Recently the Web has been host to a debate about career planning that’s quite juicy. Following are articles that summarize major poles in the discussion.
“Follow Your Bliss”—Joseph Campbell
First, let’s get the historical context. In 1988, Bill Moyers interviewed author Joseph Campbell on public TV. At one point Moyers asked if Campbell ever had the sense of “being helped by hidden hands.” In response, Campbell said:
All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time—namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.
Soon the words “follow your bliss” went viral—a stunning accomplishment in those pre-Internet days. Marsha Sinetar helped the cause with her best-selling book Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow.
“If You Don’t Like Your Job, Quit”—The Holstee Manifesto
In 2011, the founders of Holstee, a clothing company, unleashed this poster and a related video. The key message: “This is your life. Do what you love, and do it often.” Here is a pristine statement of the “follow your bliss” school of career planning.
“It’s Not About You”—David Brooks
Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, offered a stunning counterpoint. Writing about the prospects for 2011 college graduates, Brooks bemoaned “a bad job market, the hangover from decades of excessive borrowing.”
In addition, today’s 20-year-olds are burdened by a “baby-boomer theology” that Brooks finds self-centered and noxious—”Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself.”
The problem, Brooks argues, is that young people cannot look inside and find a fully developed sense of self along with a seasoned passion. It makes much more sense to focus on contribution. Find a problem in the world that summons your talents and apply your skills to creating a solution:
Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.
“How to Get Paid for What You Love”—Chris Guillebeau
Glancing at the headline for this post, I expected more “follow your bliss” philosophy. Instead, Guillebeau tempers it with suggestions such as “Not everything you love makes a good business” and “What you love must be relevant to other people.”
“Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do”—Cal Newport
Cal Newport, author of the popular Study Hacks blog, fashions himself as a “follow your bliss” debunker. After collecting case studies of people who enjoy their work, he rejected the “introspection principle”—look inward to discover your personality traits and then find work that matches.
Instead, Newport cites the research behind Self-Determination Theory, which holds that fulfilling work offers us three things—autonomy, competence, and relatedness. And the path to those riches, Newport writes, is to first “master a skill that’s rare and valuable” in the marketplace.
Such mastery calls for deliberate practice. Perhaps here lies a resolution to the career planning and passion debate: Focus on mastery of a valued task rather than bliss.
Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, a Unitarian minister, summed it up decades ago:
The master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his work and his play, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether his is working or playing. To himself, he is always doing both.
(Image by woodleywonderworks, Flickr Creative Commons)