“Passion” became fashionable in business at around the time other forms of emotional overshoot were hot, like “delighting customers.” While there may have been earlier efforts by Tom Peters and other corporate
quacks gurus to infuse staid, supposedly rational business behavior with more pizzaz, the passion fashion seemed to take hold in the dot-com era. And that in a perverse way makes perfect sense.
Even though the Internet has proven to be transformative, the Internet bubble was, as Greenspan noted in one of his most acute moments, irrational exuberance. You were a hopeless dinosaur if you dared question the logic of investing in companies run by 22 year olds who admitted their business would never show a profit but were still hugely valuable because they had a lot of eyeballs. Those who timed this momentum trade correctly did spectacularly well, but most investors were left holding the bag.
Weirdly, the passion fashion persists. It’s an odd exhortation of Dionysian impulses when management (at least the professionalized sort) is usually presented as Apollonian: business leaders as creators of order out of chaos, able stewards of large enterprises. Now one might argue that this is all hogwash, that Keynes was closer to the truth when he talked about animal sprits. He came pretty close to saying if someone was rational, they’d never invest or start a business.
But the real question is who this vogue for romantic attachment to one’s work really serves. Faking passion in job interviews seems to be as necessary as faking orgasms is in some relationships. On the surface, this long-lived fas appeals to the narcissistic tendencies that are ever more common in American society, that we all have some special talent or destiny and we are supposed to go forth and, to use that horrible New Age turn of phrase, manifest it.
But being emotionally invested in career success as the proof of one’s worth makes people exploitable. That’s the secret of elite firms like Goldman and McKinsey, which hire people who were not simply bright, but have a record of achievements that shows that they care deeply about external validation. When an organizational guru came in to give a look over McKinsey in the 1980s, he was famously told by the head of the firm, “Don’t mess with the insecurity.”
Now that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t care about your work, but there is a difference in degree, and I’d hazard it is actually a difference in kind, between seeking to achieve a level of competence or mastery versus the bizarrely idealized passion. That’s a good old fashioned sense of satisfaction in doing a good job, and that can operate at any level, from being a house cleaner or store clerk to someone in a much loftier position. And the idea of valuing. Yet as we’ve become a winner-take-all society, we’ve tended to devalue competence, even though jobs competently done are what keeps the system running. Instead, we’ve created more and more steep payoff curves, with the most extreme being in fields like acting and professional sports, where a very few people do egregiously well, and a lot of people have a go at it for very modest or no pay, because they think they have (or actually may have) some talent, but also do love the process.
What bothers me is that the human potential movement (est and its many derivatives) tended to equate following your dreams with achieving happiness. This is a dangerous formulation; in fact, the Buddhists would likely see this as another version of samsara or suffering (Buddhists welcome to correct me). Wanting something is setting yourself up to be disappointed, either by not getting what you sought, or attaining it and finding the achievement to be less satisfying than you’d envisaged, and most liked supplanted by a new set of wants that you start pursuing.
With this as prologue, I wanted to turn to a post from the Harvard Business Review’s blog, “To Find Happiness, Forget Passion,” that Lambert liked, but I found less than satisfying:
Several years ago, a friend decided she wanted to follow her passion. She loved the liberal arts and academe….So she spent seven years getting a PhD, writing an award-winning dissertation in the process. It was a wonderful ride while it lasted, and she was among the happiest people I knew.
Then the recession hit. The value of university endowments crashed. Teaching and research positions were cut. She moved back in with her family, stopped paying off her student loans, and waited two years before getting a minor teaching role in a small research center. Throughout this time, she suffered the anguish of an uncertain future, became socially withdrawn, and felt a sense of betrayal.
It’s a poster tale for our times. Was following her passion worth it?
Like myself, today’s twentysomethings were raised to find our dreams and follow them. But it’s a different world. And as the jobless generation grows up, we realize the grand betrayal of the false idols of passion. This philosophy no longer works for us, or at most, feels incomplete. So what do we do? I propose a different frame of reference: Forget about finding your passion. Instead, focus on finding big problems.
Putting problems at the center of our decision-making changes everything. It’s not about the self anymore. It’s about what you can do and how you can be a valuable contributor. People working on the biggest problems are compensated in the biggest ways. I don’t mean this in a strict financial sense, but in a deeply human sense. For one, it shifts your attention from you to others and the wider world. You stop dwelling. You become less self-absorbed. Ironically, we become happier if we worry less about what makes us happy.
The good thing is that there are a lot of big problems to go by: climate change, sustainability, poverty, education, health care, technology, and urbanization in emerging markets. What big problem serves as your compass? If you’re a young leader and you haven’t articulated this yet, here are some things you can do.
