Career Choices: Passion in the Workplace

My graduate advisor was a good career coach.

Okay, so are some of you laughing because you think I am joking? Stop laughing; I'm serious. While it would take me a book to explain my justifications for that statement, he really did do the right things. I appreciated some of those things at the time and only realized the contribution of many others much later. The idea for this column comes from an interaction with my advisor on the topic of being passionate about your work. Here's the story.

One day at the beginning of my third year of graduate school, I went to my advisor's office seeking permission to take a vacation I had planned. Quite unexpectedly, he launched into a discussion about my progress and initiative in my research. He told me that he didn't think I was passionate about pursuing a career in research science. He wanted to know if thinking about my research kept me awake at night. Did I love science? I was angry about his questioning. Of course, I loved science. How dare he question me about my dream. Well, guess what? He was right ... I wasn't passionate about pursuing scientific occupations.

I recently attended a workshop by Gregg Levoy on following your passions. Levoy spoke about how listening to our callings can lead to an authentic life. While many of us may think of a calling as a call to serve a religious order, Levoy is referring to the aliveness we feel when there is a fit between who we are and what we do. A call could be to make a career change, to change a style in which you do something, to recommit to a certain thing, to move toward or away from something, or to make a minor adjustment in your career path. Levoy believes that by listening to our passions, we will have greater enthusiasm and creativity in our work. (For much more on this topic, read Levoy's book: Callings: Findings and Following an Authentic Life)

Okay, so I am sure some of you are wondering how to use these ideas in your pursuit of the perfect job. Levoy asked the workshop participants a series of questions, through which we identified something that is calling to us right now. I'm going to provide you an abbreviated list of the questions so you can do a similar exercise. When reading these questions, it's best to record the first thing that comes to mind. You may find it useful to write down your answers.

The first set of questions addresses what is calling to you for change right now.

  • What are the things you like best about life?

  • If you knew you could not fail, what would you do?

  • If you were to die tomorrow, what did you not do?

  • Imagine you are standing at a fork in a road with signs pointing in each direction. What is on each of the signs?

  • In the last year, what was the most consistent message indicating that you are seeking change in your work life?

Next, based on your answers to the first set of questions, identify a theme you will use for the next three parts. If you want to apply this exercise to your work, pick a theme that is calling you to make a change involving your work life. Your calling might not be for a major change in your life or job; it may simply be a minor adjustment to how you handle a particular situation. If the above questions didn't trigger a theme for change in your life, another way to identify calls in your life is to keep a journal. Over time, themes that develop in your journal can help you recognize your passions.

This second set of questions explores why you are resistant to making this change. Society influences our beliefs about what we can or can't do, as well as what we perceive is expected of us. This may lead us to resist or fear change and exhibit behaviors, such as being a workaholic, overanalyzing the issue, or waiting for the perfect moment, that prevent us from following our calls.

  • All of us have a voice inside of us that tends to say no. What does your "no" voice say?

  • When we make a change, we get feedback from others. What is some of the negative feedback you will receive when you discuss your idea for change?

  • What will you have to sacrifice to make this change happen?

The third set of questions explores the positive aspects of making a change.

  • Just like the voice that tells us no, we have a voice that tells us yes. What does your "yes" voice tell you?

  • What are the resources available to you to help you make this change? A resource could be a tangible item, support from an individual, an event, knowledge, or just about anything.

  • What are the rewards to making a change?

The final question helps you act to make your change. Levoy thinks that most of us won't make large changes in our lives immediately. He believes most of us are only capable of making large changes if we break them down into small steps and stay motivated to make a change. And it could be that along the way the passion we felt about making this change dissipates. That's okay. Life is a journey.

  • What is on your "to do" list of things that you could do in the next week to move you toward your calling?

I realize this month's column is a bit esoteric, but in discussing passion and callings I want to make what I think is an important point. As a graduate student or postdoc in science, you may feel outside pressure to conform to a particular ideal. Maybe your PI expects you to follow his or her footsteps. Maybe all your friends are telling you to take a job in industry because they think you'll never land the faculty position you really want. When considering some of these situations, I suggest you remember to listen to your inner voice. What is the best fit for you? What actions allow you to be true to yourself? What calls you? Or as my graduate advisor might have put it--"Are you following your passions?"

You can send e-mail to Kathie at

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