Work and Passion and Whether it Matters

lego-jobPassion and Work have long been thorny issues for me. As in, passion for your work – where to get it, and how necessary it is. Even while fully employed this was a big question for me, and certainly it’s all the more so now that I’m unemployed and spending vast sums of time looking for new work. Work and passion are two things I rarely feel like I have at the same time.

I suppose that’s to be expected – when I’m passionate about my work, it shouldn’t feel like work. But how on earth do you search for passion in a job search engine? There’s no checkbox for that. You have to guess. You have to leap.

Today, before setting out on a walk to collect some thoughts, I read the latest article on MMM. It’s a retrospective from a person named Ethan who’d been in a rough financial position, got himself together and worked hard, and was rewarded with lots of promotions and money. Taking nothing away from his accomplishment, I found myself wishing he’d written a long post right in the middle of things, right when he got his first good job and “forced himself to believe” he was going to succeed if he worked hard. Sometimes stories like that seem to take on a classic rags-to-riches theme, with the lead character changing his or her life by sheer will power and determination. I love reading them, but there’s an emotional struggle that is left out of the narrative. In my experience anyway, sheer will power, while vital, often won’t get me through an emotional block by itself.

Forcing yourself to believe something is hard. How do you know? Rationally I know I should approach every job application, phone screen, interview with the conviction that this is the job for me and I will kick ass at it. Usually that’s not how I feel. I may think there are some nice things about a job, or I may like the salary, but I tend to retain a pretty heaping dose of skepticism that I will feel passion about doing the work. This was true even while I was fully employed – I liked parts of my job, but passion? Not present.

Well, usually not present. Somewhat ironically I tend to dread the idea of “Hard Work,” but anytime I actually do hard work I tend to feel a satisfying sense of accomplishment, assuming the work creates something valued by myself and/or others. I definitely enjoyed some parts of my former job, and do enjoy a much higher percentage of the freelance work I continue to do. The feeling of “Passion” comes in bursts, even to doubtful and uncertain me.

But the question I would ask Ethan is this: How did you convince yourself that your new job as a phone dispatcher was creating something valued by you/others? Did you have a great boss or co-workers who praised your work and assured you of the promotions that were eventually delivered? Or did you just value the chance to make more money than your last job highly enough to work diligently, knowing you’ve were in the midst of consumer-debt-hell? Or was there something else about this job that appealed to you personally?

Those are the things I can imagine spurring me to do great work. A) A great work environment and a corporate commitment to internal growth, B) Absolute fear of the consequences due to a financial emergency, or C) Personal fulfillment from the work I do or my company as a whole does. None of these factors applied at my old job. I worked there because, well, it seemed damned foolish not to work, but with little motivation beyond that idea that I shouldn’t be rather an idiot who turned down a job to do… what? I didn’t know.

Premise A is hard to identify until you’ve already been hired, though maybe you can get a sense from the interview or glassdoor reviews – certainly this one you mostly just have to hope is good when you apply, unless you have a friend who works there and can fill you in. Premise B is easier to identify once you have your financial house in order, but is the most terrible of motivations… hitting rock bottom can work, but is definitely not the goal. Premise C is probably the most important factor you can actually decide for yourself, and can somewhat be restated as the first word of this blog post. Passion.

There is a quote by theologian Frederick Buechner that goes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In other words, use your passion to solve a problem. In good times this is inspirational, but in bad times it is intimidating, because if you’re not sure what you feel passionate about you can kind of feel stuck. Passion is an emotion you have to feel. Rationally, you can try to understand yourself and decide to commit yourself to an idea – but it comes from an emotional core that you won’t discover intellectually.

I’m fortunate enough to have a couple of interviews lined up early next week. My takeaway from Ethan’s story is that if I go into them with a kickass attitude and a commitment to excel, I will surely succeed. Yet I look at the job descriptions, and it remains hard for me to muster much enthusiasm beyond the paycheck. Yes, these are jobs I should take if I am offered them because it’s damned foolish not to work, but I still struggle to discover a motivation that goes deeper. I won’t blow these interviews, but sometimes I kind of wish my feet were in the fire. It’s a shameful thing for me to admit, because it feels quite high-school-emo, but it’s true. Ethan would probably want to smack some sense into me if he knew.

I know, logically, I’d be well served to pick a path, define career objectives at each step along the way, and plug along. The lack of this direction is part of why I don’t feel passionate about the work I’d be doing at either company. To a certain extent, FIRE has become my path, and to that end the earning of money will feel good. But money itself has never really motivated me… it makes me a good non-materialist mustachian, but some of my interest in FIRE comes from a desire to shed this very feeling of permanent ambivalence towards obligatory Work. I know a paycheck is good for me, but emotionally, my deeper interest lags behind. Curiously, this happens even when I consider non-profit or advocacy work that is designed to be emotionally rewarding… rationally I understand that I will be helping people, but I have yet to see a job posting that resonates deeper with me.

Maybe I’m emotionally stunted.

Or maybe passion for your work isn’t really required – it can be there or not. Achieving financial stability and/or independence is reward enough, and as a bonus that will allow other passions to be reached comfortably.

In the end, I’m not sure. This open ended post is the kind of thing I initially didn’t want to fill this blog with, but I think it’s been useful to me and hopefully still interesting to read. If you’ve read this far, I’d love to hear what motivates you to work? What are your passions, and do you realize them professionally? Are they crucial in your own job searches?



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