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Book encourages turning talents to passion

For high school and college students, the question, “What do you want to do?” looms large, often inciting feelings of anxiety and confusion.

While many have no defined career pathway, one thing is clear: millennials want to enjoy their work. 

Hugo Chavez, 20, a student in pursuit of his AAOT, said that enjoying his work was his top work priority, along with having “a good salary” and “feeling accomplished.”

What happens to those who don’t know exactly what they love to do? 

For those who haven’t identified an all-consuming passion at 20, 25, or even 35, choosing a career path is frightening, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. 

In his 201­2 book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Cal Newport argues that people don’t usually have a pre-existing passion waiting to be “discovered,” as most career manuals and assessments would have you believe. 

Newport says that because emerging adults are so determined to “find” a passion-filled career, they face paralyzing pressure in selecting the right path out of high school or college. Unsure of what they want, they often spend years hopping jobs or biding their time in dead-end positions anxiously awaiting inspiration to strike. 

Although today’s generation is commonly criticized for their spotty work histories and lackadaisical habits, could it be that they are simply experiencing the effects of a misshapen belief system?

What if there were another way of viewing the almighty “passion,” looking at it not as the starting point but as a byproduct of a process?  What if passion were not a clear-cut, preset impulse that you followed but rather something that followed you?  What if it was something most often cultivated through years of dedication and hard work?

Ryan Chatterton, author of a lifestyle and career blog called Brazen Life, created an equation based on Cal Newport’s research to help people consider passion in a more pragmatic way: (Curiosity + Engagement) x Time = Passion.

According to Newport, the way to “find” work you love is NOT to look inward and attempt to draw on our innermost desires and motivations.  Instead, Newport counsels, pick a path that appeals to you in some way and get really good at doing something within that field. 

Developing a skill over time and engaging in that field by communicating with people who do the same thing helps us to build passion. 

 “Social engagement revolving around our interest reinforces our commitment and fuels that interest even further,” Chatterton said.

People who love their jobs have usually been at them for a while (sometimes decades) and have continually developed new skills in their field. They learned from their colleagues and supervisors and discovered ways to make themselves stand out.

Betty Tamm, CEO of the area nonprofit agency NeighborWorks Umpqua, didn’t start out as a young person with a passion for the housing industry and had no aspirations in the nonprofit world.  In fact, she studied Biology in college and earned a Master’s degree in Mycology.

“Instead of asking, ‘What is my passion?’ we might ask ‘What do I want to get really good at?’”

In the last 19 years, however, Tamm has led a massive expansion of the Roseburg branch of NeighborWorks America, a national organization dedicated to providing affordable housing and professional development opportunities to low-income people.  Tamm’s efforts helped grow the company’s payroll from two to 55 employees. 

When asked which skills made her the right person for the job, Tamm said, “I was good at writing and accounting which both help in running a business. I am good at interacting with people… and communicating well with people helps in getting projects and funding and taking on challenges.”

How did she get started in this field? 

 “I got a job in a small city as recorder. It was there that I learned to write and manage government grants. That opened the door to Umpqua CDC where I started out as a grant writer. Eight months later, I was Executive Director,” Tamm said.

As someone whose initial interests lay in the field of science, Tamm found immense satisfaction in her career at Neighborworks Umpqua.  Her favorite aspects included “the ability to take on diverse projects, to be imaginative in our approach to projects and to be entrepreneurial.” 

So, perhaps, instead of asking, “What is my passion?” we might ask ourselves, “What do I want to get really good at?”

When people develop skills, ranging from understanding how to fix a car to building a beautiful website, they not only acquire personal satisfaction but also increase their value to employers. They experience a greater sense of freedom and control knowing that they have a specific service to offer a company (and society). 

In other words, an individual following this process begins to cultivate what are considered the three major characteristics of workplace fulfillment, according to career experts: mastery, autonomy, and purpose. 

When discussing the most important aspects of a fulfilling career, UCC welding student Drew Sims, 26, affirmed these ideas. 

“Freedom of time (being in control of a schedule), opportunities for personal and technical growth, and the ability to give back,” Sims said. 

He also said that he didn’t think he would like welding that much, but as he’s gotten better, he has grown to enjoy it a lot.  

Even for someone whose main priority at present is to provide for his family, Newport suggests that it is possible to cultivate greater workplace satisfaction through taking additional initiative. For example, a sales representative might set a challenge for himself to get better at talking to customers. A restaurant host might seek opportunities to get behind the line and become a good cook. A mechanic might expand her knowledge of different vehicles.

Ultimately, it’s not so important what a person does but how he or she does it. What skills could you build in your current job that could be useful in the future?  

Newport makes a persuasive case that happy and successful people could have pursued any number of fields, and they still would have felt passionate about their careers —because they had the right skills and mindset.

For more examples and specific advice, check out Cal Newport’s book or view his website, calnewport.com.