Develop situational awareness. There’s too much focus on knowing the self. Balance this with knowing the world. Stay in touch. Be sensitive to the problems faced by the unfortunate and marginalized. Get out of the office and volunteer. If you’re in school, get out of the classroom. It’s been a long time coming, but business schools are finally instituting changes that put the real world at the center of their programs.
Look into problems that affect you in a very personal way. We’re more likely to be motivated by problems we can relate to on a personal level. In Passion & Purpose, Umaimah Mendhro recounts her story fleeing a war-torn Pakistan with her family and how the experience of dodging bullets to escape helped her summon the wherewithal to found thedreamfly.org, an initiative that helps create connections across communities in conflict.
Connect with people working on big problems. In a world where problems are by their very nature interdisciplinary, just getting to know people who are passionate about one problem leads to discussions on how other problems can be solved. When Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala helped reinvent Manila Water to better provide for the Philippines’ capital, he had to deal not only with the typical issues a public utility had to face, but also with problems related to climate change, technology, and community development.
Take time off and travel. Forget about traveling as a tourist. Instead, structure a trip that takes you off the beaten path. Go to an unconventional place. Backpack and get lost. The broader and richer experience pays dividends down the line. Steve Jobs described his time living in India as one of the most enriching and mind-opening phases of his life, and this undoubtedly helped him develop the intuition to solve the big problem of making lives simpler through technology.
We don’t find happiness by looking within. We go outside and immerse in the world. We are called to a higher purpose by the inescapable circumstances that are laid out on our path. It’s our daily struggles that define us and bring out the best in us, and this lays down the foundation to continuously find fulfillment in what we do even when times get tough.
Happiness comes from the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs. We’ve been told time and again to keep finding the first. Our schools helped developed the second. It’s time we put more thought on the third.
What big problems are you trying to solve?
It may sound churlish to take issue with this prescription. It sounds like a long overdue rebellion against the breakdown of communities, both the physical kind and the sort you’d find in the workplace when businesses offered long term employment. And the world has no shortage of urgent problems that would benefit greatly from more sincere people putting shoulder to wheel to try to remedy them.
What bothers me is anchoring this orientation as as new prescription for happiness. Now it is indeed true that people with more extensive and numerous social networks are healthier; ironically, that’s one of the reasons unequal societies are less healthy. The sort of people you associate with is very much class/income related, so if you lose your perch, you lose most if not all of your putative friends. That in turn produces even more pressure to keep your foothold on the economic ladder.
Go again and read the featured post more carefully. The author hasn’t freed himself of the passion paradigm; notice how he urges readers to find people who are “passionate about problems.” And it’s also hard to put aside the HBS ego orientation: positing his audience to be “young leaders” and urging them to get involved in big problems.
If happiness is the aim, research points to other routes. Altruism lights up the pleasure centers of the brain, supposedly (it never seems to work for me, I just think about how inadequate what I have done or given is relative to the scale of the problem). But I’m not sure “doing altruism” works, if you get the distinction. If you do something generous, you might get a boost from helping other people, but I’m not certain self motivated altruism would produce the same results.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that people are happy when they are in a state he calls “flow” which is being fully engaged in the activity at hand. He describes it in an interview in Wired as:
being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
That can happen when you are “in the zone” when playing a sport, engaged in problem solving (sudoku and crossword puzzle junkies seem to exhibit this sort of concentration) or engrossed in a really good book. One has to note that multitasking would seem to train people out of being able to attain that level of involvement.
But even then I’m not certain Csikszentmihalyi is right about happiness so much as onto a much better approximation. His thesis is that individuals attain a state of flow when they are faced with a task that is demanding enough that it takes their full attention, but not so hard that they cannot succeed at it. How do you regularly find this level of challenge?
By contrast, Buddhists accept the inevitability of suffering and don’t seek happiness, yet they are studied by brain researchers for their equanimity. That in turn results from meditation, which is a form of mental discipline, and appears to create an ability to approach more activities with the sort of prized mindfulness (lack of ego and full engagement) that normal people achieve only by happenstance (or perhaps by luck, by finding or falling into a career that provides them with the sort of tasks that can put them in a state of flow). I’m told a Buddhist saying is “Before I was enlightened, I carried water and chopped wood. Now that I am enlightened, I carry water and chop wood.” In other words, your circumstances do not create your mental state. You do. But few of us are skilled enough to have mastered this faculty.
I wish there were a way for Americans to get over their fixation with happiness and try to use the inevitable pain of the human condition to come to grips with more fundamental questions of meaning. The fact that the HBR is raising the issue of failure as a spur to action is a promising sign, but its readers probably need to be willing to step further outside cultural assumptions to have a real impact on their own psyches, and potentially, the communities they inhabit.