Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Passion - does it matter?

What should I do with my Life? is the title of a famous book by Po Bronson.

I remember picking up this book from a stationery store (maybe Staples?) long back even before I had read any online reviews about it. Unlike most self-help/career books that talk about setting a goal, self-discipline and working towards it all in a vague sort of way giving examples of famous people who put in the right efforts and lots of it to get where they are, this one actually addresses the deeper question: what would actually drive you to achieve and make you feel happy and fulfilled?
Most self-help books talk about 'How'. This one talks about 'Why'. As I learnt in the free online sessions on neuro-linguistic programming which I had posted about last month, it is important to know why you are doing anything in your life, what you are pursuing and what you really want.

On the other end are opinions such as this that critically question the current craze over 'doing what you love'. Here is another post by a different blogger who adds an important point to the discussion on finding a career you love.

In my humble opinion, passion does matter but differently for different jobs. After having seen a little bit of this world,  I categorize professions into a few broad types:

1. Professions of the heart
2. Professions of the head
3. Professions of the mind
4. Professions of the hand

Some professions can transcend more than one or two types.

1. Professions of the heart - These are the careers that involve expression of deeper emotions and feelings. All the arts would probably fall under this category. Now this does not mean that no brain is involved in any of these careers. Quite the contrary. It just means that one needs to use both left and right sides of the brains and something deeper, what we call soul.

Be it acting, singing, writing of any kind, film direction, painting or sculpture or fashion design, there is an expression of something intangible that appeals to your aesthetic sense or your deep feelings.

As this blogger says, there is no way one can get by here without talent. And may I add, passion. Have you ever heard of any successful rock band that says, "I am forced to do this for a living as I have a family to feed" or "I had no idea what to do after college so I just decided to sing"?

Being a painter must have been a cool thing to do during the Renaissance and many aspiring youngsters would have jumped onto the art bandwagon but not all of them could become Leonardo da Vinci or Michaelangelo. Well, these geniuses would have been a product of exceptional talent and hard work and a certain amount of luck but just taking a  glimpse at their work can tell you that the artist did not just put in blood, sweat and tears but also soul.

You might also see the 'heart and soul' in a television program such as the recently launched 'X-factor'. The participants who rocked had a great singing voice and they packed in an extra punch - enthusiasm and emotion in their performances and the best, in fact, take the audience with them on a brief journey.

One could also call these careers professions of the right brain.

Half-hearted work and mediocrity get you nowhere in the creative/artistic fields.

2. Professions of the head - These are the careers that involve analysis or the ability to grasp concepts or numerical ability, basically, what you call 'using your brain'. One needs to have good memory or numerical ability or the ability to follow trends and statistics or a good logical ability to connect event A to B or maybe, all of the above traits.
Many of the highly paid, prestigious careers in today's modern world are professions of the head be it medicine, law, engineering, stock brokerage, accountancy, investment banking, marketing analysis or even sales though sales would involve people skills, too.
Computer programming also comes to mind. Teaching and management would fall under this category, too although both involve communication and social skills.

Lots of people though not all who get into these professions do so because of not just love of the job but the social status, honor and parents' approval. In fact, what some people think as their original interest in these professions may not even be their own desire but rather what is considered good to aspire for.

Allow me to give an example. In India and probably other Asian countries, education is one of the few ladders that lift millions out of poverty.
Owing to the thousands of graduates coming out of the hundreds of engineering, technical and management institutes, there is increasing competition so that even a job that does not require an engineering degree per se now goes to one who has acquired it simply because companies filter for the most educated or smartest in the pool of applicants. Youngsters in a developing nation tend to be hungrier for success and feel the pressure to perform so there are bound to be more highly educated people there. 
When President Obama speaks about competing with China and India, one is reminded of precisely the sheer numbers of college educated people in these countries who are taking over science and engineering jobs.
However, we forget a crucial point when we compare a free economy like the US with that of developing nations who only opened up their economies a few decades ago. A person in the US can make a decent living in many careers and still be able to afford a middle class lifestyle - roof over head (maybe rented) with all the modern appliances such as a washing machine, dishwasher, TV, etc. and food to eat although this has been changing recently with the economic downturn and the higher-than-usual unemployment rates in many places. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the developing world.

On the other hand, in the US, too, more and more young people have been opting for highly paid careers in IT, marketing, banking and other fields for a job that utilizes their brains and provides them means for advancement.

There is also social prestige involved in many professions. A friend of mine wanted to be a doctor as did many of my peers. If you ask why even today, many would probably say that they want to save lives. In the event of not making the cut for a medical college, some feel like failures. If you want to save lives, there are many other indirect ways, too, for example, one could work in related medical fields such as pharmacy or biochemical research or even counseling.

