Finding a career

LinkedIn’s founder Reid Hoffman recently published a book titled “The Start-up of YOU.” It wisely suggests that we should all think of our careers as start-ups. Succeeding in today volatile economic environment requires adaptability, a strong personal network, and entrepreneurial thinking. But how do I choose what my start-up will be about? I have somewhere between 40 and 50 productive years. To be productive, I must focus and pick one thing to pursue. But I have a multitude of interests and hence have a number of career choices. What is my calling? It’s a huge and looming question.

Should I follow my passion?

In America, there is the notion that we should follow our hearts. When we think about our careers, we often ask: “What are you passionate about?” Perhaps it’s a consumerist idea that we should get what we want that has been beaten into us by Hollywood and its romantic comedies. We think of Oprah and Donald Trump, who openly advise that we only ought to do what we want to.

Cal Newport puts it very well in this New York Times op-ed:

The Cult of Passion puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us — and demands long deliberation. If we’re not careful, it tells us, we may end up missing our true calling. And even after we make a choice, we’re still not free from its effects. Every time our work becomes hard, we are pushed toward an existential crisis, centered on what for many is an obnoxiously unanswerable question: “Is this what I’m really meant to be doing?” This constant doubt generates anxiety and chronic job-hopping.

Despite my Chinese (hence more conformist) roots, I drank the Kool-aid too. As I grew up I came to believe that I should follow my passion. I assumed that whatever I did I must love deeply. But, four years of trying different things during college made me realize that passion can be a fickle and temporary thing. Unlike the studious pre-med student who always wanted to be a doctor, my passions were all over the map. One month I am excited about web technologies. Then I’m excited about some new politician or a new book. I had relied heavily on infatuations to guide my life, but it only made me uncommitted and unfocused. Passion alone is not a good guide for life planning.

Easy mistakes

One easy mistake is to romanticize about a life you don’t know much about I once thought (and still sometimes think) that being a CEO must be really cool and sexy. Consider, though, what the life of a CEO actually looks like. Endless meetings. Very little time with family. Would you actually enjoy it? I didn’t really consider the reality of what running a startup was like until I actually tried to run a startup. It turns out that it really wasn’t very enjoyable for me. Managing a team and negotiating deals were very stressful. I imagine I could get better at it, and then maybe I will start to enjoy it more. But why make myself unhappy for many, many years when there is already something tangible that I’m better at and enjoy more, such as writing and teaching?

Another easy mistake is to confuse being in the wrong industry with having a bad work environment. By work environment, I don’t just mean the culture of your company or whether your workmates are friendly. What I mean is the instructions your bosses give you. As Penelope Trunk describes, good jobs provide clear goals, a sense of control, helpful feedback, and a suitable level of challenge. As Newport elaborates:

The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job’s specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world. Decades of research on workplace motivation back this up.

Does your job meet these criteria? That you don’t like your current job doesn’t mean that you need to move to LA or do something else that is drastically different. You may just need to change up your work environment. Sometimes you’ll be able to find better work environments within your industry or even with the same company. When you find a better environment, you’ll notice that you’re much better motivated to grow and learn.

Now even though meaning and passion matter less than people think, they still matter. I become extra motivated when I do things I believe in and care about. No, you shouldn’t ignore your passions completely. But passion doesn’t solve all your problems either. Even when you are doing things are more interesting or meaningful to you, there are still good and bad workplaces.

A more rational approach

To end up with a job you love, I think, requires a mixture of exploration and reflection. Exploration is necessary to find a job that makes you happy. Without different experiences under your belt, there is simply no way for you to know what motivates you and what makes you happy. This means that you take the risks and try on different hats. Sometimes it means having a discussion with your boss to work out a better arrangement. Sometimes, when you don’t think your job can ever provide you with the right motivations, it means switching jobs. It means overcoming some of your fears of the unknown and failure. It is not always easy, but often worth it.

Reflection is also necessary. What could you learn from trying different work environments if you don’t take the time to process your experiences? During introspection, you might ask yourself: What made me happy today? Am I doing work that I find meaningful? What am I doing well and what I can do better? Reflection requires discipline. To introspect properly, you need to be honest with yourself. What good do you do for anybody, if you lie to yourself about how you don’t mind doing a job that you secretly hate?

When I graduated from college, I had very little idea of what I wanted to do. Finding the right job was, and still is, an iterative process: Try new things, fall in love, fall out of love, fail, fail, fail, – and along the way – introspect, strategize, and find a way to improve. Over time, I’ve been able to find environments where I am motivated and happy. It wasn’t easy. But, at least for me, this more deliberate and rational approach has worked better than simply “following my passion.”

A great essay I’ve read on this topic is this lengthy discussion by Paul Graham. It has many more important points about the things that might derail you from finding work you love, such as money and prestige. As DFW says, I wish you more than luck.