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A practical alternative to ‘following your passion’

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories here.

Recent grads are frequently told to "follow their passion." Unfortunately, this is very bad, and wrong, advice.

Developmental psychology says that we do not really have a clear understanding of ourselves until we are in our thirties. How can you expect to figure out your passion when you are not yet who you will become?

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Research indicates that only about 4 per cent of university grads have any "passion" that is career-related and actionable. A Canadian psychologist surveyed 600 university students and found that 84 per cent had a passion. However, those included dance, hockey, skiing, reading and swimming – not very helpful unless your name is Mikhail Baryshnikov, Sydney Crosby or Penny Oleksiak.

Passion is not developed in the abstract; you are not going to have an epiphany and suddenly discover your passion. You will find your passion as you develop your career; it is a process. A thoughtful approach will start you down the right path. The key is to follow Nike's adage: "Just Do It." Get out there, get experience and learn from it.

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational psychology at Yale University, identified three classifications of work in her research:

  • Job – a way to pay the bills
  • Career – a path to increasingly better work
  • Calling – work that is important to an individual’s life and a vital part of their identity.

In her research, Wrzesniewski found that the strongest predictor of people seeing their work as a 'calling' was the length of time they had been doing it. Her conclusion was that the happiest, most passionate employees were those who had been doing their job the longest. Passion is a derivative, not a driver.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which has been around for 40 years and is the best framework for understanding why people enjoy their work, identifies three necessary factors:

  • Autonomy – the feeling that you are in control of your work and that your actions are important
  • Competence – the feeling that you are good at what you do
  • Relatedness – the feeling of connection to other people

Note that these three factors relate to skills, that there is no reference to passion and that the factors are unrelated to the type of work being done.

Combining Wrzesniewski's research and SDT theory indicates that skills are the true path to any calling. Using your skills will generate autonomy, competence and relatedness and the better your skills become through practice the higher the level of satisfaction and so on – a virtuous circle.

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So what now?

Now that you have a better understanding of how to find your calling, follow these six steps to uncover your passion.

1. Write a 250-word Work Manifesto: Not a statement of what you want from work, but rather your view of work – what good work ought to be. Address questions like:

  • What is work for?
  • What defines good or worthwhile work?

2. Write a 250-word Life Manifesto – a statement of what matters to you.

  • What do I want to accomplish in my life?
  • How would I know if I have led a good life?

3. Analyze the two manifestos and answer the following questions:

  • Where do they complement each other?
  • Where do they clash?
  • Does one drive the other and how?

This exercise may lead to some refinement of one or both of your Manifestos.

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4. Identify three or four accomplishments when you experienced "flow;" you were completely involved in the activity and had a sense of inner clarity. You knew what to do and how to do it, you were calm, at peace, energized and time stood still.

  • Write the story of each.

5. Analyze those stories to identify the skills you have and enjoy using.

  • What were you actually doing?
  • Where were you doing it, and how did the environment make you feel?
  • Who were you interacting with?
  • What were you interacting with?
  • Who else was there and what role did they play?

6. Identify organizations that are aligned with your Work and Life Manifestos and where your skills will be valued. Target individuals in those organizations with whom to network and reach out to them.

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