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Career Questions: Reconciling Passion and Practicality

Inspired by a recent post by educator Will Richardson (Hey Kids, Invent Your Own Jobs) and the comments it received about the future of work and career planning, I decided to pose a few career questions here for your review and consideration. They are questions we all ask and answer, sometimes repeatedly, over the course of a lifetime. There are no clear answers, no right or wrong, but they help us make the next move nevertheless. Richardson's post sparked a discussion that calls for a shift in perspective about how we think about and plan for careers, moving from:

"What do you want to be?" to "How do you want to live?"

Assessing how you want to live gets at a different kind of description of what your desired work life might be like. Do you want to travel? Live in a particular locale? Have a family? Be able to work a flexible schedule or have strict "business hours?" Make a contribution to a specific cause or field? While the practical (i.e. financial support) aspects of choosing a career or accepting a job are critical components of our career decision-making, we are also inundated with messages to follow our dreams and find a way to turn our passions into livelihoods.

What are you passionate about?

When we hear people say they are "passionate" about something what do they mean? It's related to motivation – a drive that persists even when the going gets tough. It's not a trend, temporary interest, or a phase that you are passing through. Passion is what helps us get through the suffering we may experience in order to realize greater benefits.

A couple of weeks ago a related discussion began in the Careers Debate LinkedIn Group. It started with a statement, really, about how the word passion may be overused in the context of career advising. What do you think? More than 128 contributions to the conversation have been made so far, mostly by career counselors and advising professionals. The consensus seems to be that passion is important, but it's not enough in terms of securing, and being successful in, a job or career. Also required are: appropriate experience, education and training, technical skills and qualifications, an aptitude for the work, and professional skills and characteristics. Passion may, however, be an overused expression in resume writing and interview responses.

So should you follow your passion? Absolutely. But it might not lead to a career. For some people it does, but it's not a guarantee, and the reality is that the jobs we hold are not always directly linked to our passions. And that's okay. 

What do you want to do?

My interpretation of these discussions, in the context of career decision-making, brings us to another question: "What do you want to do?" The emphasis here is on action – the performance of the specific tasks that are required by a particular job or career field (e.g. answering customer questions, writing research reports, building technical plans). And it's easy to get caught up in labels and expectations that come with having chosen a specific major (i.e. "I am a ____ major, so I must work in ____ field") or having set a course for a specific job title (i.e. "I want to be a ____"). Neither of these goals necessarily addresses the work to be done, and they can limit your search and the options you are considering. You can break the process down even further, finding the tasks that you want to perform in a variety of settings and under a range of formal titles. Here are a few ideas for looking at your career exploration and job search in a different light:

Assess your values. What is important to you in terms of a job search or career plan? There are several online assessments that allow you to examine your work values. 

  • Arizona State University's Values Assessment addresses both intrinsic (e.g. interests, perceived contribution) and extrinsic (e.g. work environment, salary) work values.
  • Rutgers University's Career Services also offers a Values Assessment online. This one asks you to identify values that are important to you in the categories of achievement, challenge, independence, money, power, recognition, service to others, and variety.
  • The Nebraska Department of Labor provides access to the O*Net online Work Importance Profiler. This application has two steps: 1) rank work statements as to their importance to you, and 2) rate work needs as independent of each other. The resulting profile links your values to the characteristics of various occupations.

Research work conditions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook has been featured here previously for resources related to salary expectations and employment growth projections. The OOH also gives us detailed descriptions of the nature of the work performed within each occupation and a description of the typical, physical work environment of someone on-the-job. Take a look at the entries for Social Workers, Computer Network Administrators, and Pharmacy Technicians as examples.

Review interviews and professional profiles. What is it really like to work in a particular industry? What is the typical day-to-day experience of those already employed in the fields you are considering?

  • Industry profile collections are common resources in career centers and libraries. Search for access to these collections online and for listings of print references you may be able to locate in your local library. Johnson and Wales University's library lists personality profiles categorized by industry. The CareerOneStop site, managed by the Employment and Training Administration also provides a catalog of career exploration information that includes occupation profiles and career videos that show "the type of work people do in nearly 550 careers."
  • Social networking sites, such as LinkedIn, allow you to search for information not only by person, company, and job title, but also by keyword. Conduct several searches and browse related profiles to get a better idea of the work and work environment through the descriptions provided by working professionals in the field.

The goal here is to first widen your scope, documenting the types of tasks you are interested in performing and your values related to work, then to discover the possible ways in which you can do what you want to do in a way that fulfills a need in the existing job market.

The careers we follow, and the jobs we take along the way, are a result of our decisions and external influences, (i.e. economic conditions, societal expectations, life roles, and job market realities). Passion and occupation may or may not be related, and success and satisfaction remain possibilities either way. Don't abandon your dreams, your passions, and your goals for the future, but instead open up additional paths. Start with identifying what you want to do, and then find the opportunities that make this possible.