I was interviewed the other day by a prospective new executive coaching client. Really interesting guy – great energy, intelligent, in a terrific job where he’s surrounded by smart people and lots of opportunities to learn. The problem is – he’s not loving it. Which, for a lot of people might not be a huge issue given all the other benefits (he’s paid well, it’s prestigious, there are lots of nice perks) but this guy is different.
Before beginning his business career, this individual played sport at the elite level for a number of years. In other words, he was paid to do the thing he loves most in the world, and he was great at it and worked incredibly hard, which means he enjoyed tremendous success.
Amazing, right? Right. Until it’s over – which it inevitably is. Then what?
When it’s over nothing else feels quite the same. So no matter how ideal the new job is by anyone else’s standards, unless it’s got the secret ingredient – well, for this particular guy, it wasn’t going to be enough. Not enough because he’s already HAD the experience of working where passion was involved.
I had a similar conversation years ago with someone who’d recently led a team to summit Mt. Everest. I asked the incredibly obvious question – what next?
The climber knew that he needed an other metaphorical mountain to climb. He knew his own strengths and areas for development, and knew that he wasn’t at his best unless he was feeling at least a little uncomfortable. He loved “stretch” goals. He went looking for his next “mountain” and found it in public speaking and consulting to leader teams in organizations – and he’s just as passionate about doing that work as he was about leading a team up that mountain. (Bonus that it’s a little less life-threatening….).
Contrary to popular belief, passion doesn’t just happen. It usually starts with a spark – some sense of inspiration or connection or purpose – but that’s only the beginning. It requires self-awareness which is usually a result of deep reflection plus life experience with a little adversity thrown in, such that you know know your strengths and what it takes for you to be working at your best. And then comes the hard work – lots of it. Because the harder you work the better results you get, which fuels more hard work, begetting even greater results – and what’s not to love about that?
It’s true that there are a lot of people who aren’t working at something for which they have passion. If they’re truly happy, though, they’re pursuing or experiencing that passion someplace else in their lives. And where there’s passion there is drive and, usually, great results. The fact is that it’s impossible to work really hard for any sustained length of time if you don’t love what you do. And without hard work, you’ll only ever be average no matter how naturally gifted or talented you might be.
I’m lucky enough to have found work that I love, so I have great empathy for those who won’t rest until they find their “great work.” I feel sad when I talk to people who think they have to settle for a work experience that isn’t fulfilling. Because let’s face it – none of us really just want to be average, do we?
For more on the idea of talent versus hard work, check out “Talent is Overrated.”
This post is based on “Passion for the Business” (#53) and “Lessons from Adversity” (#57) in my book, “The Complete Executive – The 10-Step System for Great Leadership Performance.”