Yesterday, everyone posted about the lovely article by one Mr. Cal Newport, Follow Your Career Passion? Let it Follow You. The author, a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, reaches out to all us young adults struggling with the journey to find a fulfilling career. He admonishes the social belief that we should make our passions into careers and asserts that we will only be fulfilled in our careers if we stop trying to be fulfilled in our careers. . His basic advice is: as you become better at you job, you will learn to love your job, thus fulfilling the end-goal of what he calls the ” ‘follow our passion’ orthodoxy”, but without ever buying into that orthodoxy. In order to achieve this fail-safe brand of fulfillment, we must first abandon our search for the perfect job. To demonstrate his point, he offers this anecdote:

“In the spring of 2004, during my senior year of college, I faced a hard decision about my future career. I had a job offer from Microsoft and an acceptance letter from the computer science doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I had also just handed in the manuscript for my first nonfiction book, which opened the option of becoming a full-time writer. These are three strikingly different career paths, and I had to choose which one was right for me. For many of my peers, this decision would have been fraught with anxiety.”

Alright. I’ll take the point that he had three distinct options: become a professional techie at one of the largest and most renown companies in the world, become a Computer Science professor through an incredibly prestigious PhD program, or become a writer (which one of these is not like the other?). I’ll also take your more general point that emerging young-professionals are way too focused on finding the “perfect” career and in the search they discard a huge number of un-tapped options because in their first two weeks, they didn’t find the duties or the workplace or the industry utterly riveting.

But the anecdote is misplaced and the advice isn’t really applicable.

First, as a professor at Georgetown, Mr. Newport should know that 1) no one fresh out of college gets book deals without a call to the Kennedy’s, 2) no one is receiving meaningful job offers, especially not ones with salaries (but whatever we do wind up doing professionally, we will be excellent avocational bar-tenders and waitresses), and 3) grad school is exorbitantly expensive ESPECIALLY given that there is such limited job security right now. So the hypothetical that we all have options like Mr. Newport is faulty.
Second, though he doesn’t tell us what that mysterious manuscript was about, I think we can assume it’s something related to computer science. So the schpeel about “don’t follow your passion, just let your job become your passion” is poppy-cock because every one of your “distinctly different careers” were related to the same passion.

Here is a more meaningful look at careers for the up-and-comer. I came across it today on my google search for “my perfect career”.

Planning a career is like a mountain hike by University of Michigan professor Thomas Zurbuchen, explains that success and failure and all the other intangibles of the career search are a matter of perspective. He says,
“This is a very peculiar part about careers driven by passion. When you live them forward, they sometimes look hopeless or even illogical and random – but they seem to come together when you look back.”

I found his word choice and explanation to be eerily applicable to both Mr. Newport’s article and my internal dialogue. “Careers driven by passion”? “Hopeless and illogical”? Oh yes.  He suggests that the career search should be approached like a physical endurance event – that it will be tough, it requires an inordinate amount of work, and you wont’ win every event you compete in. But just improving upon our skills and expanding our horizons constantly will eventually lead us in the right direction. And for all of us directionless saps out there – that’s a comforting thought.

The last point Mr. Zurbuchen makes as he analogizes Career Planning and Mounting Climbing is this:
When it comes to climbing mountains and career success, focus on the low frequencies. It’s not the pebbles that matter, the little hills and rocks – it’s not even whether you ever fall or not – the key about mountain climbing is that you keep going. There are some important events in your future – the first job-interview, the first offer, the first grant. All these things are important, but what really matters is the overall trend. Are you moving the ball, are you getting better, are you publishing, are you thinking and innovating?”

Ah, yes. The big picture. How often I lose sight of it. Just like our GPA’s in college, no one will care what our very first job out of college was, 10 years from now, no matter how impressive it was for us at the time. They’ll assess us, finally, on our merits and our meaningful achievements, and our passion for the work they want us to do.

And if neither of those two view-points does it for you – consider Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, in your search for the perfect career: