he argues that following passion may lead a person to suffer from constant doubt, anxiety and “chronic job hopping.” So instead of asking “what is this job offering me?” he counsels young people to look instead at “what am I offering this job?”
I have at least three different reactions competing noisily in my head for first dibs responding. But I’ll start with the most compassionate one. I felt sad, reading the piece, that Mr. Newport got such terrible counseling in his school days that somehow led him to see a desire to feel passionate about your path in life is somehow a point of pressure, anxiety, and unhappiness. Perhaps there is another book I need to write, to make this point more clearly, but the search for a path with heart or passion isn’t one made from a sitting position, choosing door A, B, or C and hoping you pick right and that you like what’s behind it.
There may be a few people who know, from the exploration they’ve done in their lives up to the age of 18, exactly and precisely what turns them on and ignites the fire of passion within them. They are, of course, the radical minority, and a number of them will still find themselves taking a new direction somewhere down the line. Most of us have to try a few things before one makes them feel as if they’ve come “home.” I was 28 before I found a job that felt like that. But the key point about passion is that it isn’t something you “decide” to follow, any more than you “decide” your heart hurts or your stomach is starving. When something resonates passionately with you, from the inside out, regardless of external rewards or status it offers, you know it.
Ah. But how do you find that, if you don’t inherently already feel it? Therein lies the step that Mr. Newport is missing, or perhaps doesn’t want to take. Reading Mr. Newport’s essay, it struck me that he might not be someone comfortable with periods of uncertain exploration. He wanted a path out of college that would be “the one”–just as many young people (particularly women) want to instantly find the romantic equivalent of “the one.” Unfortunately, life doesn’t generally work that way.
There is a bit of exploring required in the course of both romantic and professional life, to figure out what resonates with you inside and lights that fire. Most people really do end up stumbling upon paths (and relationships) that prove passion-filled. You can narrow that search by doing some hard inner searching of what you like, what things come easily to you, what kind of work situations make you happy, how tolerant of financial and physical risk you are, and so forth, and keeping those in mind when evaluating potential job offers. And that analytical assessment is important to keep the search grounded in elements that really do matter to you.
Of course, at the age of 22, just out of college, you have very little real life experience to compare to or go on. So the task at that age, if you’re one of the vast majority who hasn’t already stumbled upon a life’s passion, should be to explore the world and try to gain as broad a range of experiences as possible, to increase your chances of finding something that really resonates with you.
Ironically, juxtaposed with Mr. Newton’s essay on the print page of the New York Times (one reason I am a passionate advocate of the printed newspaper as opposed to the target-specific online world–the print layout allows other rewarding tidbits to catch your attention just by juxtaposition) was an interview with Kristin Groos Richmond, co-founder of Revolution Foods–a start-up that now employs 900 people in 11 states cooking 200,000 healthy meals for school kids every day. Richmond tells how she spent the first few years of her career in investment banking, but didn’t love it, so she decided to explore working in education, a field she’d always liked. She spent two years in Kenya starting a school, then returned to San Francisco, got married, enrolled in an MBA program, and got the idea for a healthy school lunch program during a summer internship with an inner city school program. She didn’t “decide” at the outset what path would be most passionately rewarding. She found passion in the course of some winding turns of exploration and discovery.
Indeed, what comes most to mind about Mr. Newton’s advice and argument is its similarity with the advice of women who argue for marrying “Mr. Good Enough” or–seriously–marriage counselors who claim that love is a choice. (Way more to say on that topic than fits here, but the basic idea that anyone can or will do, within a certain range of attributes, is the comparison point I’m referring to.)
To be sure: having a sound analysis and sense of what qualities matter to you is important in choosing a path or partner in life. And as my friend Randy Komisar (a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley) says, it really helps to figure out what you really are passionate about. Komisar started out working in the music industry, managing bands. But he figured out that his real passion wasn’t music per se; it was helping and participating in the creative process, and enabling people to bring creativity into the world. That insight helped lead him to venture capital work, which it turns out he loves as much as he did managing bands.
But it’s not that ANY job would have ignited Komisar’s passion. Or even one that he was good at, gave him a sense of autonomy, and allowed him to have impact. (My husband has a job that has all those qualities, and it most certainly is NOT one he loves or is passionate about.) It was figuring out what he was truly passionate about and looking for–and experimenting with–a path that resonated with and fed that passion that got him where he is today.
It’s possible, of course, that Mr. Newport loves his professor job because it really does contain elements that ignite passion within him. Which is to say, that even though he didn’t realize he was doing it, he was stumbling upon a passionate path all along. But it’s also possible that he “loves” his job in an okay kind of way, just as people can love an “okay” partner without feeling passion for them. Contentment and satisfaction are enough for some people. And I say that without a trace of judgment. Everyone has to find what matters most to them in life. But contentment and satisfaction are not the same thing as passion.
Mr. Newport’s essay ends, “Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.”
I fundamentally disagree. Passion may be something you discover along the way of a path, but it is not something you follow; it’s something that compels you forward, regardless of the obstacles or how hard the path gets. What Mr. Newport is describing is something more akin to satisfaction and contentment. He may be perfectly happy. But would he stick with this career field, and his job, if it became excruciatingly difficult to pursue? Would he sacrifice other elements of his life for it? Hard to say from a single essay, but I’m not so sure.
Passion may not be for everyone. But the professionals and married people I’ve always envied the most, and looked to for guidance as to where the most rewarding of paths lay, were–and still are–those people who’ve found not just satisfaction in their personal and professional lives, but who are compelled forward by the light of passionate commitment.