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Stop Looking for Passion at Work

The meaning of your life won’t likely be found on the job.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

I recently came across an interesting career website called the Paper Tuner. Among a variety of mostly good and useful material, however, I also found this:

I have one word for this TED presentation where we are told that we are pursuing our careers all wrong: shame. And I mean that in the sense of the word that means “shame on you for making people feel bad about themselves for not finding success through the workplace.” I say that because the presenter, Larry Smith, pushes hard on what I consider the “big lies” of what I’ll call the IPO-wins-Internet culture. (He also insists on calling Steve Jobs “Steven J”—really?)

Big Lie #1: Livelihood Is Life

Smith starts his video by telling the audience that they will fail to have a “great career.” By this he means, as he says later, that you don’t want to die with a headstone that reads, “Here lies the inventor of Velcro,” but with one emblazoned “Here lies the inventor of warp drive, who changed humanity forever.”

This makes two false assumptions: First, that Velcro isn’t that important; and, second, more seriously, that the measure of a life is its quantifiable accomplishments. This sort of thinking leads to the sad fate of so many child actors. Think of Danny Bonaducci, Gary Coleman, or Anissa Jones, each of whom found that once their success faded, they were left questioning who they were and sinking into states of dejection, questionable career decisions, and too-frequent bouts with public humiliation.

Or, consider my father, a wonderful, great man who, when his career at IBM came to an end, fell into an alcoholic depression that ultimately killed him. He let his job define him and, without it, he felt he had essentially nothing worth living for.

Thus, I find the idea that you must achieve something big professionally, rather than finding life’s meaning outside of work, cynical at best, cruel at worst.

Big Lie #2: Hobbies and “Interests” Are a Waste of Time

Smith spends a good chunk of his talk disparaging “interests” versus “passion.” We are, he states firmly, supposed to have passion, and it should be expressed through our career, and only our career. The idea of leisure is abhorrent to him.

And this leads to people who feel ashamed that that they can’t make money doing what they love. My other parent, my mother, was an amateur artist. For decades, she produced elaborate ceramic and metal sculptures. But she felt a she was a failure because all that effort didn’t bring profit. Late in her life, she focused on trying to license sculpted characters she called “meeples,” which were odd little beings comprised of concentric circles. She sought the validation of commercial success right up to the end.

Or my own example: I love to cook—and after I served them a recent meal of pork shoulder and fresh guacamole, my friends tell me to open a restaurant. What a terrible idea, I thought. I don’t want to manage cooks and waiters, I don’t want to work from dawn to almost dawn sorting out payroll and kumquats. I want to cook for myself, my family, and friends.

And this isn’t just my opinion. Research shows that being paid to do something can make it mean less to us. By turning something enjoyable, like a jigsaw puzzle or a knitting project, into a paid activity, we turn hours of freely given effort into a commodity. It’s no longer a labor love; it’s $10 an hour. The intangible nature of pleasure that derives from the activity is lost.

By turning something enjoyable into a paid activity, we turn hours of freely given effort into a commodity.

Let me take that even further. I have, on occasion, had to wake up early for work. I don’t do it willingly; I do it out of obligation to my employer. On the contrary, I have happily woken up at 4 a.m. on numerous occasions to go mountain biking. Hobbies and interests are as much of what life is about as our careers, maybe more so.

Behavioral economists call this phenomenon, when one form of motivation replaces another, “crowding out.” Or, as this University of Rochester report on the work of experimental psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan puts it: “Deci’s and Ryan’s most startling finding was that rewards such as prizes and money were not only less effective than behavioral psychologists had long supposed, but under some circumstances could actually diminish people’s feelings of engagement and motivation.”

Big Lie #3: You Are Allowed Only One True Passion (And It Can’t Be Family)

My hobbies have included: CD collecting, writing, biking, guitar, cooking, travel, and being a dad. Yes, being a dad. As Smith defines it, anything outside the career, likely family, for which one is not paid, is a hobby. And I’m good with that. Because being a father is something I do not want to be my career. It’s too important to me.

To achieve Smith’s epitome of success is to be “Steven J.” from Apple—to turn your passion into a product and a career. Congrats to Steven. He certainly left a mark on the world. On some level, I desire that too, but not as much as I desire to enjoy the variety of life. I am content that my time in this mortal coil will be well lived even if I don’t become one of the .001 percent that wins a Nobel Prize or attains the corner office in a multibillion-dollar company. I am content to enjoy a journey where I find as much meaning and passion off the clock as on. I, and my son, will be the better for it.


David Silverman

David Silverman is an author, teacher and senior executive at a Fortune 100 firm.

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