Don’t follow your passion. Look for challenges.

I was sitting in a job interview and things were going pretty well, then the question: “So tell me what you’re passionate about?”

Hmm. I could say what it seems they want to hear – something about making customers happy, learning new skills or doing good work. Those are things I really enjoy and feel strongly about but … passionate? Do I really have intense and emotional feelings about those things?

I could say that what gives me the most intense and emotional happiness is spending time with people I love, reading bed-time stories to my niece, laughing with good friends. I don’t think those are the answers they’re after. I think they want to know what makes me come alive at work, what things I’ll be willing to stick at, what motivates me.

Feeling “passionate” means an deep enjoyment that comes easily. You can’t help feeling the way you do and you don’t have to put any effort into it. It’s like when you see someone you love after time apart – you can’t help how you feel. You don’t have to try to feel happy because you just do!

This is different to how I  feel about work. I thoroughly enjoy much of what I do but I feel the most satisfaction at work when it’s not easy, when I’ve had to push myself, or make sense of complicated things or when I’ve forced myself to be brave. Succeeding at a challenge (or at least attempting something difficult) … these are the things that make me feel happiest. Taking on challenges and overcoming obstacles – things that take effort and persistence.

You’ll often hear people say you should follow your passion. I believe the overuse of the word ‘passion’ (“follow your passion” or “do what you’re passionate about and you’ll never work a day in your life”) is misleading people into thinking that they should be doing work that doesn’t feel like any effort at all. The truth is that the most satisfying work won’t be easy. You will certainly do things that seem effortless but the reward will come from mastering the things that don’t come easily.

Do a quick experiment. Think of something you’ve done that you’re really proud of. Was it easy? Many of the most rewarding things in my life have been the things that at first seemed the most impossible.

If you want to find things that make you truly enjoy your work ask yourself:

  • Will this push me a little (or even a lot)? If you don’t feel some level of discomfort or uncertainty then you aren’t growing.
  • How would I feel if I succeeded at this?
  • Would I be willing to stick at this even if it was frustrating? (Persisting at difficult tasks is also rewarding).
  • Will I get to learn or practice something new?

Is there something in your current job that you find challenging? Think of the smallest step you could take to start overcoming that. Do that, then do the next smallest thing. Small, brave steps add up to giant leaps in how happy you feel about work and yourself. Each time you do this, you build trust in yourself and your ability to do hard things.

It’s knowing you’re stretching yourself that’s so deeply rewarding, and different to the feeling you have when you’re doing easy, fun stuff. You need both … too many challenges and you’ll feel burnt out, but only doing what comes easily and you’ll feel unfulfilled.

You shouldn’t only take on things that are difficult, but it’s handy to know that much of your sense of achievement and your career development live in these challenges.

Look for challenges

Elementum offers guidance on how to do work you’re proud of, how to take on challenges and how to create a fun and interesting career.
Have a look at our 1-month challenge, coaching and group events pages.