Niche Passion: How to Find Work You Love

My weekly post on Seattle 2.0.

Most of us are not lucky enough to know what we want to do with our lives.  Everyone knows someone fortunate enough to have discovered work they enjoy (the few who don’t complain about their job). More often than not, these satisfied workers have careers like doctors and engineers. They find their passion because it is highly discoverable and socially acceptable.

The rest of us are left to find our niche passion. If we don’t encounter what we want to do, how will we ever do it? Imagine someone whose destiny is to play the violin, but never takes a lesson. Many are forced to choose their career before they are ready (the second year of college). And so it’s no surprise that so many people give up on finding what they love for a career that pays well, and then drink and watch television to pass the time.

What many people fail to realize is while we don’t know what we want to do, we do know what we don’t want to do. We know when something feels wrong. Unfortunately, we usually ignore this instinct. If you don’t like your job, society tells you to toughen up and get used to it. In actuality, this desire for change is your one and only guide to happiness.

I worked at Microsoft for 4.5 years. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I knew that one day I wanted to pursue an internet startup. I thought Microsoft would be a perfect place to explore various roles and areas. And so I joined the ranks of Microsoft, and waited for my passion to present itself. After the excitement wore off, I ignored my dissatisfaction with my job, and I completely lost sight of what I really wanted to do.

When I was young, I wrote “don’t forget you’re alive” all over the front of my journals. I thought a lot about how teenagers were so passionate, and adults were so boring. I wanted to figure out the moment where passionate teenagers became adult drones. If I could remain conscious, it wouldn’t happen to me. And then I started working, put my journals in a box, and stopped listening to the voice inside me that wanted more.  When I started at Microsoft, it was a great experience for me and I learned and grew. But years later I found myself a business analyst, far from the creator of an innovative product that I wanted to be. Leaving was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made, but I haven’t had a moment of regret and now it seems completely rational.

I’m not saying everyone should quit their jobs and start a company. What I’m saying is that everyone should pay very close attention to the feeling that something is not right in your life. If you’re ever going to find work you love, it’s this voice that will be your guide.

My favorite blog post from Chris Dixon is titled Climbing the Wrong Hill. In it, he asks “How can smart, ambitious people stay working in an area where they have no long term ambitions?” He provides an analogy using a computer science problem where you are placed in hilly terrain, and need to climb to the top of the highest hill. The solution is not to simply go upward, because that would just take you to the top of the hill you’re on, which isn’t necessarily the tallest. Yet even those who know they’re on the wrong hill often feel the need the keep climbing upward. His conclusion: “People early in their career should learn from computer science:  meander some in your walk (especially early on), randomly drop yourself into new parts of the terrain, and when you find the highest hill, don’t waste any more time on the current hill no matter how much better the next step up might appear.”

There are two points here. First, if you haven’t found your thing, you should keep trying new things. It’s never too late to learn something new and make a change. Second, if you know that what you’re doing is not right, stop doing it. You don’t have to know what you want to do – you just need to do something different. Rinse, and repeat.

Looking back on my life, what makes me happy is seeing that I grew and progressed. My life has continuously improved over time, and when it didn’t I made a correction. Each day gets better. My problem at Microsoft was that I didn’t make a change when I stopped growing. Even after you succeed, you should continue to grow and take on new challenges. Anyone just focused on “success” or “winning” will not know what to do with the rest of their life if they achieve it. So focus on climbing your own hill, not anyone else’s, and keep checking your altitude – especially when you think you’ve reached the top.

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