September 18, 2015

Career Choices: Let Passion Follow You

By: Claire Kittle Dixon

Last months Talent Tip about James Abernathy and choosing a job you love prompted a heap of great feedback, including some words of wisdom from Zach Janowski, Yankee Institute’s Director of External Affairs.

Heres what Zach said:

I am glad James found the job that is right for him. While I agree working in our movement is a great privilege, I also think we give people the wrong idea when we say it’s never work. I love my job with the Yankee Institute – first as investigative reporter and now as director of external affairs – but there are tough days. There are particular tasks that truly feel like work. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to jump ship, but it is why I still get paid to do my work – and why it is still work.

I’m not worried that well-established professionals misunderstand this nuance, but I do worry about recent grads and younger workers. There is a myth that they can find a job that isn’t a job – if they just keep looking. Not true. Cal Newport has written about this topic and I assign his New York Times op-ed to all of my interns: Follow a Career Passion? Let It Follow You. For anyone who likes his op-ed I encourage them to read his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Zach is absolutely right. So, I turned to Cal Newports article. Initially, I looked askance at the title. Why? Because I followed my passion for liberty right here to the free-market nonprofit sector and Im happier than a slinky on an escalator!

Screen shot 2015-09-17 at 9.58.42 PMBut being the open-minded classical liberal that I am, I read on. And it turns out that Cals piece is not at all inconsistent with my experience and what Ive witnessed in my role at Talent Market. Among Cals great points:

  • “Follow our passionworks best for the small number of people who actually know what they want to be when they grow up. – In Cals words, This advice assumes that we all have a pre-existing passion waiting to be discovered. If we have the courage to discover this calling and to match it to our livelihood, the thinking goes, well end up happy. If we lack this courage, well end up bored and unfulfilled or, worse, in law school.  To a small group of people, this advice makes sense, because they have a clear passion. Maybe theyve always wanted to be doctors, writers, musicians and so on, and cant imagine being anything else. But this philosophy puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us…”
  • The traits that cause people to love their work can be found in many different jobs and they must be earned. – According to Cal, The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a jobs specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that youre good at what you do and are having an impact on the world. Building valuable skills is hard and takes time. For someone in a new position, the right question is not, What is this job offering me?but, instead, What am I offering this job?
  • Fulfillment is directly correlated with competence and engagement. – Cal describes how he had several career options coming out of undergrad and ended up in a PhD program at M.I.T. It was anything but a walk in the park. Cal writes, “…doctoral training can be rough. Youre not yet skilled enough to make contributions to the research literature, which can be frustrating. And at a place like M.I.T., youre surrounded by brilliance, which can make you question whether you belong. Had I subscribed to the follow our passionorthodoxy, I probably would have left during those first years, worried that I didnt feel love for my work every day. But I knew that my sense of fulfillment would grow over time, as I became better at my job. So I worked hard, and, as my competence grew, so did my engagement. Today, Im a computer science professor at Georgetown University, and love my job. The most important lesson I can draw from my experience is that this love has nothing to do with figuring out at an early age that I was meant to be a professor. Theres nothing special about my choosing this particular path. What mattered is what I did once I made my choice. Passion is not something you follow. Its something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.

In applying Cals logic to my own career and the careers of those I work with, I have to say he makes a lot of sense. Most of us could be quite happy in a wide array of fields so long as we are engaged in work we are good at and that makes a difference. 

Those of us with a passion for liberty have a world of options in terms of the actual work we do.  Fundraising, communication, policy analysis, management, litigation, outreach, operations, law, research, writing, teaching – the world is our oyster!

And, of course, working for liberty makes whatever we choose to do that much more fulfilling. 


Claire Kittle Dixon is the Executive Director of Talent Market.