[Now, you might find it surprising that a creativity coach like me would take on a topic like this, but I think it is important to differentiate being creative in whatever you do, and being in a creative career. Most people don’t think there is a difference and think they won’t be able to express their creativity unless they get the “perfect job”. As you’ll see in this article, that isn’t the case, and can actually be a harmful way of thinking.]
I also want to make it clear in advance that I’m not at all recommending that people should stay in jobs or get careers that they find unfulfilling, painful or make them unhappy. I’m just suggesting you should look at the evidence below which shows that the “dream jobs you think will ignite your passion” may not actually make you happy at all.]
“Your heart already knows what it wants”
A lot of young people (millennials especially) have grown up in a world where everywhere they look, they see examples of people who have followed their passion to become a success. Movie and Music stars always say this during awards speeches (ignoring all of the other artists who followed their passion and didn’t win). The patron saint of Millennials, Steve Jobs of Apple, is also held up for one of the most famous quotes to inspire the generation, delivered in his Stanford Commencement address in 2005
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. – Steve Jobs, 2005
[I would like to note that you need to consider the situation that Steve Jobs was in at this moment in his life. He was about to release the iPhone to the world, and had turned Apple around from an indebted hardware maker to the trendiest computer company in the world, thanks to the focus on design and simplicity of the Macs and the phenomenal success of the iPod. But more importantly, a year before this speech he was diagnosed with cancer, which would ultimately cut his life short. He was fortunate to be in a moment of amazing success doing something he loved, but still considering his own mortality, future and legacy. In my view, this speech was his “don’t lie on your deathbed and tell your family you should have spent less time at the office” moment.]
Equally importantly, they have also grown up in the social media age, where everyone around them seems to have a perfect lifestyle, with pictures on Instagram of them surrounded by famous people, on holiday, eating beautiful food and partying, all the while looking amazing. This often drives them to want to experience everything in life as soon as possible, for Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) compared to their friends and strangers.
So when it comes time to leave school and look for a career, they have significantly different values to the Baby Boomer and Generation X’ers who came before them.
According to a 2015 poll, when asked what their primary concern was during their first job:
- about 64% of older Americans talked about making as much money as possible or learning new skills
- about 57% of younger Americans responded doing something that they found enjoyable or making a difference in society
At the same time, job security and pay is still an important factor for millennials, compared to the stereotype of them job-hopping all over the place. A 2016 survey of 19,000 21- to 36-year-olds in 25 countries suggests that millennials think job security is a vital factor in choosing a job (87%), second only to money (92%).
So the younger generation entering the workplace, which is now the largest generational population group there is, craves jobs which pay them enough to live their lifestyle, but also enable them to make a difference and enjoy them. This is why so many young people want careers where they feel like they can “be creative and express themselves”, and they think that this is only possible in equally young companies like startups, or in the creative industries (music, film, TV, Youtube etc).
And at the same time, the internet is literally covered with “business experts and coaches” who show you how to build a lifestyle business doing what you love, and getting paid tens of thousands of dollars a month doing it. [What most of these coaches don’t tell you is that the work they “love” doing is teaching other people how to start online businesses and making money online…]
So many are thinking of what they would enjoy doing, and looking only for those jobs.
And that’s where the problem lies.
The passion trap
Cal Newport has analysed job satisfaction figures in the USA for the past few decades and found an interesting trend. In 2010, only 45% of Americans were satisfied with their jobs, and this figure had been steadily decreasing since the 61% of 1987 (first year of the survey). Additionally, roughly 64% of workers under 25 say that they are unhappy in their jobs, the highest levels of dissatisfaction measured for any age group over the twenty-two year history of the survey.
Though many factors can account for workplace unhappiness, a major cause identified by the survey is that “fewer workers consider their jobs to be interesting.”
Newport refers to this as the passion trap:
The more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have.
Subsequent to this analysis, Cal released this video below outlining how “follow your passion” is bad advice that isn’t supported by any evidence that it will actually result in happiness. You should watch it:
The more you think about it, the more that some additional traps become obvious when thinking about possible future careers to pursue, and why basing them on what you are currently passionate about is so dangerous:
- Will you still have passion for the activity once it becomes a full-time job? You might be passionate about baking or cooking. But if you had to wake up at 4am to start working in the kitchen, and dealing with customers who return your food because they don’t like it, would you still enjoy the work? Many dreams are killed when people get into the jobs they have been working singlemindedly towards for years, only to find that they are not what the person had expected or desired.
