Real talk: here are the 3 ways it is possible to have a career and a life you love
This post is in answer to a question I recently received. To submit one for a future post, email me here.
Career advice from a teenager who has only had an actual career for about 3 months? Yes, the irony is acknowledged. However, everything written here comes from extensive research and reading. I never pretend to be an authority on anything, and my informative posts are usually written as much for myself as for other people. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on selecting a passion to turn into a career. First, a key point:
No one has to pick one passion to focus on for their entire life.
There is no real evidence that we each have a unique calling which, once found, will lead to endless happiness and fulfillment. Some people discover a passion very early in life and stick to it, turning it into a viable career. Picasso famously drew like Raphael by the time he was 12 (something which his old sketches backup.) Mozart began performing before royalty when he was 5. Blaise Pascal wrote a theorem at 16 which is still used.
Others find what they love after decades of searching. Vincent Van Gogh did not start painting until he was 27. Gandhi only began serious activism work at 49. Nabokov was 56 when he published Lolita and found his feet as a writer.
Meanwhile, most people never quite settle for a single passion. I love asking people who are at least half a century older than me to explain their career path throughout life. Here’s a paraphrase of someone I recently asked:
‘Well, I wanted to be a firefighter as a child, then I decided to study biology, then I changed my mind and switched to botany, got my degree, worked for a woodland conservation charity, then I met my wife and decided to train to be an architect, then when we had kids I wanted to be home more so I switched to a management role…’
And so on. Ask any older person and the answer will be similar. The majority of people have many different things which they are passionate about, changing as they change. Life is interesting that way.
Another reason why selecting just one thing to be passionate about is a bad idea; combining interests can be a powerful way to distinguish ourselves. By simultaneously pursuing mastery of multiple areas, the niche shrinks. This makes it easier to rise to the top and do impressive feats. Diversification is valuable. Passion does not exist in a vacuum- different areas can cross-pollinate. As Robert A. Heinlein summarised:
'A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.'
Problematically, passion is a wholly redundant concept. Or rather, the idea of everyone having a predetermined one is. We all have certain activities and topics which we are geared towards, often from an early age.
Even so, to look at the lives of people who have done great things is to see a web of coincidences, luck, chance, and randomness. Steve Jobs was passionate about Eastern mysticism and calligraphy before he stumbled into technology. Malcolm X became an activist after prison gave him a radical education on the world. Marilyn Monroe worked in a munitions plant until a photographer snapped her for an article, launching her into modeling and acting. For all 3 (and countless other people) luck + underlying skills led to extraordinary careers.
The other issue with passion is that it is expected to be the solution to the underlying ennui most people feel for their work. We expect it to be the source of endless happiness, when/if we manage to turn it into a job.
A classic adage states that ‘if you follow your passion, you will never work a day in your life.’ That is one of the reasons why so many people worry about selecting the right one. Finding a passion which will liberate them from ever having to dread getting up in the morning.
Except, this is far from true. Those of us who are lucky enough to have one thing we love doing and which forms a viable career can vouch for that. Passion is not an unlimited source of motivation. In the long term, it takes a substantial amount of discipline to stick to a single area. There is a big difference between doing something for fun and doing it to earn a living.
Even if we find a job which we are passionate about, in a city we love, with a person we adore, there will still be days when we wake up and hate life. Guaranteed. As Daniel Gilbert wrote in Stumbling on Happiness, the best way to figure out how we will find a certain situation is to ask people who are currently experiencing it. As a step towards figuring out which passion to focus on, talking to people cannot fail. This is what I have learned from questioning those who have their 'dream' job; the dream does not last. Sooner or later, reality kicks in. There is paperwork, taxes, bad days, annoying clients and disgruntled bosses.
This is why some people who have achieved greatness in one area lament not having pursued something different. William John Turner once told a friend that, if he could start his life over he would have been an architect. John Lennon reportedly wished he had been an artist. Sean Connery regretted ever playing James Bond. Each became trapped by their success, forever associated with a certain skill. All people crave autonomy and variety. Christopher McCandless put it best in a letter to his friend in the 90s:
'The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.'
In other words, I refuse to believe that the answer is to select a single pursuit or to limit ourselves to a single passion. The average person has 10 different jobs by the age of forty and there is no reason to think we can be an exception. As a general rule, skill beats enthusiasm every time. And thinking that something sounds exciting, does not mean it will actually form an enjoyable career.
