Follow Your Curiosity to Build Your Best Career – Passion is Not Always Necessary, Even Overrated at Times
You don’t always have to find your passion to create an enjoyable and fulfilling career. Instead, you can follow your curiosity to build a career you will love.
In this essay I will show you how.
First and foremost.
Am I Against Pursuing Passions?
I changed my career at 30 – quit my investment banking job and shelved a CS degree to write – so I better not be against following passions.
As much as I am a spokeswoman (and a living example) of following the ethereal path of doing what you love to do, finding a passion is hard, and pursuing it is even harder.
Why is Finding and Following Passion Unreasonably Hard, and Even Impossible Sometimes?
Many people aren’t passionate about anything enough that they could do it on a professional level. Some think of their irregular hobbies as their calling. A majority of people love ideas that wouldn’t transform into promising professions. And many misinterpret the glamor of prestige as their love for a career.
An Instagrammer claimed to be a passionate Youtuber even though he always just commented on others’ videos and never made any of his own (prestige affects?).
A few acquaintances want to have great blogs but most of them never put in the effort to become better writers.
Once I thought I was passionate about becoming a chef but having found writing I am glad that I didn’t try a full-time kitchen job else I may have never discovered my love for writing. (Studies say that going after our passion could restrict our growth because we don’t focus on learning anything else apart from the one thing.)
Identifying passion that could be turned into profession is a tricky thing. If you know what you love honestly, you are already one amongst thousands.
But you also have to make sure the profession is not an impractical pursuit. Contrary to popular belief, pursuing a passion is not always fulfilling (ironic, as chasing a passion is striving for self-fulfillment). At the beginning of a new career (if you are making a change), mostly we don’t have the required skills, our preferred work might not bring money or recognition, and the path of learning to get good is long.
Concomitantly, a career-changer battle with anxiety, fear of failure, financial stress, social reprimand, objections from family, all while learning along the journey.
I have been writing full-time for three years now, and sometimes my articles still don’t read like a seamless chain of thought. While plunging into a new writing career, I reassured myself of my prestigious CS degree I can fall back upon. I freelance a lot while my blog and creative writing stabilize enough to support me fully. And I won’t get started about the emotional conflict with all the close people.
If you practice passion alongside a day job, then you may have to wait for a long time before you can turn your passion into a full-time job. If you quit your work, you need to either have enough savings or should be able to freelance until your new profession can sustain you.
I’m not saying that because discovering passion is tough and following it is a nerve-racking journey, we should never take the risk. I’m saying that choosing passion is just the first step.
(Because we think that after pinning down a passion the chasing would be easy, people are known to drop the basket of their interest eggs at the first sight of difficulty.)
Remember that for every single one of the highly passionate performers you admire, thousands have vanished unknown.
When we don’t have a passion or it is impractical to follow it, we should not let go of what we have for a far-fetched dream.
How to Build a Successful Career (and enjoyable) in the Absence of Passion?
Most professionals you may admire – celebrities, artists, cartoonists, entrepreneurs, historians, filmmakers, architects, and scientists – have made their lives from scratch doing what they love to do. But if you pause and look at their journey, you would see that most of these people didn’t think about following a passion.
Bill Gates – started programming because he liked it,
Steve Jobs – got into computers by chance,
Larry Allison – got to databases by tuning into his curiosity,
Walt Disney and M.F. Hussain – both drew since childhood,
Dhirubhai Ambani – was a salesman from a young age,
Sadat Hassan Manto – had been writing since his early twenties,
Alfred Hitchcock – wanted to be an engineer but started as a clerk and shifted to creative writing and movie-making
— none of these successful people thought about finding or chasing a passion.
Some of them were busy in their pursuits since childhood. For some, their professions happened to them in the natural course of events while they tried out something that piqued their curiosity, sought related opportunities one after another, and then connected the dots to see that they were pursuing their passion all along.
[Many people refer to this Steve Job’s Stanford commencement speech to promote the pursuit of passion. But the biggest takeaway from this speech for me was that Steve talked about connecting the dots later. Do watch.]
