Can Career Counselling Help You Find Your Passion?

I came upon this CNN article by Cal Newport awhile back and thought it was interesting.  The article summarizes many of the ideas he includes in his book (see the end of this Blog). At the time Newport was getting quite a bit or press about the notion that career counselors have for many years been advising people to follow their passion when it comes to finding a career and that this advice could lead people down the wrong path. I’m not sure that is a valid representation of the work of career counselors, certainly not people with professional training. For the most part career counselors don’t advise you to do anything, it’s not our role to tell you what to do.  We can, however, help you understand yourself and help you evaluate experiences in order to further develop a career identity.

I have certainly had many clients who seek assistance in finding a career where they can feel passionate.  Newport thinks that following passion is bad advice as he asserts that passions develop as we engage and become better at what we do.  He even throws in a little Canadian commentary when he uses the example of how many Canadian youth are passionate about hockey, yet a career as a professional athlete eludes all but the elite of the elite.  There is certainly merit in what Newport is talking about, we develop passion through direct experience, we are not born with it. We need to keep a degree of skepticism, however when reading Newport’s book.

Newport is not a psychologist, he wrote the book following the completion of a graduate degree in computer science and he was lost in terms of figuring out what came next.  He embarked upon a quest to find out how people found work that they were passionate about. His “research” involved interviewing people who were passionate about their work.  A fundamental problem lies in how he selected people to interview for his “research”. He assumed that people who stand out from the rest are satisfied and successful with their career and can provide a template for all to follow.  I’m not sure that’s a valid assumption, you don’t have to be famous, a CEO, or brilliant in some way in order to be satisfied and engaged in your work.  Cal Newport asserts that passion is developed through factors such as autonomy, respect, competence, creativity and impact. As a psychologist I would suggest that people differ in terms of how important these factors are in the subjective experience of success, satisfaction or passion. This is in fact why those of us who provide professional career advice often use career aptitude tests.  The career focused tests give structure to people’s understanding of where their motivations lie.  Not everyone seeks autonomy; some in fact prefer work where there are clear, defined processes and tasks to be performed. Sure, most of us probably want to feel respected, but will differ if respect means perceived social status, influence or power. Creativity is not universally valued.  The implication is that the solution to finding work where you feel passionate may not be with the “career” but in the “person within the career”.

Having said that, the idea that endeavoring to  “find” your passion will be less fruitful than “developing” has, in my opinion, a great deal of merit. As someone who has provided career counselling services for over 30 years, Unfortunately, those seeking enlightenment are often disappointed.  There are those of course, who are looking to leverage strong personal interests into a career.  For these people sometimes it can happen.

A 20 year old who was dissatisfied with a career in the trades came into my office and thought that because he really liked animals he would seek a career related to animals.  He was not particularly academically motivated, had very little interest in science, and did not want to spend a long time in post secondary schooling. Becoming a vet is not likely in the cards for him. He was not interested in agricultural animal husbandry. He thought maybe he go to school and become a veterinary assistant; he certainly had the grade 12 grades to be admitted to the program. When he looked into it he discovered that the money he would make in that role would not provide him with the lifestyle that he aspired to.  He decided that he might have to find something else to do as a living. He could still, however enjoy his dog. Was that a good decision? For him, probably.

Part of this young man’s difficulty is that, although he has certain passions. he also has limited experience in other aspects of his life.  He started his work as a direct result of related high school programs, and he had some success in it.  He chose a path very early and hadn’t considered other possibilities.  Although he really loves animals, a career in that field has limitations either because of the academic competitiveness required to enter the training or because the level at which he could realistically enter would not meet other important values that he held.  So what does he do? His solution was to start with more experience.  In this case he enrolled in extension courses at a local college.  He was able to continue to work while he took these classes.  The courses he was selecting had a tangential relationship to the trade he had been pursuing, so even if he stayed in the trade he had an opportunity to develop some specialized skill that would help differentiate him from his peers.  The courses he was selecting to try were not random.  They were ones that, based on his past experiences, there would be some prediction of interest as well as natural ability upon which he could build.  Through this process of exploration, experience, and skill development he may become passionate about his work.

Another client in her mid fifties with a professional designation and a long history of working for a particular company sought career counselling because she wasn’t satisfied with her work.  She grew up in an entrepreneurial family but wanted no part of the family business, which was why she went to university to pursue a business degree.  She was in a senior role in her company, by all accounts very competent at what she did, which is why she was so “successful”.  Her success, however, meant that she travelled a great deal for work, sometimes spending weeks in other parts of Canada as well as the US supervising the implementation of complex projects.  She was unmarried, and had few friends, partly because she had moved around a lot in her career, partly because she is naturally introverted and doesn’t socialize easily.  Like the young man above, she also loved animals, particularly her dogs, whom she missed while she worked away and had to have family take care of.  In her case, she decided to leave her senior position, lease space in a suburban strip mall and open a doggy day care.  She probably isn’t making as much money as she was, and may not receive the same amount of “respect” from others.  She is, however, at home, with her dogs, has more opportunity to have pleasant and brief interactions with people who bring their dogs into the day care.  As far as I know she has no intention of expanding or franchising.  She is content doing what she does, and because she lives frugally, and has throughout her life, she can make it work financially.  In her case, she followed her passion (her idea not mine), leveraged her business skills and has found something she enjoys.

In both of these cases there was ample opportunity to meet Newport’s criteria of autonomy, respect, competence, creativity and impact by staying in their current work. Should the young man continue in his trade, get better, and develop more skill in order to become more passionate?  Maybe, but not necessarily right now. His desire to look elsewhere should not be framed as a lack of grit or perseverance (see my blog entry “Do I Need a Career Change or be Better at What I Do?”  At his age he can come back to it if he decides it really is where he wants to do.  In the meantime, he also needs experience and opportunities to try some different things.  I’m not suggesting that he has to try everything before he settles, and I’m not suggesting that he flit from job to job or course to course.  As he tries some new things it will be important to reflect on the experiences in order to sort out where things worked and where they didn’t

In the case of my woman client, from the outside she had it all in her career.  Success, money, status and the respect of her peers and community, people looked to her for solutions to particular business problems.  Travel wasn’t the only issue she faced, with her credentials and background she could have easily found high paying work in Calgary where she would not have had to travel. That, however was not what she wanted.  She wanted to follow her passion and to simplify her life. She had the resources to make this happen in a way that did not jeopardize her security.

In both of these cases we did use career aptitude tests as part of the counselling process.  The tests didn’t say do “X”.  The inventories helped them look at themselves to see what fit and what didn’t both in the work they were doing as well as in the ideas they had about what they might do.  The inventories helped provide both hypotheses about what might work as well as criterion for examining career options in order to help with next steps.

We don’t know exactly where interests and motivation come from, but we don’t think they are simply innate aspects of our personality.  They most certainly have a relationship to experience.  In these experiences there has to be something that captures our interest enough to motivate us to pursue a topic or activity long enough in order to develop skill, and through some feedback mechanism, passion.

I don’t buy everything Newport has to offer, but I think his book is worth reading; if only to give more food for thought to the role of passion in our work. I advise caution, however, whenever anyone provides you with a prescription for success.  Cal Newport’s book,  “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for the Work You Love” is worth a critical read.   I picked up my copy at the local library.