The other problem in a country such as India is that the education system is pretty rigid. A student has to choose a stream such as science or arts at the high school level and there is no going back on that choice. A science student can jump into arts but not vice versa. Once you get into a professional degree course such as medicine or engineering, either you quit entirely or finish. The university system operates in a linear fashion and there is no concept of accumulating credits and using them to major in something else entirely. This causes even more panic to 'choose rightly' at the tender age of sixteen.

Although the US has a flexible education system where one can re-enter college at any age and major in anything, the higher cost of college education as compared to India where the state does subsidize higher education to some extent makes it all the more difficult to get a higher end degree in medicine or engineering at a later stage in life.

People who enter professions of the head are the ones who typically value education, who understand that being smart can help them make a difference in the world and earn them respect. The net result is that there are idealists, money grubbers and 'brain snobs' (I am referring to people who are proud of their intellectual accomplishments) and everyone in between here, goaded on by starry-eyed parents.

The best case, the idealist, sometimes later on realizes that even being a lawyer or a software engineer is often the daily grind that they do not particularly enjoy though they are proud of what they are doing and probably even good at it.
In fact, the less smarter or less hardworking ones who got weeded out at college entry level itself were saved many years of heartache if such a career was not their true passion.

The smart ones can soldier on in these professions on the basis of their intelligence and ability to hunker down and get the work done even when their heart is crying out for escape from time to time.

We all know the difference a passionate teacher can make. Throwing more and more money at teachers will work only up to a certain extent . As the Master Card ad says, "There are some things money can't buy...".

That is the sad part.

3. Professions of the mind - These are people who are very influential in the world. Think scientists, inventors, philosophers, media pundits. They inhabit the world of ideas. I have a feeling that such people are probably use both their left and right brains. Of course, high intelligence and an interest in the subject are necessary traits.

Passion is really important here. One can't last long in a lab atmosphere looking at bacteria if there is no fire inside for the field. The most famous scientists did not discover groundbreaking concepts riding on the backs of their IQ alone. They were consumed by their quest often working the problem in their heads long after they had hung their lab coats.

I have met people who could not stand being isolated in a lab all their life but must have loved biology as a subject. They may have had the talent but not the temperament for the job. If biology was still their passion, they might find work in a teaching-cum-research area or in a company that could use their expertise and provide them with a corporate social environment.

4. Professions of the hand - These are the laboring masses, blue collar workers, people who do all the jobs that keep our civilization running smoothly, ranging from janitors to farmers to bus drivers, factory workers, burger flippers, waiters, sales clerks at retail stores, housekeepers and nannies.
In short, these are the 'doing' professions.
There is not much of an entry criterion here although some such as factory workers and bus drivers need to have some training and skills to operate. Unlike some of the professions mentioned above, one does not need a college degree or some outstanding talent to survive. Punctuality, dedication and the ability to follow rules and regulations are an absolute must. Social skills are very essential, too, especially for nannies and waiters.
This does not in any way demean these professions or the people who are involved in them. The only catch is that passion for that particular line of work is not really the factor here. I am sure there are several high-IQ janitors (remember Good Will Hunting?) and many talented waiters (lots of actors and singers have started out this way) but their gifts do not really get utilized in their day-to-day work.

Many people involved in these professions are from the lower economic strata and feeding their families and educating their children is a far higher priority for them than some abstract concept such as the meaning of life.

In such careers, a lack of passion may result in shoddy work but if the person in question is a sincere, conscientious type, he/she will do the job perfectly well while waiting to save up enough to quit and pursue other interests.

Job security in such careers is not always guaranteed though. Factories close down due to outsourcing and technology changes, state budget cuts put construction workers out of work and more stay-at-home moms could jeopardize day care providers' incomes.

A lack of passion in such careers could cause stress, depression and a general feeling of emptiness but may not always get the person fired.

Bottom line, all professions can be rewarding. The trouble with finding work one truly loves is not just about qualifications or job vacancies, it is often the battle between head and heart, the conflict between different desires - money, respect, brain stimulation, satisfaction and many others.
For better or worse, human beings have come to value the brain so much that for many of us, a job that does not cause us to think or create may simply be unsatisfactory. For many of us, a higher spiritual purpose is also a motivating factor. Running a non-profit that helps the less privileged may not be as brain-stimulating as programming the next cutting edge video game but it is definitely more rewarding in a different way.

A calling, as Po Bronson so eloquently put it, is not about getting all excited every day at work. It is about fulfillment.
Unfortunately, too many people confuse passion with mere enjoyment and pleasure.

Additional good reads: Steve Pavlina on finding the right career and this great blog.