If you think these highly-successful people are outliers, then let us look at a group of my CS-graduate friends. After graduating, they all worked on developing their specific interests in CS because they were excited about the field. Some of them are now professors (loved teaching), a few work in research labs (data science enthusiasts), and others have innovation-intense high-profile jobs (coders). And they talk highly of their work.
If we keep going after our interests, don’t accept the boredom at work as natural, or ruffle our curiosity long enough, either serendipity would find us or a childhood sweetheart would turn into a beloved career or we will continue shuffling things until we land on something enjoyable to do, and, eventually, serendipity will find us.
At this point, it makes sense to tell you about a friend Sugar whose story contrasts my quit-job-follow-passion story.
Sugar graduated in CS from a good engineering college but didn’t like CS (much like me). [Read my journey of changing careers to understand why most Indians become engineers first and then figure out what to do.]
On a lucky instinct, Sugar ended up at a web designing internship during his under graduation. After that four-month, poorly-paid internship, he quickly flitted from one design job to another better one.
Soon my friend realized that he was picking up web-design quickly (a natural aptitude perhaps?) and enjoyed solving design problems. Creating perfect front-end visuals became a challenge and interest soon.
Within six and a half years of his career, Sugar leads an international front-end team at a large firm. It is hard to imagine that he once wanted to leave CS.
If You Don’t Find Passion, Explore Your Curiosity
Many people like Sugar show us that we can build an enjoyable career by exploring our interests. In simpler terms, you can end up loving what you do even if you don’t choose a career that you think you love.
If we are not interested in anything about our job or never want to work, then it is time to let it go. But even if only some of the aspects of our current profession interests us, we should give it a chance and work hard to develop the required skills. Experts say that when we are good at something, the game changes.
Here I draw a few benchmarks for the job we have or the one we want to try:
1. The work interests us at least a little bit, or a senior position makes us curious
2. The work is not mundane/mindless– we can be creative, if not now, then later
3. We either have the skills or we can slowly build the skills
4. We see our work getting deployed
5. We find the work respectful
6. The work is helpful to others
7. We have more autonomy: At least as we grow in the job
8. We can live independently on the job or be financially independent after a promotion
9. We have supportive colleagues
I hypothesize that these conditions are necessary and sufficient to create a fulfilling profession that we may also enjoy.
Please note: I came up with this exhausting list of factors necessary to create a satisfactory, lovable career by interviewing friends, analyzing careers around me, researching and reading numerous articles and research papers, reading Cal Newport’s book So Good That They Can’t Ignore You, and drawing from my own experience. If you feel I have missed something or have added a redundant factor, do let me know your opinion by leaving a comment.
We see all of these parameters fit perfectly for Sugar (and others we talked about above) who never thought of chasing a passion: (bumped into but) kept at web designing it as he enjoyed it (curiosity, no.1 ✔), could be creative (no. 2 ✔), was getting good at it (skills, no. 3 ✔), got more autonomy (no.7 ✔), worked with good people (no.9 ✔), and was paid well (no.8 ✔).
Sugar’s work was respectful(no. 5 ✔), his products were being used by customers(no. 4 ✔), and he was building platforms that helped tonnes of people(no. 6 ✔). ( At one point Sugar worked for a company that gave small loans to people in need.)
Let me now give substantial proofs to bind these conditions together as exhaustive requisites for a fulfilling profession.
A study (by Timothy A. Judge And Ryan Klinger) on “promoting job satisfaction through mental challenge” states that the most effective way to have satisfied employees is by giving them mentally challenging work. I interpret mentally challenging work as creative, something that needs us to think and find solutions: thus creativity (no. 2) is essential. (Read my ideas on creative routines and rituals. )
Research on people’s relations to their work conducted at Yale University proved that the more time we spend at work, the better we get, and the more we enjoy it. Being good at something can make us feel fulfilled. But another research showed that if we don’t have the skills for our work, we will most definitely end up unhappy. Ever wondered why you feel grumpy when you struggle with Powerpoint’s basic shortcuts or why driving becomes more fun with time?