- Are you actually good enough, compared to everyone else with the same passion? Many creative industries, especially the performing arts like being a musician or actor are the “dream jobs” of many people. Yet many of those people simply aren’t as good as they think they are. Their passion doesn’t necessarily mean they have ability or skill, especially compared to other people who are naturally better than they are.
- Is this a passion at this moment in your life, and is there a chance your passions might change? Your interests and passions change throughout life. When I was really young, I remember I wanted to be a safari park ranger. Then when I originally was thinking about what my company should be, I thought it should be related to improvisation for business. That then changed to be what I do now, which is understanding creativity and innovation. Many other people don’t realise that in the future they are likely to have different passions than they do at that moment, so if you focus your career path only on your passion, you will likely be disappointed if that passion wanes or stops, which can happen even faster if you realise the job isn’t giving you the satisfaction you wanted.
- Is there enough demand for that work to make it likely you can out-compete everyone else? So many children want to be an astronaut. But there are only a few hundred astronauts across the entire world. Same goes for jobs with a limited number, like those at high ranks in politics or at the highest level in sports. The more limited the jobs available, the more likely you are to be disappointed.
- Do you have the skills, ability and market demand to run the passion as a business? Just because you are amazing at something you are passionate about doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to turn it into a successful business, even if you are known as the best in the game. There will be situations where you might need to develop skills necessary for business but outside your comfort zone, like accounting, sales and keeping track of cashflow, but all of these business skills can be learned and developed. The more challenging aspect is finding out if there is enough demand for what you want to offer. You may be the best Blues Guitar instructor in Beijing, or Jiu Jitsu trainer in Georgia, but if there aren’t enough people willing to pay you for the service then you can’t turn it into a career.
- Can that work sustain the lifestyle you want and need? This is the classic “struggling artist” conundrum. Are you willing to decrease the quality of your lifestyle by doing only work you think you will love? Some people go through their whole lives earning less than their peers because they choose to focus on doing work they are passionate about. But as we saw earlier, most millennials want both the money and the satisfaction.
If it all seems like bad news, it isn’t.
There is actually a completely different way of looking at this conundrum, that often results in people having both the job satisfaction and the passion they were originally after.
It’s all about finding your passion, rather than having it drive you.
How to end up loving what you do and finding your passion
Mike Rowe is a TV personality who goes around and meets people doing difficult work, most famously in his TV show “Dirty Jobs”. Most of the careers he talks about can be described as traditionally “blue collar” or tradesman, exactly the opposite of the sexy startups so many millennials pursue.
But what he often finds is that many people who build careers and companies in these fields are not only very successful, but they have developed a passion for the work they do.
It goes back to the study by Cal Newport in the previous video, where he identified the three things that help people end up loving what they do for a living:
- Don’t follow your passion: For all the reasons we discussed, it is better to find a career opportunity that fits more of your goals and desires than one which is based solely on your passion. You can sometimes develop a passion later on.
- Be so good that they can’t ignore you: Most people who end up passionate about what they do grew into it. They had several learning experiences which gave them a little more passion each time they built up their skills and ability. Even Steve Jobs, according to his biographers, didn’t have computers as his number one passion when he co-founded Apple, but grew into the passion along with the company’s growth.
- Go deep into the work: If you want to build your passion in what you do, you need to really get deep into it. Instead of doing work which just skims the top, to do the minimum, you need to figure out how things work below the surface and how to improve things. This is also where the true innovation happens, as you will start to find new ways of doing things.
I also think there is an equally important fourth point:
- Find ways to innovate and be creative in whichever field you end up: People come to me all the time and tell me that they are frustrated that they can’t be creative at work, or that their boss doesn’t listen to their ideas. In reality, all businesses love the idea of growth, so it’s all about finding ways to add value to the company in a way that the managers understand. You see, managers and bosses hate being asked for permission to think of ideas, and that’s why they will often make creative people feel like their ideas are not welcome or a waste of time. This happens in all industries, even startups and media companies. The secret is to find the way and time to talk about ideas and innovation to get other people to see the positives. This is a surefire way to help feel like you’re making a difference in the company, and developing your passion further.
So it is possible to develop a passion in whichever field you work in, and it’s much more likely to help you get the satisfaction you desire rather than only looking for a career in what you think you’re passionate about.
And don’t forget, just because you don’t do what you’re passionate about as a job doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy it. Whether it stays a hobby or a side activity, always try to find time doing the things that make you happy.
Whatever they may be.
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