When it comes to deciding what to do at any point, there are 3 main options:
1) Select one thing which you are the most passionate about and try to turn it into a career.
Identifying this is easy. Even if there are many areas of interest, there is probably one which is the most meaningful. This is the interest which you would pursue even if/when it has nothing to do with a career and makes no money. The thing you are constantly learning about, reading books on, listening to podcasts about, keeping up with every bit of news. Then you settle in for the hard grind of years of working to get good at it. Because that takes time.
Areas of work which many people are passionate about tend to be oversaturated, with supply far outstripping demand. Not everyone can do what they want as a result. Remember, not getting to do what you love as a career does not make you a failure. Most people never have the guts to try and do this, and most people end up regretting that. As Arnold Bennett put it in How to Live on 24 Hours a Day:
'A man may desire to go to Mecca... He fares forth...he may probably never reach Mecca; he may drown before he reaches Port Said; he may perish ingloriously on the cost of the Red Sea; his desire may remain eternally frustrate. Unfulfilled aspiration may always trouble him. But he will not be tormented in the same way as the man who...never leaves Brixton.'
In other words, it is better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all (a cliche which happens to be true.) Every failure is a learning experience and source of new learning.
2) Combine multiple passions and turn them into a career.
Yes, it is possible to do this. If anything, it is an advantage. Mixing passions is a way to make work stand out. It is also an excellent idea not to overinvest in a single area. Industries are constantly being disrupted (many creative areas are in jeopardy as AI advances) and diversifying can only be helpful. I am a writer, but I am also interested in languages, aesthetics, marketing, and philosophy. In my work as a blogger and freelance writer, I am able to interweave all five, meaning I can differentiate what I do. There are many interesting examples of people who have done this. Artists who use music, dancers who make films, photographers who have podcasts, scientists who write books.
Look at information, not just emotions. Some skills - marketing, writing, teaching - can be useful in any career. Others -like coding, web design and working with new technologies - are investments in the future as they become more necessary. Niche passions which few people reach a high level of skill in - largely manual areas and old fashioned technical skills- have their value. Combining multiple passions is doubtless a safer option, although it does not allow the same depth of specialized knowledge.
3) Do what is available to you. Get good at it and passion will follow.
This might be a surprise, but research shows that the main predictor of job satisfaction is the length of time someone has spent working a particular job. Not their initial passion for it. I have met numerous people who have careers which seem dull and unfulfilling from the outside, yet which they love. Being good at something makes it enjoyable.
Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs series is fascinating in this respect. Many of the people he profiles are tremendously successful and fulfilled, despite working jobs which most of us would not even imagine (e.g medical waste disposal, castrating livestock, emptying septic tanks.) I can’t imagine anyone dreaming of growing up to do that work and still, someone has to do it. Doing what is available does not mean settling for anything. It means understanding that there is no perfect life’s mission for you. Experiment, mess around, take random classes, read books which catch your eye and you will find what feels right. Again, information is key. Most of the time, this is the best option. By available, I do not mean the first job which pops up when you start searching.
Ask questions: what am I skilled at? What do I have the potential to become more skilled at? What can I do which is practical and which includes elements I enjoy? What will lead elsewhere in the future? We have all grown up hearing that we can do whatever we like, just by working hard and being passionate. More often that not, the work precedes the passion.
My own story of how I found a career I love is a typical, muddled up one. Writing has been the center of my life since an early age. I did not even conceive that it could be a way of earning a living until quite recently. I wrote for myself, never connecting it with work and even when I began blogging, it was years before I made a penny from it. Even then, that was almost by accident. The first time I received a paycheck for a piece of writing was a revelation. Wow, I thought, if I get good enough at this, I could turn it into a career. And thus began the process of working towards the required level of skill. As Stephen King wrote: I write for love, but love doesn't pay the bills. I fell into writing after dreaming of many different careers - conservation work, agriculture, biology, fashion design, photography, teaching. Writing was at first a way of expressing those interests, before it became the main purpose.
In essence, we can never predict what we will love in the long term. My personal approach is to go with what feels right, focus on learning every day and be sure that I do whatever I do as well as possible.
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