⇒ So we see that no. 3 is essential for a satisfying job. [Also, if our skills match our job requirements, we don’t stress.]
When we talk about autonomy, a meta-analysis of 259 studies showed that the more control we have over our work, the less dissatisfied we are. But along with control, the support of our colleagues, supervisor, and organization is positively related to job satisfaction: ↑ support, ↑ satisfaction. Do you hate going to a mandatory 2-pm floor meeting or are always nervous because your manager keeps finding faults with you even though you know you did good?
⇒ Thus we get satisfactory work requisite no. 7 and 9.
I don’t have to give reasons for financial independence. If we can’t buy bread for our family or can’t pay rent or can’t travel, we would be frustrated. A Daniel Kahneman’s study on the correlation of income with well-being shows that more money doesn’t always make us happier but less income/financial dependency does make us unhappy. Also, a disrespectful job would definitely be a reason for unhappiness. So the criteria 5 and 8 are essential, too.
We also need to see our work being used instead of just lying around in the queue. At a big bank I worked, I always saw my projects stuck in diplomatic cycles and wasn’t excited about the work anymore. That explains no. 4. [This is the only requisite for job satisfaction I might ignore. After all, sometimes bio scientists spend their entire lives but fail to find that elusive moth or a naughty lemur and still seem to enjoy the process.]
And now come the two most important reasons for a happy career: meaning and joy.
Humans find it meaningful to be part of a bigger cause where they can help others and add value to their lives. As per a psychological study, the significance of a job is strongly related to job satisfaction. Having an overall purpose is a push that never fades away like our ever-changing interests1. No surprises that professionals such as surgeons, therapists, teachers, social organizations find their jobs largely meaningful.
⇒ If our work doesn’t contribute to the world, we won’t feel like sticking to it for long. So that’s 6 gone.
And number 1 needs no explanation as this is the root cause of all problems or shall I say the key to all our joys: we get pleasure from doing what we enjoy and we want to keep doing it. Even though our likings change over time, we can’t do anything we don’t find even remotely interesting. I wasn’t at all curious in my technical or banking profiles not only because my organizations weren’t giving me challenging work but also due to my lack of interest in the field.
[Another factor I almost added to the criterias is the number of work hours. Various surveys (for example this one) showed that long hours were associated with lower job satisfaction. But it is hard to predict our working hours as we grow in our profession. My hint is to take up a job and see how it goes.]
These nine fielders together can cover the entire velvety field of a beautiful professional journey. But take one out and the equilibrium seems to go away.
If you look around, you would see many people with high job satisfaction who love their work now but didn’t care for it when they started: they picked up jobs that made them curious, became skilled, brought value, started enjoying their work, engaged with the people around them, earned well, and felt that they have done really well — fitting in with the above nine criteria perfectly.
[Please Note: You can read more about many such professionals in Cal Newport’s book So Good That They Can’t Ignore You. While I don’t agree with all of Cal’s ideas, I found many of his findings commendable and really appreciate him putting up this resourceful book together. Many of my own ideas in this article on pursuing curiosity are inspired by his book.]
If you have a dream and are ready to put in the arduous years to bring it to life, then don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
But if you don’t even have that dream people keep asking you to chase, follow your nose and make the best of what you have.
Curiosity may not sound as exciting as passion but choosing it is a smart and the most recommendable choice for a lot of us. Being the best at something and having more control over our life can make us happier and could turn out to be more exhilarating than following a non-existent dream.
For you would be able to say, hey, I didn’t quit my job, but I love my work.
Related Read: Personal Growth Isn’t Happiness, But Close
Here are all articles on building career and enjoying our work.
- In Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling Upon Happiness, this idea has been researched extensively. You can see a short video here.
- I thank 80000hours.org for their immensely informative articles on choosing a career.
Are you ready to follow curiosity?
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