I think the second step is also not reliable, in that even if you match your passion with your work and you’re successful, you can still quite easily fail to have a fulfilling career, that’s because you might not find the work meaningful. This was a bit like me deciding not to go into finance. I thought, while I was interested in it, maybe I could be successful, but I wouldn’t make a difference. So maybe it would still end up not being fulfilling. So I think the second step doesn’t work either.
Now, at this point you probably — you might be thinking: “OK, sure, passion isn’t the only thing that matters, if I follow my passion, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll succeed, but maybe at least makes me more likely to succeed and to have a fulfilling career. As career advice, this is the best we can do.” But I think that is wrong as well.
Picture to yourself now the most assertive person you know, who’ s really passionate about selling and persuading and they’re really extroverted. Surely someone like that should go and, go and become an advertising accounts manager, like a Mad Men, or they should become a car salesman, or something like that, something which involves selling and being extroverted and talking to people.
Well, it turns out that would be a really bad decision: Analysis of the Terman study showed that really passionate sales people, really persuasive, assertive types who went into those kinds of sales jobs, actually ended up more likely to burn out and in fact died younger than normal people who take those jobs. Following their passion actually made them more likely to die.
And more generally, researchers have tried to show for decades that there’s a strong relationship between interest match and how successful and happy people end up in their work. But so far they failed to show a strong connection between the two. I think this isn’t because your interests just don’t matter, but it’s just that when it comes to real career decisions, your interests are just not a decisive factor, other things matter much more, like what your skills are and what your mindset is.
Indeed, we think our interests matter a lot more than they do, because we really underestimate how much they change. Just think about your own interests five or 10 years ago and how different they are from today. I mean, back then, you were probably this tall and you’re probably interested in completely different things. Five or 10 years’ time you will be interested in totally different things again. All this means that your present interests are just not a solid basis on which to choose a career.
So, if we’re not going to focus on interests, what should we focus on? If you’re not just going to follow your passion, what should you do instead?
If I had to sum up careers advice as a single slogan, here’s what I would choose: “Do what’s valuable”. By this, I mean, focus on getting good at something that genuinely helps others and makes the world a better place. That’s the secret to a fulfilling career.
Now, obviously doing what’s valuable is going to be better for the world. You’re going to do more good like that. But people have always thought for millennia that helping others is the secret to being personally fulfilled and happy. I’ve just got a couple of quotes here.
Just read out the first one: “A man’s true wealth is the good he does in this world.” Today we actually have hard data to back this up. Professor of Psychology Martin Seligman in his 2011 book, Flourish, aimed to sum up the last couple of decades of empirical research into what really causes people to be satisfied and happy in their lives. And two of the key ingredients he identifies just are doing what’s valuable. The first of these is achievement, or sometimes called mastery; and this means getting really good at something, working hard and getting good at something.
The second is meaning, also called purpose. And this means striving to do something greater than just make yourself happy. So it means making the world a better place.
Put the two together, get good at something that makes the world a better place; do what’s valuable.
I think, doing what’s valuable has lots of other personal benefits as well. For instance, even if you work in a charity, the people who have the greatest impact, do the most valuable things, find it easiest to raise funding, and therefore to pay their bills; and that’s important too.
And I have at least found in my own experience that if you focus on helping others, then lots of people want you to succeed. So it’s actually easier to be successful as an altruist, compared to just being in it for yourself.
So, it now turns out that actually the advice “Follow your passion” just gets things backwards. Rather than start from what we happen to be passionate about now and then hope that success and a fulfilling career will follow, instead it’s much more true to say that we should focus on doing what’s valuable and then that will lead to passion and a fulfilling career.
I’ve definitely found this in my own experience, if when I was 16, you had given me this careers test, would you like to give careers guidance to people, I would have clicked the “Hate it” button. I was pretty shy and into science and the idea of giving careers advice to people was not appealing at all.