Passion for Your Work Is Overrated

The true key to happiness at work is engagement. Here's how to find it.

"Find your passion!" It's a fraught, overused phrase. If we're not following our passion, it seems, we're doomed to a life of mundane obscurity, toiling away in a perpetual state of boredom until retirement.

Here's a novel idea: Ditch the passion idea altogether. It's a lot of pressure. Careers writer Penelope Trunk recently blogged about reframing passion as engagement instead—the sense of being lost in one's work, a sensation known as "flow."

"Workplace passion is a myth," Trunk writes. Refreshing, isn't it? While passion is an unattainable abstraction, engagement brings us gratification every day.

Human resources consultant Patricia Hunt Sinacole has worked in recruiting for decades, and she's heard the word "passion" tossed around in countless interviews. Over time, she's learned that what Trunk says is true. "A good job is like a good marriage. Yes, there have to be sparks. But not every day is going to be fiery and wonderful, like the Fourth of July," Sinacole says.

Most days are average Tuesdays, but they can still be meaningful. "Look for little sparks instead of big milestones," she urges. "Maybe you wrote a good article. Maybe you won a great client or taught 25 kids a hard math problem. This is what brings engagement—seeing how you affected others and giving back."

Why, then, this obsession with passion? Sinacole points to a trickle-down effect from the Boomer generation, many of whom entered certain careers simply because it was expected. "They couldn't question what they really wanted, and suddenly they realized that they had choices. Passion became the buzzword," she says.

So while some people really are in straitjacket careers, others chose wisely and are simply suffering from boredom. Don't take it as a sign that you're in the wrong career if every day isn't electrifying. If you're enjoying the small victories, Sinacole says, you needn't worry so much about major gratification.

"Maybe you're a math teacher. Your work might not land you on the front page of The New York Times, but there's a very real sense of accomplishment in seeing a kid say, 'I get it.' Don't dismiss that," she says.

And when something great does happen? Reward yourself, even if the victory is small. "Eat lunch with your team. Go out for ice cream," Sinacole urges. And reward your ego, too: Keep a record of those victories. Sinacole recommends writing down your triumphs in a journal or on three-by-five cards. When you begin to question your path, review them.

Finally, she says, make sure to look for gratification outside the office. "I was recently interviewing a woman who told me she was going off the grid for two weeks. I said, 'What?' She told me she hikes for two weeks in Europe, by herself, and that she loves her career, but also loves doing things for herself. I really respected that."

Hiker-woman got the job.

Tags: career