I am a big believer in the value of thinking deeply about your career. I graduated from university in 2011 having spent literally no time at all thinking about what I should do next, and spent the next 6 months waiting tables at a five star hotel. When my perfect job didn’t fall into my lap after that point, I figured maybe there was something I could be doing more proactively.
So, I followed the only career advice that everyone knows is true: follow your passion. I got a job working for the English Lacrosse Association. A life spent teaching, talking and playing lacrosse all day was my idea of paradise so I promptly moved to London and took up my new job spreading the game in the South East of England.
Unfortunately, as everyone really knows deep down, “Follow Your Passion” is truly horrible career advice. As Cal Newport has persuasively argued in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, passion is something that comes as a consequence of becoming really good at what you do. You need to develop skills that are ‘rare and valuable’. As you improve your skills, you will become so good that you will have more ability to control important things like where you work, who you work for and how much you earn. Most importantly though, people become passionate about things they are really good at.
Exceptions to the rule are easy to find, certainly. No doubt David Beckham was passionate about football before he was a super star, but we can’t base our decisions on the lives of outliers alone.
So, is that the answer? Become really really good at something? Almost, but not totally.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink outlines the research that has shown that the ingredients for a truly fulfilling career are: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. (And no, passion is not a prerequisite).
Mastery means that people are motivated by improving themselves and mastering a skill - further support for the value of developing a rare and valuable skill set as proposed by Cal Newport. In addition, the more you become so good that you can’t be ignored, the more autonomy you will receive. That could be because you receive promotions and so become the boss, or because you strike out on your own with your expert skill set ready to support you.
However, what’s not covered is most certainly the most important one: Purpose.
So how do you find purpose?
The short, blog sized, answer is this: to have a purpose is to solve an important problem. If you don’t already know what your purpose is, then you should pick a problem to solve. Delivering clean water to subsaharan Africa, establishing gender equality in the UK or protecting the world from the potential threat of an AI superintelligence that destroys mankind. All of these are good examples of a purpose problem.
For best results, the problem you pick should be big, it should be solvable in principle, and, ideally, it should be one that isn’t being addressed sufficiently by other people and organisations already.
Once you have picked a problem, you must decide how you will solve it. The good thing about really big problems is that there are lots of things you can do to have an impact. So, you could become a computer programmer, a writer or a great entrepreneur. Sure, if you want to cure cancer then a medical degree might be a requirement to have a direct impact, but it’s certainly not the only way to contribute. In addition, by identifying your purpose, you’ll have a better way of working out which skills you next need to develop or improve next.
Your purpose can change (despite what people say) because you can choose to work on a new problem. Obviously your chances of making progress to solving the problem are likely to be slim if you change direction every six months. But also, we shouldn't pretend that people don't change and grow over time. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of good enough. It only matters that you choose an important problem and get to work, not that you are certain it is exactly the right one for you. Most likely when you get stuck in, and your rare and valuable skills come into play, you will identify specific parts of the problem which seem to have been perfectly designed for you.
The upshot of all this is that, contrary to popular belief, the first step to a fulfilling career is not answering the question "What are you passionate about?" That question gets the whole thing back to front and upside down. Don't worry about passion because the passion will come later. The most important question in the universe for any person to answer is this: What big, important problem will you solve?
Too Long; Didn't Read - A Summary
A fulfilling career requires three elements: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. To have mastery and autonomy you must focus on developing a set of expert skills that are rare and valuable. Which skills should you choose to master? The ones that will give you the best chance of fulfilling your purpose. And if you don’t already know what your purpose is, then you must pick a big, important, but solvable problem.
Pick the problem, identify the skills, become a master, receive autonomy. And live happily ever after.
That is why the most important question in the universe is this: