If you're a millennial, you are part of the first generation that's been brought up to believe that choosing a career means following your passion.
According to this article in the 2012 Harvard Business Review, the phrase "follow your passion" gained popularity in the mid-90s and skyrocketed in the 2000s, emerging as the "pervasive career advice" when the oldest cohort of our generation entered high school.
The follow your passion career advice seems exciting: Who doesn't want to spend their working hours doing something they love? But in reality, this advice is, at best, fluff, and at worst, misleading.
It's misleading because, let's be honest: how many of us actually know what our passion is? And of those who do, how many can align that passion with jobs that actually exist in the workplace? Jobs that have steady paycheques, benefits and paid vacation? For example, it's one thing to be passionate about music and an entirely different thing to find meaningful work in that industry.
On top of that, the same society that encourages us to follow our dreams quickly changes its tune when we voice our frustration at how difficult it is to find steady, meaningful work. Read the comments section of any article about millennials and you can almost see the shaking fists.
The transition from school to work is already difficult. For the first time in your life, you're leaving the safety and comfort of the school system to enter the adult working world. The follow your passion advice, and the implied expectation, is that you should immediately walk into an exciting and fulfilling job. Instead, entry-level work is often tedious and tough, a time when you are supposed to be learning the ropes and building skills for a lifelong career. The older workers, meanwhile, are annoyed at your unrealistic expectations.
The solution: Find your flow instead of your passion
Millennials, take heart. It may not be possible to follow your passion into the working world but it is possible to find passion and meaning in almost any job or industry by finding your flow.
Flow – a term that's emerged in recent years when talking about achieving career success – is the cousin of passion. Unlike passion, which is about identifying something we love and then attempting to match it to the job market (I love music, so I should be a musician), flow is about identifying activities we love to do and excel at, and then matching them to a wide variety of industries, career paths and jobs.
In a nutshell, we're in our flow when we're at our best, and when we maximize opportunities to be at our best, we can find passion in whatever work we are doing.
Here are some tips for finding your flow and, ultimately, a meaningful career:
● To identify your flow, start by examining the activities in which you've excelled or felt particularly happy or impactful, whether it was being part of a school project or in a formal work environment. Perhaps you shined as the director of a school play, or stood out from your peers when you were assigned a quantitative research project at work. Maybe your grades jumped from solid Bs to consistent As when your teacher introduced clear guidelines for achieving top marks, or you were the easy winner of a workplace sales competition. In these moments, you've found your flow.
● Look for jobs through the framework of your flow. For example, let's say you find your flow when you teach. Instead of just looking at opportunities at schools, you now broaden your search to look for opportunities to teach across all industries, but narrow it by focusing on the roles in which you actually have the opportunity to regularly instruct (vs. other duties), for example, as part of a learning and development team inside a corporation.
● If you already have a job, don't just look for promotions; look for lateral movements or project opportunities that give you the opportunity to apply and showcase your flow. It's possible to find meaningful work in almost any job, as long as you regularly have the chance to do the things that bring out your best.
It's always going to be hard to find your first job. There's a natural, unavoidable friction between the world of school and the world of work, and every generation has struggled through this period.
However, we don't need the extra pressure that comes with abstract advice like "follow your passion." Instead, find your flow. When you do, you'll have an advantage in every job or promotion you apply for. And that's more likely to make you hireable and happily employed.