Lifestyle should decide choice of career, not Purpose and definitely not Passion

Wait! What? If this is your reaction to reading the headline, please read on. If not, this article is a waste of your time. 

"Follow your passion" is an oft-heard bit of career advice that is wrong in so many different ways. Words like passion, purpose are bandied about meaninglessly. I struggled to define these words for my career. In this blog, I will try to explain these words, debate if they can help you make fulfilling career choices, and suggest an approach that might help. - that's the engineer in me talking. I will also talk about my mantra that has defined my career choices. You can decide if it is too shallow or, as they say in Singapore, too "Chim"- meaning profound.

Let's begin by trying to understand the difference between purpose and passion. 

I didn't have a passion. I enjoyed playing basketball but was never an ardent fan. I liked reading Western pulp fiction but wasn't passionate about it. I felt comforted by the fact that 8 out of 10 people either do not have a passion or have too many. 

How does passion relate to work? Can one be passionate about a job? I didn't start my first job on an oil rig because I was passionate about it. Passion dies very quickly when you burn in the intense heat radiating from the steel structure surrounding you. It did pay well. More on that later.

Passion has many nuances. It is emotional and gives you joy. It is all about "me"- a selfish motive. What you are passionate about can change over time. 

More importantly, it can be developed. Stanford scholars like Carol Dweck say that a growth mindset is an enabler to developing your passion. If you are open to learning, an interest can be developed into something useful that can energize you. 

Till I got to Stanford, a couple of years ago, I wasn't thinking of purpose. Then I discovered that having a purpose was one of the secrets to a long and happy life. Boy, was I bummed!

Did I have a purpose? What is a purpose? 

Harvard researchers define it as "a self-organizing life aim that stimulates goals." 

Another definition is "an abiding intention to achieve a long-term goal that is both personally meaningful and makes a positive mark on the world." 

The way I look at it is "doing something for others that is emotionally satisfying to yourself." Unlike passion, which is only about "me," purpose is about others. Like passion, purpose can also change over time. 

How does all this affect choice of career?

Would you choose a career based on your purpose?

Probably. Studies done in graduating cohorts have shown that the alignment of a corporate mission with personal purpose was an essential criterion in selecting the company. If your purpose is to eradicate poverty, a bank is the wrong place to join. The primary purpose of a capitalist company is to make profits. Anything else is PR speak. Oxfam International would be the place to join if you're going to do that. Purpose-driven companies are usually NGOs or, in recent times, social ventures.

Would you choose a career that reflects your passion? 

No. This option is available only to a fortunate few. Top sports stars or savant musicians are definitely passionate, but they are also excellent at what they do. Steve Jobs did not make a career out of his passion. He was never passionate about computers. Unless passion translates into excellence, a career based on it is not a viable choice. 

I would advocate two approaches to choosing a career. 

1. Lifestyle selection- Imagine your lifestyle at the end of next year. Some questions to answer to determine your lifestyle would be:

  1. What material benefits are you looking for? - house, car, etc..
  2. What kind of restaurants do you want to visit?
  3. How many holiday trips do you want to take every year, and where?
  4. How much control over your schedule do you want? What's your work-life balance?
  5. How would others perceive you?
  6. Are you planning to start a family? 
  7. What does your social life look like?
  8. How much do you want to save?

Imagine slumming it out in a village in rural India to teach kids Math and English. If you like that life, then go for the NGO that is doing this. 

But, if your imaginary lifestyle is staying in a nice apartment, driving a nice car, and visiting fancy restaurants, I suggest you pick a career and a job that pays well. 

2. Product-market fit. I use this term when I am mentoring start-ups. It applies to career choices as well. Think of yourself as a product or a brand. This product has features - your skills, your values, your achievements- in short, your brand statement. The next step is to find out which industry and job will benefit from your product features. If the fit is great, you have started well. If you are an introvert who loves numbers and has killer analytical skills, a role in data analytics is a great fit. A sales and marketing career is not.

I chose the lifestyle approach to make my career choices. My mantra is, "I will live a comfortable life on my own terms." That's how I ended up on an oil rig earning a significant chunk of change in those days. I could have tried to indulge my passion and play pro basketball, but it was India, and nobody plays pro there. It wouldn't have given me the lifestyle I wanted. 

Very few people can convert their passion into excellence and become rich and/or famous. The lucky minority that knows their purpose have found a way to align their lifestyle expectations and skills around it. Most of us have to put our passion aside and pick one of the two approaches to choose a career. Unless you want to stay with your parents for the rest of your life. 


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