Follow your passion (but look at how you spend your hours)

Next week I’ll be returning to my alma mater for my (rescheduled by a year) 20th reunion. I suppose this is where I say it’s hard to believe it’s been 21 years, but I’ll also be celebrating a child’s 15th birthday next week, and some parts of the early 2000s feel like ancient history. I do remember working as a server at the 15th reunion when I was between my sophomore and junior years, and thinking those folks seemed quite old…

Anyway, this time of year always turns the mind to graduation, and graduation clichés. Commencement speakers everywhere will tell people to “follow your passion.” It’s not bad advice. I’m glad I followed my passion to become a writer, even if it was not an obviously viable career option.

But of course “writing” encompasses a lot of different ways you can spend your day-to-day life. What does one write about? What form does the writing take? How does a writer spend his or her hours?

Many careers have similar variances. A school nurse and an ER nurse will spend their days differently. I recently met someone whose job involves going to landowners and communities to get formal permission for utility right-of-ways.* It’s document production and signing, but it is a very different day to day job than, say, an in-house corporate legal person.

It turns out that professional happiness is often a function of how you spend your hours as much as anything else. One source of dissatisfaction for a great many people is that they have jobs that sound cool in theory, but they spend hours daily in boring meetings, or responding to angry emails.

It would be hard to ditch meetings and emails entirely. But I do think the “follow your passion” advice should lean a bit more on this question of what you want your days to look like in addition to the “stuff” of the job that tends to dominate.

All sorts of questions come to mind. Do you like quiet? Do you like talking with lots of different people? Do you mind having the same conversation over and over again with lots of different people or would that make you go insane? Do you want to be able to control when you do things or do you like to go with the flow? Do you want set hours? If so, do you care when those hours are? Some industries feature much, much earlier hours than others. If you do clerical work for a construction company, you will likely be starting your day by 7 a.m., but if you do clerical work for some tech and media companies you might be starting more like 9:30 a.m. or later (and going later too). Do you like to focus on one thing and develop deep expertise, or would you like to learn about lots of different things? Do you want to go to the same place most days (which could be a home office) or do you like going to different sites?

These things might be a bit harder to suss out as people consider jobs and careers because they are not as immediately obvious as what the “stuff” of the job is. Some hour by hour happiness is also dependent on the specific people you wind up working with. But these questions are definitely worth thinking about. My passion is writing, but my passion is also sitting in a quiet office, all by myself, with large blocks of unstructured time. It suggests a different life than, say, corporate communications, or a daily newspaper job, or being part of a TV show writing team.

What do you think of the “follow your passion” advice? Did you follow your passion or figure out your passion along the way? (I realize sometimes this phrase is “find your passion” — but that is something else entirely!)

Photo: Where the magic happens most days, though it looks different now that I have my junk all over the desk.

*I am pretty sure they can get the right of way whether people approve or not, but I think the idea is that everyone feels happier if they feel like they were consulted.

11 thoughts on “Follow your passion (but look at how you spend your hours)

  1. Or sometimes, I think your passion can be other things and the job is what funds it. My husband would never say his job is his passion, but his family is his passion, and his job allows him great flexibility and the income to be a very hands on dad.
    Your post also reminds me of a conversation that I once had with a costume designer I was working with. She had been working in the business a long long time and was growing increasingly unhappy. She went to a career advisor for help to try to figure out what other career paths she might want to pursue. But what she discovered was the things that she hated about being a costume designer (namely difficult personalities, bureaucracy, and office politics) would be present no matter what career she chose, whereas the parts of the job she loved were pretty specific to what we did.
    I think about her words a lot when parts of my job are really hard- some of this BS i deal with will be anywhere I work, but a lot of my job is unique and that’s what I love. I don’t think anyone is going to love 100% of their job, true, but I think for me, remembering what is specific and special helps get through a lot of the rest.

    1. @Diane – it is very true that any career can have bureaucracy and office politics. One also has to separate out your own issues from a situation. You can move from job to job or relationship to relationship and have the same problems at each one and it’s like…hmm…what is the common denominator?

      And yes, money matters because it can fund other passions. Intriguingly enough, one can also do much of the same stuff during the day in high paid jobs and low paid jobs.

    2. @Diane – I like your points. I read an article once about quitting your job, and the suggestion was, what if you just quit the parts of your job you don’t like? Some of it, you can just straight up not do or engage in, and some of it you might have to negotiate out of. I’ve been trying to follow this advice. I’ve worked really hard to get the job I have, but it’s easy to get roped into tasks that both make me unhappy and don’t use my talents well or have real yield for my organization. I don’t want to give up my job, so I do have to be vigilant about getting the stuff that makes me angry either off my plate or don’t let it on my plate in the first place. It is hard, but the alternative is to be unhappy or leave a job I’ve spent my life working toward that pays well and gives me the autonomy I need. I think Laura kind of writes about this in All the time in the world, too.

