How to Transform Your Work Life
Some of the most prevalent career advice offered to people is to follow your passion. I disagree. Strongly.
If that isn’t the way, then what is?
We all want to experience happiness at work. And to get there, we can once again turn to interesting research to help elucidate the answer to this question.
One Pathway: Interest
What are you interested in? At first blush, this question might remind you of the infamous passion question. However, interest is quite different than passion. Interest begins as a whisper, as a door quietly opening, usually in places that might be unexpected. In her excellent book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert describes how she came to write her mammoth novel about the history of botany, The Signature of All Things.
It began because she moved into a new house, and she was staring out at her new garden, and decided to buy some plants for it. Then, she got a little bit curious about the plants that she had bought – heirloom irises. She googled it and discovered that these irises had originated in Syria. Slowly, she began to explore the history of the other plants in her garden, and she began to discover the secret history of botany: “a wild and little-known tale of trade and adventure and global intrigue.”
“My search for more information about botanical exploration eventually led me around the planet – from my backyard in New Jersey to the horticultural libraries of England; from the horticultural libraries of England to the medieval pharmaceutical gardens of Holland; from the medieval pharmaceutical gardens of Holland to the moss-covered caves of French Polynesia. Three years of research and travel and investigation later, I finally sat down to begin writing a novel about a fictional family of nineteenth-century botanical explorers.
It was a novel I never saw coming. It had started with nearly nothing… but by the time I looked up from my scavenger hunt and began to write, I was completely consumed with passion about nineteenth century botanical exploration.”
My professor at Penn, Dr. Angela Duckworth, argues that cultivating a passion for your career is about a bit of discovery, a lot of development, and a lifetime of deepening. Elizabeth Gilbert’s moment of discovery was the first Google search about her Syrian irises. She developed it through her investigations, following the whispers into their unexpected places. And at some point, she realized that she was passionate about the topic, enough so to write a 900 page novel.
Interest comes, not through introspection, but through trying stuff.
Most of the people who are deeply passionate about something did not get to be that way through a magical lightbulb moment, but because they tried stuff, they got curious, and they started to investigate the topic, which led to more interest, and more curiosity, and more investigation… It is our interaction with the outside world that provokes us into the state of interest, and we simply cannot predict what that interest is going to be; we can only be on the lookout for those tiny little whispers, and then follow them wherever they may lead.
As you begin to follow your interests, something else interesting happens… you start to get good at whatever it is you are pursuing.
One Pathway: Competence
Human beings like to be good at stuff. In fact, one theory of well-being argues that there are three major psychological needs that we all need to have satisfied:
• Autonomy: having control and believing that your choices matter
• Relatedness: feeling connected to others and to a broader world
• Competence: feeling that you are good at what you do
(You will notice that passion is not on this list.)
When we are good at something, we are satisfying our competence need. The satisfaction of these three needs leads to intrinsic motivation, which is the state where you are likely to be interested in and enjoying the task that you are engaged with. Intrinsic motivation creates a positive upward spiral that looks a little something like this:
- You have an intrinsically inspired interest
- You feel intrinsic motivation to pursue that interest in some way, likely through a goal
- You put more effort into pursuing that goal - which makes it more likely that you will achieve it
- The achievement of that goal can satisfy your needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness
- This satisfaction creates the conditions for you to pursue more intrinsic goals and cultivate more intrinsic motivation
It turns out that studies have found that the most intrinsically motivated painters and sculptors are more professionally successful than those who are extrinsically motivated.
“Those artists who pursued their painting and sculpture more for the pleasure of the activity itself than for extrinsic rewards have produced art that has been socially recognized as superior. It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards who eventually receive them.”
So you have an interest, you have pursued it, and you’re starting to get good at it. How do you take even more responsibility for your happiness at work? You craft it into a calling.
One Pathway: Cultivate a Calling
Amy Wrzesniewski, a psychologist at Yale, has spent much of her career on studying the way that people feel about their jobs regardless of what the content of the job is. She has discovered that across the population, there are three distinct orientations to work:
• A job, where you are focused on work as a source of income. These people are less likely to have a connection to their work.
• A career, where you are focused on getting the next promotion. These people are more engaged in their work as a source of achievement.
• A calling, where you find fulfillment from the work itself, because it is integral to you as a person, it is a form of self-expression, and it has a positive impact on the world. These people view work as an engaging, life-enriching, generative activity. They report higher life satisfaction, job satisfaction, identify more with their teams, have more commitment to their teams, and practice healthier group processes like communication.
She was curious about whether certain jobs are better matches for callings, careers or jobs, and studied a group of college administrators who all had the same position and responsibilities. She found something surprising: these people were roughly evenly split between seeing their work as a job, as a career or as a calling.
Take a look at this quote:
What profession would you guess that this person has?
Most people guess that it is a doctor.
In fact, it is a hospital janitor. This person has come to see their job as being a critical part of the healing process, the person who maintains the house of hope. We are capable of turning even the most menial of jobs into something that is deeply meaningful and fulfilling. It turns out that it is your relationship to your work that matters more than the type of work that you do.
Any job can be a calling if you choose to invest the time and energy into crafting it to fit your interests and your strengths and your purpose. (For an excellent guide that you can use to craft your own job, I recommend checking out the workbook that her team has put together).
You have to laugh: to experience happiness at work, you have to put in work. We need to invest our time and energy into our interests, developing them into fully fledged pursuits that help us to feel competent, and cognitively craft the way that we view our those pursuits in relationship to ourselves and the world around us.
I sympathize greatly with all of those individuals who are paralyzed with indecision, unsure of what career to pursue or what path might be best or how to move forward. Too often, this state leads to inaction and a terrifying fear that no matter what, we are going to make the ‘wrong’ choice.
There is no wrong choice.
You have so many paths that you might take in this life. The only thing that matters is making some choice, some tiny action of engagement with the world around you that inspires you to either pursue it further, or decide that it is not for you, or learn a piece of data that helps you in the future. Taking one small step in a direction, putting in an hour or two of investigation when you hear a whisper, or making the effort to be intentional about your current work situation – these are all ways in which you can begin to cultivate your own happiness at work.