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Not Passionate About Your Job? Relax.

What if career satisfaction is more directly correlated with competence — hard-wrought mastery of core job skills — than it is with passion? What if your 'true calling' is really a farce?

As a new year dawns, you may find yourself asking whether your current job is truly it. We’re conditioned to believe that a great career is a passionate career — one so personally compelling that it sends us racing off passionately to work each morning, confident that we are fulfilling a personal destiny.

If that bit of pop-culture wisdom does not map to your current reality, take heart. Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and author of the fairly self-explanatory book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion In The Quest For Work You Love, suggests that happiness is still possible for those of us whose working life does not seem to reflect an inner calling.

Writing in the New York Times, he described how he faced a career crossroads in his twenties and was flummoxed by the fact that, apparently lacking a “true calling,” he had to make a difficult choice — one that he was bound to second-guess. The idea that “we all have a pre-existing passion waiting to be discovered,” he says, actually applies only to a small group of people, but it “puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us,” not just at moments of choice but almost continuously.

“Every time our work gets hard, we are pushed toward an existential crisis, centered on what for many is an obnoxiously unanswerable question: ‘Is this what I’m really meant to be doing?’ This constant doubt generates anxiety and chronic job-hopping.”

Newport decided that any of the career options he faced at that critical juncture could be made to work, so he made his choice based on a geographical preference. Once made, his new position posed some inevitable early-year difficulties. “Had I subscribed to the ‘follow our passion’ orthodoxy, I probably would have left during those first years, worried that I didn’t feel love for my job every day. But I knew that my sense of fulfillment would grow over time, as I became better at my job. So I worked hard, and, as my competence grew, so did my engagement.”

So buck up: A bad day at work doesn’t necessarily mean you should chuck it all and open that llama ranch in Oregon. Unless, of course, you are really, truly passionate about llamas.



Already losing ground on a couple of your New Year’s resolutions? Cut yourself some slack, in the macro sense.

New research shows that "self-compassion" is far more important to happiness, optimism, and overall psychological well-being than the much-vaunted trait of "self-esteem." Researchers Kristin Neff, Stephanie Rude, and Kristin Kirkpatrick describe self-compassion as "being kind toward oneself in instances of pain or failure; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness."

Similar studies by Juliana Breines and Serena Chen at UC Berkeley have found that, paradoxically, an ability to accept one’s failures makes it more likely that a person will take steps toward self-improvement.

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