Monday, February 28, 2011

What Do You Do?

I have written about Daniel Pink before, author of several books on the changing world of work and what motivates us in the 21st century.  I follow his blog (, and came across this article that he wrote for Britain's Sunday Telegraph.  Sometimes, things are less complicated than we make it. 

Think Tank: Ever felt like your job isn't what you were born to do? You're not alone
10:30PM GMT 26 Feb 2011 published in the Sunday Telegraph

The idea is that if we simply acknowledge what fires our soul, if we just pull out our metaphysical arthroscope and examine our hearts, the path will reveal itself.

So – with a voice that quavers in expectation and an inflection that italicises the final word – they ask us again, "What's your passion?"

Ladies and gentlemen, I detest that question.

When someone poses it to me, my innards tighten. My vocabulary becomes a palette of aahs and ums. My chest wells with the urge to flee.

Oh my. The answer better be amazing – not some fumbling, feeble reply. But I know the responses I've formed in my head aren't especially good. Worse, they're probably not even accurate. And I'm not alone.

So, as the economy comes back, and people begin pondering new opportunities, maybe we can take a break from this daunting and distracting question and ask a far more productive, one: what do you do?

I learned the wisdom of this alternative from Gretchen Rubin, who lives and works in New York City. After graduating from law school in the early 1990s, Rubin served as a law clerk for the US Supreme Court. This job is perhaps the sweetest plum in the American legal orchard. It practically guarantees a career of high-level positions in law firms and government. 

But during her stint, Rubin's eyes wandered away from the law.

"When I had free time, I never wanted to talk about cases or read law journals, the way my fellow clerks did. Instead, I spent hours reading, taking notes and writing my observations about the worldly passions – power, money, fame and sex," Rubin says.

"Finally, I realised, 'Hey, I'm writing a book.' And it dawned on me that some people write books for a living. This project didn't have to be my hobby; it could be my job."

She wrote her first book – Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide – and soon she realised that she wasn't a lawyer. She was a writer. Now she has four books to her name, including her latest, The Happiness Project.

Rubin might have felt an occasional bolt of passion while writing. But that didn't offer much guidance. Instead, she took a step back and watched what she did. 

Emma Jones is the founder of Enterprise Nation, a London company that supports small businesses. She has discovered that people who notice what they do when nobody is watching them, or even paying them, often end up as entrepreneurs.

"I'm seeing quite an increase in the number of people turning a hobby into a business," she says. "You start innocently by making cakes or taking photos in your spare time. Friends and family admire the results and recommend you to others. Before you know it, you are your own boss and making a living from doing what you do."

This is how people find their way. Instead of endless self-examination and the search for some inscrutable holy emotional grail, they act.

Sometimes the answer that emerges from the action isn't fully formed, says Marci Alboher, author of One Person/Multiple Careers. "Often that thing 'on the side' becomes a slash that gets tacked on after an answer to the 'What do you do?' question. That's why we're seeing so many lawyer/chefs and dentist/massage therapists. And these slash careers are often pit stops on the way to full-blown career shifts."

Of course, passion isn't bad. But business can be a bit like love. When people first fall in love, they experience that woozy and besotted feeling that verges on obsessiveness. That's passion, and it's great. But as couples bond more enduringly, that fiery intensity can give way to a calmer warmth. That's true love – and that's where the magic is.

So, next time you're on either the giving or receiving end of advice, skip the hot and steamy passion and go for the calm and deeper love. Ask questions like: 
  • What did you do last Saturday afternoon – for fun, for yourself?
  • What books do you read or blogs do you visit, not for work, but just because you're interested in them?
  • What are you great at? What comes easily to you?
  • What would you do – or are you already doing – for free?
As it happens, I can testify to the power of de-emphasising passion and re-emphasising doing. Beginning about two decades ago, I worked in some very demanding, intensely stressful jobs in American politics and government. But throughout – on the side, usually for no money – I wrote magazine articles about business and work, and formulated ideas for books. At one level, it was foolish. I lost sleep, sacrificed leisure, and probably distracted myself from my paid employment.

But after many years, it finally hit me: This – not politics – is what I did. And now, as a result, that's what I do.

Am I passionate about it? Sure, I guess. Maybe. Some days. But passion isn't something I much ponder. I'm too busy doing what I do.

Daniel H Pink is an author and business leader who writes about the world of work. His most recent book is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

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