  2. Passion, or just what is in you. All through school, I wrote well. The career opportunities I knew about and discarded were: novelist/story writer (too shy for the criticism) and journalist (too shy to talk to strangers). One day a Jeopardy! contestant was described as a technical writer, and she explained what that meant in a few words. I started paying attention to all the writing I saw everywhere. Eventually, I became a technical writer, and it was exactly right for me. I like talking to people, but only if I know them, like the application developers down the hall. It’s hard for me to call someone I don’t know.
    I always preferred writing reports in grade school to stories. In high school and college, we sometimes had a choice between an exam and a paper; I always chose a paper.
    Now, you may read what I just wrote and say “she thinks she’s a good writer?” And I will tell you that life takes you down unexpected paths. I’m glad I wrote while I could.
    Once, I was on a long plane flight, chatting with the fellow next to me. He worked in inventory control for a construction connectors company. Sounds dull, right? But in conversation, I learned he always had collections going as a kid. Butterflies, comics, baseball cards. See the connection? He always liked to know what he had, what he was missing, and what he needed when. He loved his career. It’s what he’d always done. And the way he talked about it on that flight, well, I think of those types of jobs now, and of the people who do them.
    I have a cousin who is a teacher. By profession, and by nature. When we were kids, we’d play school, and she was always the teacher. We had a large blackboard in the basement playroom, and we’d set up the chairs, she had the chalk, and we had school. She became a teacher, went into special Ed and then education with at-risk students, and now she educates adults on creating programs for at-risk students. Teaching is what she IS.
    Laura, you used to post about one of your children who liked to make books, and I think maps, and wrote reviews. I wonder where that will take him!

  3. I… have a hard time with “follow you passion” advice. Maybe it’s my crabby Gen X side coming through. Ramit Sethi from I Will Teach You To Be Rich has an old blog post about this idea, which *almost* summarizes my experience.

    When I had graduated from college, my “passion” was to work in high-minded international economic development. Not so much on the number crunching statistics side — I had struggled mightily with econometrics in college– but on the philosophical & political side. I started an internship in the field and quickly came to realize that I was not going to “follow my passion” now that I had something of an inside view into what that would *actually* require: likely a PhD, in a field that requires statistical analysis, graduating at the TOP of that field, and/or being well connected in international political circles. All big “nopes” for me.

    So, instead, I thought about what I actually wanted. It was to work in a field where I largely did knowledge-based work, ideally involving a lot of writing, had lots of room for learning and growth, could work independently or with a team, and one where I earned a good wage. (By this time, I was getting weary of the poor student life.) This opened up a much wider range of jobs that were all great. I ended up going to law school and started in transactional work in law school but now am a full-time litigator. I definitely never was a kid who “always wanted to be a lawyer” or anything, but it ended up working out really well.

    Instead of following a passion, it was more like I followed what my vision was and fell into my work. Almost reverse engineering it.

  4. I have always loved numbers/math and got a degree in math. It was hard to figure out how to apply it but by the time I turned 30, I found my place in the financial services world. I don’t directly use my math degree but it helps to have an understanding of concepts of first and second derivatives and those come into play in how bond prices change – although I’d never talk about derivatives with a client! I like talking to people and I like numbers, so I was lucky to find something that combined the 2. I previously worked in corporate finance and absolutely HATED it. It was so monotonous and not interesting to me so I am glad I eventually stumbled into my profession. That happened when I was taking a writing class at the company where I worked. I met another person in the writing class who was a fixed income strategist. He liked that I had a background in math and could write. A couple of years later, he hired me. Now we are colleagues at a different company and he’s a mentor to me, but had I not met him, I don’t know that I would have landed on the path I’m on!

  5. My job/career was never my passion. It was interesting, and I liked it for the most part, but it was NOT my passion. It did FUND my passion and made it possible.

  6. Couldn’t agree more. Also worth considering where you want to live (country, town, city).

    NB in Australia, for utilities, the legislation and its application vary between states. Sometimes the easement is compulsory but the price is negotiable, sometimes everything is negotiable, sometimes nothing is.

  7. I followed my passion to teach/work with small children & I love what I do, but the pay/financial stress/bureaucracy is not worth it. My dream job now would a quiet office where I could plug away unbothered for hours & then leave work at work. So many of the “boring” majors my freshman self snubbed sound good now.

  8. This is a really great post. I teach undergrads, and I don’t like it when people say “find and follow your passion” to young people. That’s such a big expectation. It’s a lot to expect out of a job. I think it leads to a lot of anxiety and feelings of failure for those who struggle to find a job they are “passionate” about. It’s ok to do something that you like and you find rewarding – it doesn’t have to be a passion. Life is really beautiful even if you don’t have a passion. (And the related story line that you have to sacrifice all for your dreams – it’s ok to just work steadily at achieving goals that make you proud and happy. In fact, there’s danger in too much of your identity being enmeshed with your career, I think.)

    I very much agree that happiness on the job depends on the daily stuff the job demands, and I don’t think you can really know that until you’ve tried it out. I really loved tutoring and being a teaching assistant and an adjunct professor and teaching at nonprofits. But being a public high school teacher was hard – depending on the district, it can be 6 straight hours of contact with large groups, with very little individual think time (if you have common planning blocks and common planning spaces) and very little autonomy and security, and changing leadership and priorities. In order to do the parts I loved – giving feedback on student work, connecting with individual students, planning lessons and projects – I had to work outside of the work day. So I agree – how the work is organized matters, and you might not know how those factors are going to feel to you until you try something out. And some of those factors, like you note in your books, are in your control, so sometimes you can change the job to fit you – but sometimes you can’t.

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