Thought Catalog
September 29, 2014

Don’t Just Follow Your Passion

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Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty

Generation Y (born roughly between 1980 and 2000) is the most in-debt, depressed, and unemployed generation in United States history. It is also the most educated.

How can this startling dichotomy be explained? Society and the media have largely ignored the need for a meaningful discourse, choosing instead to label Gen Y with adjectives such as “narcissistic” and “lazy.”

In my work as a career coach, I’ve worked with hundreds of Millennials who were sorely misled into believing that following their passion is the key to a happy professional life. If you get caught up in “following your passion,” it’s possible that you’re overlooking a much more profound journey in your career and life: finding who you are. 

According to a recent Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans are unhappy at work. I strongly believe that this number is attributed to the fact that too many Millennials are trying to do work that aligns with their passions, rather than their gifts. It is only through finding out who you are that you’ll unlock your authentic career.

At TEDxBerkeley in February 2014, I shared the three questions that guide my practice as a career coach to Millennials: What am I good at? What do people tell me I’m good at? What’s holding me back?

What Am I Good At?

From a young age, I was passionate about serving the government in the counterterrorism and national security arena; everything I did throughout my adolescence was in furtherance of this dream career. College was a blur of poli-sci lectures, language classes, competitive internships and foreign travel. I went on to pursue a Master’s degree in London and graduated from one of the world’s ranked top 20 universities. The moment I had that diploma in hand, I high-tailed it to Washington, DC and networked my way into the Pentagon. I was hired as a defense contractor to run a training program that sat at the forefront US foreign policy in Central Asia. By all accounts, I was on my way to being the next “Maya” from Zero Dark Thirty.

Unfortunately, my passionate pursuit of this job didn’t prepare me for the realities I encountered on military bases, where my aversion to violence gradually intensified and my colleagues mocked my femininity. Despite these challenges, I believed that my passion to serve would outweigh my fear of bloodshed…until a senior official on a midwestern military base asked me to hold his assault rifle.  A panic attack ensued as I felt the cold gun in my hands… How will I ever be a spy if I’m scared of guns?? Newsflash: passion does not always guarantee career success (or happiness).

Hello, quarter-life crisis. I found my passion, I invested in it, and I developed the requisite expertise to land my dream job. On paper, I did everything right.

Unfortunately, I was so blinded by my passion that I never stopped to ask myself, “Am I going to be a great spy? Is it aligned with my strengths and who I am?”

It’s wonderful if your passion and identity align, but your intrinsic gifts should be the primary guide for your career. You have to get clear on who you are if you are going to find those gifts.

That leads me to my next question.

What Do People Tell Me I’m Good At?

A lot of Gen Y’ers get stuck on this question because they don’t always notice their natural talents in the same way that friends and family do.

Do friends often ask you for particular advice? Have your professors praised a certain piece of your work? Are you often asked to teach people something? The answers to these questions often illuminate your natural talents.

If you’re still not sure, I suggest you take an inventory from friends and family– you might be surprised at what others see in you. When I reflect on my job-hunting days in Washington, DC, it’s funny that I couldn’t see what was obvious to so many of the people I met: I was the de facto career coach of every networking event I attended. It was as if there was a force field surrounding me, attracting people who genuinely wanted my insights, and I gave them freely because I loved learning about their challenges and successes and sharing suggestions based on my own experiences. In the months that followed, I was frequently contacted by some of these people, all telling me how their careers had shifted in the aftermath of our discussions. Some quit their jobs, some asked for raises and others made the major life change they’d previously feared.

As I started to rethink my career, I reached out to many of these individuals for guidance. They pointed out what they’d seen in me at networking events: that I’d been a source of powerful encouragement, job hunt knowledge, and clarity. While those traits didn’t quite show up in my life on military bases, they were my inherent gifts. It wasn’t until later that I embraced them.

This brings me to my third and final question.

What’s Holding Me Back?

After a great deal of soul-searching, I finally saw what had been clear all along: I was born to be a career coach. I still wasn’t sure if I could turn my gifts into a fulfilling career – or paycheck.

According to research by UCLA, we have roughly 70,000 thoughts each day, 98 percent of which are repeat offenders. They are often initially guided by fear: fear of financial struggle, fear of being seen as an imposter and fear of failure. After struggling with the same fears over and over again, I finally realized that the only way out of the awful cycle of doubt is in.

Many of my clients come to me without even realizing that they are stuck in their professional lives because they’re being held hostage by their own negative thoughts. I encourage them to stop living on autopilot and to get curious about their fears instead of ignoring them. As they start to identify the doubts that are holding them back in their careers, I ask, “What would you do without these thoughts?” And that’s what I empower them to do.

Pay attention to your thoughts; you are so much more than them.

Millennials are not lazy, entitled, or narcissistic; they are innovative, educated, and hopeful. They were raised to believe that they will be happy if they are passionate about what they do for a living, so it’s not surprising that they have neglected their inherent strengths in favor of identifying their passions – especially in today’s sea of endless possibilities.

When clients come into my office expressing concern that they can’t “find” their passion, I ask them these three questions: what are you good at? What do people tell you you’re good at? What’s holding you back?

I also tell them to look into their hearts.

I don’t tell them to find their passion; I tell them to find themselves. And that’s what we do together. TC mark

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