In my role as a coach it is a special privilege to work with people, typically in mid-career, who have been highly successful in establishing and developing their professional standing in the private sector and who now are seeking ways to apply their skills in the development field. People in this situation typically find it very helpful to explore what it takes to make the transition: to evaluate and sometimes re-express their transferable skills before considering at what level they might change sectors; to become acquainted with the variety of routes in and the common strategies that are used to secure the development sector role they are seeking.
I have had a career spanning public and private sector education, financial services and organisational and leadership consultancy before becoming a coach in a global talent leadership role within the world’s largest child focused humanitarian development organisation. I find I can readily empathise with motivations for mid-career change.
I particularly appreciate the importance that passion plays in mid-career change. A growing conviction about the need to make a difference through their career is a common motivation for those seeking entry to the development sector in their thirties and later. Passion is, of course, not enough to make the change that some of my clients seek. Occasionally, to illustrate this point I might suggest that a client watch Larry Smith’s sobering TED talk entitled “Why You Will Fail To Have A Great Career”. Professor Smith teaches economics at University of Waterloo. He is a well-known storyteller and advocate for youth leadership and has also mentored many of his students on start-up business management and career development. The most notable start-up he advised in its infancy is Research in Motion (RIM), maker of the BlackBerry.
Discussion about this blunt and challenging TED talk tends to centre on what passion really means and costs but, as Carmine Gallo wrote in Forbes, what you will see here “in this TED Talk is essentially thirty years of Smith’s frustrations reaching a boiling point.” “Wasted talent is a waste I cannot stand,” and this talk is Smith’s response.
It’s challenging and – possibly – motivating too. At the heart of Smith’s talk and central to some of the work I do with mid-career changers is an assessment of the part passion plays in career decision making. If you are searching for your calling in life or what you most care about – here are five digested, and up to the minute, research findings worth thinking through:
- Types of passion A career path or a goal that fires you up is likely to lead to success and happiness. That much the research confirms. However, Robert Vallerandet al found, in 2003, that there is a real difference between a harmonious passion and an obsessive one. An out of control passion that upsets your mood and shapes your self-esteem can be referred to as an obsessive passion. Vallerand found that such obsessions, whilst energising, are also associated with burnout and anxiety. By contrast, if your passion feels in control, reflects qualities that you like about yourself, and complements other important activities in your life, then this is the harmonious version, and these are associated with positive outcomes such as vitality, better work performance, experiencing flow, and positive mood.
- An unanswered calling in life is worse than having no calling at all If you already have a burning ambition or purpose, do not leave it to languish. Recent research at the University of South Florida surveyed hundreds of people found that work engagement, career commitment, life satisfaction, health and stress were all negatively impacted by having a calling that had not been responded to. The researchers concluded: “having a calling is only a benefit if it is met, but can be a detriment when it is not as compared to having no calling at all.”
- Invest enough effort and you may find that your work becomes your passion It’s all very well reading about the benefits of having a passion or calling in life, but if you haven’t got one, where can you find it? Duckworth says that it’s a mistake to think that in a moment of revelation one will land in your lap, or simply occur to you through quiet contemplation, what’s needed is to explore different activities and pursuits, and expose yourself to the different challenges and needs confronting society. This is where organisations like 80000 Hours can be helpful to the really talented individual. This Oxford, UK, based group conducts research on which careers have the largest positive social impact and provide career information based on that research. Many clients have found their website invaluable.
- Reverse the flow, perhaps It is also worth considering the advice of those who say that it is not always the case that energy and determination flow from finding your passion: sometimes it can be the other way around. Consider, for example, an eight-week repeated survey of German entrepreneurs published a few years ago. This found a clear pattern – their passion for their ventures increased after they had invested more effort into the ventures the week before. A follow-up study qualified this, suggesting the energising effect of investing effort only arises when the project is freely chosen and there is a sense of progress. “Entrepreneurs increase their passion when they make significant progress in their venture and when they invest effort out of their own free choice,” the researchers found.
- If you think passion comes from doing a job you enjoy, you’re likely to be disappointed
Another issue to consider is where you think passion comes from. In a paper released as a preprint at PsyArXiv, Jon Jachimowicz and his team draw a distinction between people who believe that passion comes from doing what you enjoy, and those who see it as arising from doing what you believe in or value in life. The researchers found that people believing that passion comes from pleasurable work were less likely to feel like they had found their passion as compared with people who believe that passion comes from doing what you feel matters. This may be because there is a superficiality to working for sheer pleasure – which may not last in any case – whereas working towards what you care about is timeless and likely to stretch and sustain you indefinitely.