How to find work you love

Some of my students and former students may have read my “Follow your passion” is not helpful advice post, and they’re saying to the screen: “But EJ [they call me EJ], what about Howard Thurman?”

I have shared this Howard Thurman quotation with thousands of college students over the past fifteen years:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I stand by this quote as great advice for a college student and anyone trying to pick a career path. Sounds a lot like the misguided follow your passion advice, I know. “Follow your passion” is just not helpful as a stand-alone, magic bullet for a happy career. While skills trump passion in your quest for satisfying work, you still need to choose a path that offers delight and interest, that makes you come alive. What kind of work would be a good enough fit for you to spend years getting good at it? That’s a much less overwhelming, paralyzing question than asking you to figure out your lifetime passion.

If you’re trying to just “follow your passion”, you’re likely to get stuck searching for that one elusive match. If, instead, you explore all the things that make you come alive, you will focus on a direction rather than a destination, on a set of skills that you can begin refining. Be intentional about asking what it is that you love to do, not for the extrinsic rewards, but for the joy of the thing itself.

“You must cultivate activities that you love. You must discover work that you do, not for its utility, but for itself. Think of something that you love to do for itself, whether it succeeds or not, whether you are praised for it or not, whether you are loved and rewarded for it or not, whether people know about it and are grateful to you for it or not. How many activities can you count in your life that you engage in simply because they delight you and grip your soul? Find them out. Cultivate them, for they are your passport to freedom and to love.” -Anthony DeMello

I challenge university students to leverage their time here to ask these kinds of questions. If they don’t ask the “what makes you come alive” question while they’re in college, when will they in the rest of their busy adult lives? In answering that question, look for patterns – skills that keep recurring, interests that intrigue more than most, problems that you enjoy solving.

Gretchen was a student orientation leader with wisdom beyond her years. When confronted with incoming freshmen in angst over choosing an academic major, she told them how she picked a major. She was undecided when she arrived as a freshman, so she read every course description in the college catalog. Each time she read a course description that seemed remotely appealing, that looked like a class that was interesting or fun, she circled the class. When she finished reading every course description and circling only those that grabbed her attention, she went back and counted which major had the most courses circled. And that became her major.

Brilliant, no? And so simple. She was figuring out what made her come alive. But then she got on that path and worked hard at getting good. She was good enough to go on to an Ivy League graduate program and great success in her career and family life.

The “don’t ask yourself what the world needs” quote is especially crucial for new students to hear. Many arrive on campus with their parents’ expectations setting their own. We get a lot of “pre-wealth” majors at freshman orientation. I had a student whose father required her to be pre-med. She didn’t like science so much, and when, after a rough freshman year in the classroom, she pleaded with him to let her change her major, he relented only if she would then choose business instead.

I heard a commencement speaker last year say that your parents do not want what is best for you. They want what is good for you. They want you to be safe, secure, successful, and have all your needs met. But what’s best for you might be risk and struggle and failure, key components on any path to mastery and awesomeness. Respect your parents, but lead your own life. And know that one day you might be that parent wanting what is just good for your child. And that’s okay. Parents are wired by evolution to protect their babies. Of course, the way you live your life will inform your children more than anything you say to them.

If you’re struggling with finding a career, use the “come alive” question to help you find a general direction, a path to follow. You don’t have to know the one thing you need to be doing, your life calling. You just need to know enough to start moving in a direction that works for you. You need a place or a profession that you don’t dislike and where you can start building skills and getting good enough to truly love what you do and come alive in the process.

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