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Looking to Discover Your Passion? Ask This Question Instead

An illustration of hearts.

“Follow your passion” is a common piece of career advice and I think this is especially so in the social sector. Our passion isn’t just for a job, but for a cause. We want to create and see change on pressing social issues. This passion drives us to build community, to deal with the setbacks and challenges of working in this sector, and encourages us to stay in it for the long-haul.

At the same time, there are limitations to building a career around this question. It assumes passion is a single interest or destination; it ignores that sometimes the things we are passionate about aren’t necessarily the things that we want to do (or can do) for work; and it ignores the day-to-day work we do entirely, in terms of the skills and talents we want to lend to our causes.

In fact, when people want to chat with me about their passions, I rarely get questions around causes—most people know what cause they are passionate about. Instead, it’s often about work: what kind of work should they be doing to advance their cause?

This makes me wonder: Should we be asking something else?

In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore: Why Skills Trumps Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Cal Newport, (whom we’ve interviewed before about his views on passion) asks a different question: What are you willing to get really good at?

I would take this question a bit further and ask, “What are you willing to get really good at that will contribute to your cause?” I think there are several benefits to asking this question:

  • It focuses on skills, which are often the biggest hurdles in finding work we love: As I mentioned earlier, most of the questions I get around passion, aren’t about a cause, but rather about what kind of work the person asking the question should explore. Of course, this means we likely have to try multiple things in order to figure this out and we might not land on just one single talent or skill we want to contribute — but the goal is still strengthening your skill set.
  • It allows us to see how our hard work could contribute to change and to our growth: It takes time to get really good at something, even if you love it. And in the context of creating change, it’s important to see how your contributions can actually help move something along. Where would your talents best be used? What kind of organization is in need of your work?
  • It gets at what makes us happy at work: We all want to see the impact of our work. And when it comes to day-to-day happiness, Cal argues that we’re happy when we’re doing what we’re good at. We enjoy autonomy and a sense of control and these feelings increase as we get better at what we do.

He digs into this a bit more in this 99u talk:

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