"What do you do?" used to be a question I loved answering. For the most part, since I started working almost 17 years ago, I've enjoyed my work. But last week, as I sat across the table from a new friend trying to get to know me and asking this question, I blurted out the only honest thing I could say: "I don't love my work right now, so it feels strange to tell you about what I do. I don't think it gives you a good idea of who I am."
In New York City, where I live, that's heresy. You are what you do. People don't come here to marry, have kids, or settle down. They come here in quest of success. They come here to work.
So I whispered my response to her in hushed tones. It felt shameful to feel such disconnect between my job and my identity.
Five Problems with the Passion Hypothesis
In the past few weeks, as I've been more open about my vocational uncertainty, some friends have counseled me, saying, "Life's too short to waste time on work you don't love. You're capable and well educated. Quit and find something new."
When I say I'm not sure what that would be, their first response is almost always "What are you passionate about?" But I don't know how to answer that question either. In fact, I'm not even sure it's the right one to ask. After all, the passion hypothesis — "the idea that the key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you're passionate about and then find a job that matches your passion" — is fraught with problems.
First, there's no evidence we have preexisting passions to discover. Most of us are vocationally nimble and capable of doing a great number of things.
Second, focusing on our passion is self-centered. It's asking what the world can offer us, not what we can offer the world. Such a perspective makes us hyperaware of what we don't like about something.
Third, there's no evidence that, if we love doing something, we'll love doing it as a job. I'm passionate about running, but — setting aside that no one would sponsor me at my nine-minute/mile pace — I love it precisely because it's play, not work.