Why purpose beats passion when choosing a career

As students enter the Senior School, many are confronted for the first time with having to seriously consider their future careers. Subjects need to be selected that ensure they don’t close doors to jobs they may wish to pursue. Increasingly, I am noticing students becoming more anxious about the perceived pressure to select a job for the future that they will be passionate about. I have begun to wonder whether a culture that advocates a “pursuit of happiness (sic)” (remember the Will Smith movie?) is contributing to this. One student said to me in exasperation after their Year 10 Work Experience, “I can’t think of any work that would make me happy. It seems that most adults don’t enjoy their jobs anyway. All they live for is holidays!”

Recently I read an interesting article titled, “New Harvard Research: To Be successful, Chase Your Purpose, Not Your Passion”. In it, author Jessica Stillman, begins by describing passion as associated with what brings us feelings of joy. Activities such as playing in a band with your mates or cuddling cute kittens in an animal shelter. But the reality is that most jobs contain aspects that are challenging, boring and mundane. She cites Harvard Business School Professor, Jon Jachimowicz, who suggests that we should replace the term “passion” with “purpose” when giving career advice.

“Instead of asking yourself what makes you happy and “following your passion,” instead ask yourself what you care deeply about, he instructs. By focusing on purpose, you align your work with your deepest values, and also relieve yourself of the expectation that the long slog of a career will be all (or even mostly) happiness and sunshine.” (Jessica Stillman)

Thinking about our purpose in what we do helps with being able to persist through the challenging and mundane moments of life. Stillman points to research showing that persistence is associated with success more than any other contributing factor (eg. academic ability or natural skill).

While there is nothing wrong with pursuing a career that we are passionate about, the idea that purpose should be a major motivating factor in our choices and actions is very much in line with our Christian faith and with the message we regularly impart to our students here at MECS.

We desire for all of our students to identify their deepest values. In Year 10 Cultural Studies, students explore the inherent values and worldviews from their own and other cultures. They are required to develop skills in identifying and articulating their own values and beliefs. We encourage our students to find a sense of purpose that is beyond themselves, that they realise a calling for work and life that fits in with God’s bigger story. Some Christians refer to this purpose as “bringing God’s kingdom to earth” or contributing to society by loving and serving one another as Jesus modelled. It means that we often tell our students that it doesn’t greatly matter what career you choose as long as you conduct yourself in a manner that fits within the context of God’s greater purpose for the world.

Having a sense of purpose can apply to all of life activities, not just our job. In particular our students may find it helpful to consider what their purpose is for studying. Our Year 12 students often need to identify a purpose to motivate themselves through a significantly challenging year. At our Year 12 Camp, they were encouraged to consider “honouring the opportunity” of higher education as a source of motivation amongst others (such as doing the best they can to get into a particular course, or simply giving themselves more opportunities). If they see their role as helping to bring God’s kingdom to earth now, they may desire to encourage each other, serve one another through loving support, so all may reach their goals. This is counter cultural in an educational system that seeks to pit students against one another in a competition to achieve the highest ATAR.

As our students go through school and life, they start to develop an idea of the interests, gifts and skills that God has given them, as well as those that they have developed through practice and persistence. Using these skills in the workplace, serving one another (paid and voluntary) may bring a fulfilling sense of being in “the right place” at a given time.

So what does focussing on purpose look like? – An interest or passion for cooking can mean a chef not only finds enjoyment in what he/she does, but finds purpose in bringing joy to others through the senses, giving someone a pleasurable night off cooking or being part of a blossoming relationship. Or perhaps they may feel called to co-ordinate a “soup kitchen” for people living in poverty. A plumber finds purpose in fixing a problem for a customer that restores basic living conditions.

Ironically, it’s often those with a sense of purpose in their jobs, rather than simply passion, that find themselves experiencing the type of joy that surpasses the “happiness” that our culture so passionately pursues.