“Follow your passion” is a piece of useless bullshit. What you do has almost nothing to do with how happy you are at work-it doesn’t matter if you go into programming, painting, or publishing. The circumstances that surround your work are much more important.
The science of enjoying your work is called self-determination theory (SDT). SDT’s founders Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan spent decades studying motivation and happiness in different contexts, and what they found was that there are really 3 factors that determine whether or not you’re happy with your work:
- Autonomy. This is the feeling that you have control over your life and what you do. You work because you choose to work-you don’t feel forced by external circumstances.
- Competence. You’re good and what you do and always getting better.
- Relatedness. You feel strongly connected to the people and world around you. You like your coworkers and feel that your work makes the world a better place, even if it’s just one small piece at a time.
Conversely, unhappiness at work comes down to missing one or more of these factors. Nick Naylor might have made tons of money and have plenty of freedom by being the best in the world at selling cigarettes, but if you feel like you’re making the world a worse place, you won’t be happy. If your dream is to work at a nonprofit that saves babies and makes the world a better place, but all you do is a bunch of grunt work that never teaches you anything, you’re probably going to end up dissatisfied and leave within a few years.
So if you want to enjoy your work, just find out which of the three is missing and fix it. Easy, right? Well, the problem is that most jobs suck, especially entry-level jobs. There is no perfect job that will automatically give you everything you want. You have to earn it.
You can usually negotiate for the things that give you a great job the same way you negotiate for salary. The more valuable you are, the more a company will be willing to give you a free hand in what you do. The more money you can make for them, the more they’ll be willing to invest in training and conferences to keep you at the top of your game. And the more people want to hire you, the easier it is for you to work in a field you love.
The key is not spending 20 days meditating in a cave only to emerge with the perfect career! It’s to get very good at what you do so that you have a lot of leverage in creating enjoyable work.
And what’s why the “follow your passion” meme is so dangerous. I know plenty of people in their 40s and 50s who refused to settle for anything less than a job they were completely passionate about. They dabbled in different fields, changing jobs year after year, only to find that nothing provided the satisfaction they were looking for and they never developed the skills needed to negotiate a job with freedom or interesting work.
To sum it up: if you want to enjoy your work, don’t focus on finding the perfect career. Instead, focus on getting very good at what you do, and using the skills and reputation you gain to craft a job that provides the things that’ll make you happy (at work).