Forget Your Passion, Find Your Challenge!

“Be passionate about your job and you’ll never work another day in your life.”

I call bullshit. Sure, this quote gives us that Hallmark warm and fuzzy feeling way down in the sub-cockles of our heart (which by the way, the word “cockles” is nothing more than an incorrect latin translation of the word chocleae, which referred to ventricles… go warm your ventricles, people), however, there is a very harsh reality that this quote ignores.  If everyone in the world followed this quote to the letter, we would have a ridiculous number of rock stars, hoards of mediocre professional athletes, and such a high demand for accountants that they would be the highest paid individuals in the world.  My point it is that sometimes, it isn’t possible to follow your heart.
When I was 18, I was an optimistic farm boy, preparing myself to leave the small town and enter the city for University.  I had gotten into a number of schools and was torn between two very different paths: engineering or music. I still recall a conversation with my Aunt, the conclusion of which told me that music would always be there for me no matter what, but engineering wasn’t really something that people did as a hobby.  “Besides,” my Aunt concluded, “if you pursue music as a career, it becomes work, and you can never really love work.”
While I may disagree with my Aunt on that last point, that conversation was quite possibly one of the most important defining moments of my young life. The difficulty was, had I followed my passion and pursued a career in music, I would probably end up among the huge statistic of struggling artists who barely make ends meet working shift jobs at cafes and pubs, trying to chase a dream that has less than a prayer’s chance of coming to fruition. The issue here was a problem of demand; there simply wasn’t enough of it to justify another guy like me trying to play music for a living.
This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t be passionate about their work, however, don’t feel as though you have to be so narrow-sighted in the pursuit of your goals so as to ignore the opportunities around you and find a way to achieve both passion and success.  I, for example, have made a damned good life for myself as an engineer turned businessman. This has afforded me the luxury of playing in a band during my free time to satisfy my need for music. Win-win, right?
You may still be wondering if this means that work must therefore be a monotonous drudgery until the day we retire with our only respite being the hobbies we pursue in our leisure time.  Foolish earthling, give your head a shake. Research into human motivation has shown that there are a number of factors that drive our work habits (particularly things like mastery, autonomy and purpose). I would argue that in order to enjoy your work on an ongoing basis, you need to find a job that challengesyou.  We humans seem to be addicted to the positive feelings of accomplishment and few things give that junkie’s fix like overcoming a big challenge.  There is a certain element of pride and strength in the knowledge of overcoming a meaningful problem though independently learning and applying new knowledge and skills.  For me, this problem solving high is only slightly less enjoyable than the feeling I get from being on stage with a guitar and a captive (albeit slightly alcohol-fueled and inhibition-lowered) audience.
All that said, if you wake up every morning knowing – absolutely KNOWING – that you will one day be the greatest ballerina that ever lived… by all means, follow your passion.  However, for the rest of us who have our doubts, a good challenge can be a great substitute for passion and something that I for one, can get passionate about.