Should you use Passion & Purpose as a Career Compass?
The past couple decades have mushroomed many conversations about passion & finding one’s purpose. Many coaches, gurus and authors advocate the idea of finding your passion and pushing for it to be successful.
I’ve been mentoring young adults for about a year now; and I’ve witnessed this message causing a lot of confusion and heartburn. It’s forcing people to create extremely high expectations from their careers and work. I’ve spoken to hundreds of kids in their teens and twenties who are under a lot of pressure and mental stress about not finding their ‘Ikigai’. It saddens me deeply to see someone at the age of 18/20/25 with this level of stress and burden thinking they are already lost in life.
“Everyone expects to be ‘creating a dent in the world’ at the levels of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs”
We are given to believe that if you’re not building a big company or changing the world in an obvious, grand way you’re not doing anything worthwhile. The media is positioned in a way that if you’re not following your passion, you’re not living a successful life. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The problem with such external expectations is that there is a huge letdown eventually when we don’t meet them, simply because not everyone is going to change the world in such a massive way.
I’m not here trying to say that we should all be comfortable and should not set any goals or strive for something better. Yes absolutely, please go ahead. Personal growth and setting goals are some of the best ways to feel fulfilled and appreciate life. But if you choose to stay comfortable, that’s perfectly fine too. It’s a personal and individual choice.
My message is that we have to find a bridge to the image of success that’s been painted around passion and purpose. I’ve come to realise that with pretty much every job that’s out there, all you need to do is step back to be able to look at the big picture and find meaning in what you do.
“Everything we do has an impact on somebody’s life. That impact could be to somebody’s time, money or emotions”
You are changing the world in your own way. We need to stop associating pride with job titles. It doesn’t matter if you’re a ‘chaiwala’ (tea salesman) with a tea stall on the corner of the street, or if you are HR, operations, a techie or delivery personnel. The idea is to be able to look at the grand picture and visualise the end result of whatever you’re doing to take pride and comfort in that picture.
Ask yourself: Are you impacting lives? Are you changing someone’s mood? Are you making things go faster?
We are all cogs at the end of the day; simply tiny units in a very, very big system and every little unit plays a role in being able to make a difference. And if one cog is out of place, that upsets the whole balance.
There’s a joke I recall from long ago that plays a close analogy and resonated with me very strongly. I apologise in advance for the potential upcoming cringe, but brace yourself.
The joke is about how the human brain and heart were arguing who was more relevant and played a greater purpose in the human body.
The heart claimed that it was responsible to pump blood and was the true life force, while the brain competed that if it wasn’t active, a person would be brain-dead.
So while they’re both competing with each other, the rectum decides to participate in the argument, clamps up and decides to go on vacation for 3 weeks.
I hope you understand the implication of that tight situation (pun intended), but it is very important to be able to realise that every little part of the system is important. So when you look at that from the point of view of our everyday work, you realise how it doesn’t matter what role, what level, what decision making power one has. YOU ARE crucial to the system. The things that you do add value that enable scale and that touches lives at some point or the other.
To give you some real anecdotes: I recall a time when I was the primary project manager on a large multi-million dollar project in The Philippines. Beyond getting my job done, I was also the person getting snacks, fruit, cell phone recharge for my project resources. Another time when I was running my own event tech startup, the faucet in the washroom broke. And I had to get it fixed. All of this may be painful & thankless jobs, but they have real impact in terms of the big picture.
I remember other similar examples where I was in software testing a long time ago; a friend was on a client account for an online travel aggregator (like Expedia & MakeMyTrip). And he was having a hard time seeing the real value he brought doing his work. His manager explained to him how his job was not simply booking tickets all day. His job was enabling his client’s customers to get to their business meetings. They are able to go visit family, spend time with the people that matter the most, or make emergency trips when needed. He needed to be able to step back and look at the bigger picture of what his job was enabling.
Another friend once described themselves in an introduction as a ‘lowly HR’. If they really understood how HR is the gateway to any company — the entry and exit point and who sets the tone for culture and branding right from recruiting efforts, to being able to represent a company interaction with new recruits or departing employees.
There is also this urban legend attributed to when President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters for the first time in 1961. While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA.
The janitor replied “I’m helping put a man on the moon!”
So being able to find your purpose in life requires you to step back and see the grand master output.
Even if you are unable to see how your small unit makes a difference, look higher and visualise what problem the company really solves. What human enablement does the company provide through their products or services. It does not matter whether your company is optimising something or creating something new or delivering certain services, they exist because people want it, and are willing to pay for it. And that means you are part of that journey.
So yes, you absolutely have a purpose no matter what you do in life.
Now, is this your passion?
That’s a very fair question, and that requires soul-searching, taking risks to leave a comfort zone and explore what excites you. If you find that the purpose you fulfil at the moment does not excite you, then you need to be willing to take steps to find what parts of your daily life does not work for you. Is it certain parts of your job? Is it the end goal? Could it need a little reframing for you to see another side of it? Or do you simply hate everything about it?
Finding meaningful work requires us to experiment, and experimentation takes time, effort, risk and often failure.
That’s not a bad thing, be ready and willing to do it. But don’t beat yourself up if you’re in your twenties and you believe you have not found it.
That is the core message here — Avoid using passion and purpose as a compass of success. Define your own measures for yourself. You may need a job to keep paying the bills, feed your family, take care of dependents. That is a very noble and deep pursuit, and a lot of people do not get the opportunity to provide in such a manner.
Identify what financial, emotional, mental, physical and spiritual objectives you are looking to fulfil with your job and career. And then I encourage you to chase THOSE objectives with the understanding that they may change and evolve over time.
If you are truly aligned with those objectives and you are doing it for yourself, you might stumble upon your passion.