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May 15, 2021

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Career snobbery 2.0: the passion mantra and rethinking success

The time for reflection is nigh. As the city dragged itself back to work last week, many of us wondered what we were doing with our lives. For me, this crisis happens on a Sunday. As the last drop of wine is poured and the afternoon sun sets, the space between what I hope to achieve for myself and the reality of my life start to look soberingly different.

Imagine being able to answer that iconic question, “So what do you do,” with “What I love.” I’m lucky enough to be that person. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I moved in other directions until a few years back when I had one of those gross existential moments and decided to pursue my passion. Some serious graft, a dwindling bank account and a few meltdowns later: Here I am. Mine is a success story. Well, yes and no.

We’ve raised generations on a seemingly straightforward piece of advice: Follow your heart. Having put the caste system to one side, we’re now signed up to the dangerous belief that anyone can do anything. With a bright idea, enough passion and a garage, there’s no limit to our potential. When we believe that those who live their dream do so on merit alone, we accept that those who don’t couldn’t be bothered. Its career snobbery 2.0 and our worth is defined by an allegiance to the passion mantra.

I have friends who aren’t crazy about their work, but to do what they love means throwing too much of life up in the air with little control over where it lands. One wants her own florist but fears the competition is too tough. Another is burning to go freelance but scared to leave a steady job in case he doesn’t get clients. Add aging parents, debt and kids to the mix, and there’s a lot to lose. Does responsibility make either of them less passionate or successful? Please.

The idea that we all deserve our lot in life is nonsense. I was fortunate enough to have a supportive partner and be in a position to quit my job and retrain. Not everyone can say that. And while meritocracy is a bonny idea, it’s one with a nasty bite: There’s a stark correlation between a society that’s told it can do anything and the existence of low self-esteem. What’s more — and like us — not all passions are created equal. You’ve as much hope of feeding a family of three on the back of a donkey sanctuary pipe dream today as you had of ascending the ranks of the French aristocracy in the 17th century. But it doesn’t feel that way.

Something being difficult isn’t reason enough not to try, and we don’t take the expression “you only live once” earnestly. But self-satisfaction is not the only path to achieving a sense of meaning from our work. What about the millions of jobs that aren’t intended as passions but keep society functioning?

Host of “Dirty Jobs,” Mike Rowe, tells the story of Bob Combs, a pig farmer in Las Vegas who collected scraps of food from casinos lining the strip to feed his swine. Bob’s service was great for the environment and his pigs grew at twice the speed from all the protein they ate. Did Bob follow his passion? No. Was he successful? Well, Bob smelt like hell for over 40 years but is now retired having sold his farm for US$23 million, so you tell me.

Rowe makes a case for the forgotten benefits of skilled and manual labor; even claiming those with unthinkable jobs are the happiest. It’s a mistake to romanticize the lives of others, and we mustn’t pretend all roadkill sweeps whistle while they work. But to assume they never do is to put our priorities above theirs.

Ideas of success — be it passion, pay packet or punching out on time — must be our own. And any example of achievement has to admit what it’s losing out on. My job — love it as I do — is still the most stressful part of my life. Is the grind part of the thrill? For sure. And when I’m creating content or connecting with readers, there’s no feeling like it.

Rewarding work means knowing our struggles aren’t in vain, that it’s deserving of our time and effort. Success is less about passion and more about contribution; what we put out in the world. And who knows? When we shift our mindset from what we get to that we give, we might look at the messiness of any reality with a little more love.

And while it’s nice to enjoy your job, there is life (and passion) outside of it. So let’s drop the pressure and get back to work. See you mid-meltdown on Sunday.


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