The Passion Trap: Why Following Your Bliss Can Lead to a Dead End

Posted by on Aug 21, 2012 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

You’ve heard it said many times, “Follow your bliss. Pursue your passion. Do what you love doing”. Not only has it been said for thousands of years, and it’s also backed by modern career interest surveys and assessments. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that most people do well what they love doing, and love doing what they do well.

One of the most prolific authors on this subject is Marcus Buckingham. He has written a number of outstanding books including Now, Discover Your Strengths and Go Put Your Strengths to Work in which he provides powerful proof on the linkage between excellence and doing what you do well everyday. Buckingham’s years of research show that people “playing to their strengths significantly outperform those who don’t in almost every business metric”.

When I decided to transition from the corporate world, I starting by writing down what I loved, what moved me, what excited me and what fulfilled me during my years as a leader. In those pages I discovered a blueprint from which I could design my coaching and consulting practice. The key elements in that blueprint became the foundation for my coaching and consulting business.

What are those key elements? They are a translation of the competencies I used to perform the things I love doing. Using psychometric tools and other leadership assessments, I identified the skills, experience, motives, interests, values, strengths, as well as my own particular style in order to understand how I could add the most value to my clients. It’s exactly the same process I use to help CEOs assess and select senior leaders, except that I was assessing myself for a business I would love doing for years to come.

I knew if I focused on what I loved doing, both my clients and I would be well served. Eight years later I am still energized and immensely fulfilled by my work. I even devoted a chapter in my book, The Secret of Transitions, to the power that is created when purpose and passion are combined to launch a life or career transition.

So why is pursuing one’s passion often a recipe for a career or small business dead-end? It’s because we often mistake “being comfortable” as an important indicator of something we love doing.

Here’s an easy exercise to test the assertion I just made. Answer this question as fast as you can: What do you like doing? Go ahead and write down the answers. Now compare the answers with the answers to these questions: What have been your peak moments? If you’re stuck, think about your best day; your most rewarding day; or your most fulfilling day. What were you doing and why was it so enjoyable?

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, and I’ve never had anyone tell me that their best day ever was comfortable. When you get home and your partner asks “Did you have a good day?” you might say yes because there were no hassles or emergencies. But that easy day probably doesn’t represent your best day ever.

In fact, many say their best day ever was when they were the most challenged, and they were still able to succeed by using their true strengths and talents. Others when asked about their best day identify a significant contribution to they made to another person, their team, a customer or their organization. Not only is overcoming a challenge and making a difference personally rewarding, but that is also when our needs for approval, recognition, a sense of achievement and other rewards are fulfilled. That’s what motivation is all about.

But even more important is that these tough situations actually improve and add to our strengths. It’s just like muscle building. Muscle growth comes through an appropriate mix of learning the correct techniques, practice, and increased stress followed by a recovery period. It holds true for personal and professional growth as well.

Yes, I agree that loving your work and using your strengths every day is great. But without on-going growth, those strengths rapidly atrophy, and even become irrelevant. In many fields today, the amount of new information and knowledge is doubling every couple of years. A person can become obsolete in less than five years without on-going growth. And the best kind of professional development is not always comfortable.

The best personal development practices include a combination of training, coaching and new and challenging experiences in which a person is at risk and the stakes are high.

Combine challenging experiences with direct, honest and frequent feedback, and you’ve got a proven formula for growth.

Frankly, failure can be a powerful teacher. I’ve not only heard it but I’ve experienced it. But it’s usually better earlier in your career than later. When it comes too late, it can have a devastating effect of all of the stakeholders, not just the executive.

You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon known as “The empty suit,” referring to an executive who no longer has any real substance or competence. After years of getting only wildly positive feedback, the executive believes he is truly exceptional and supremely deserving. There is no longer any real motivation to learn or grow. Excessively arrogant and convinced of his infallibility, he sticks rigidly to his old strategies and ways of doing business. He rejects new ideas automatically. And the empty suit soon starts to fail, sometimes taking the entire company down with him. We’ve seen that hubris all too often in recent corporate scandals.

This just doesn’t apply to executives who happen to wear suites. I don’t care what you wear, it can happen to anyone. Anything that is not growing will waste away in all respects – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. There will be little left but an empty shell.

One of the reasons so many of us resist growth is the result of a paradoxical career trap. Even if people love their jobs, it can still be stressful and require long hours. Once they get home, family and community duties can be equally demanding. There is little capacity or energy left for growth, especially if the need for balance and recovery has been ignored. So they’re stuck. No growth, no new opportunities. They encounter a career dead end of their own making.

Given how many people are seeking a way out of their stressful situations, I wonder how many small businesses are mistakenly purchased as a symbolic representation of one’s passion. Instead of a dream come true, that Bed & Breakfast in New Hampshire becomes a nightmare. That’s because it wasn’t a bold pursuit of purpose and passion. It was an escape.

Retreats and safe harbors are wonderful for reclaiming and rebuilding one’s resources. But they can be lousy places to live. If your “dream” creates a sense of an idyllic and comfortable future, you could be heading down the wrong path. Instead of feeling comfortable, perhaps it is fear that signals your true path. Personally, I’ve found that lurking behind my greatest aspirations, there is fear. The bigger my dream, the greater my resistance.

Almost any time we contemplate a new and untested future, we are likely to experience a confusing mix of exhilaration and fear. It’s probably a natural result of our early childhood conditioning. But the most common regrets expressed at the end of life are centered on not risking enough to discover one’s true gifts and use them to make a difference – to know that their life mattered. Instead, they played it safe and comfortably.

Experiencing a regret at the end of your career and especially at the end of your life is way too late. Start now. Being tested, stretched and going beyond the edge of your comfort zone is nature’s prescription for vitality, confidence, and strength. Welcome that fear you feel at the beginning of a transition. It is a gift you must unwrap.

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