Breaking your passion paralysis

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Embercombe is a beautiful, secluded vale in Devon where during On Purpose’s year-long programme, each of our cohorts visits and has the opportunity to take time out, reflect on themselves, work in the outdoors and get to know each other better. 

Just a few weeks ago – we had just arrived and were sitting round the large woodburner – we were discussing what everyone was hoping to focus on for the weekend. I was struck, once again, by how many of the Associates’ were intent on “discovering their passion” (or as one Associate put it: finding my inner Wilberforce) and how large the fear of being passion-less looms.

On Purpose Associates are high-calibre professionals in their twenties and thirties who are making a career change into working in socially driven organisations and social enterprises. Whilst they are part of a small and highly selective group with strong social motivations, I come across the same fear again and again in my dealings with dissatisfied early-career professionals. The symptoms can range from mild unease over feelings of inadequacy at a perceived lack of commitment to full-blown passion paralysis that prevents people attempting to find more satisfying work.
 
I grew up abroad and studied ten to twelve subjects all the way through secondary school. Choosing what I would study at university felt almost impossibly difficult given all the options I had. At one point I undertook a full day of personality and ability tests hoping they would provide a better understanding of what I would most enjoy, or at least what I might be best at. Needless to say test results were entirely inconclusive.
 
In the end I applied two principles more or less consciously:
 
1. I chose a subject that I felt left as many doors open for as long as possible  
2. I went for something that was seen to be difficult – if interest flagged, hopefully prestige would keep me going.
 
These two principles served me well for at least another two career choices. After my undergraduate degree, I took up the opportunity of doing a PhD and once that was completed, I went into management consulting – the ultimate jack of all trades option. In both cases, I carefully investigated that I would not be cutting off other options I might want to pursue in future. 
 
This approach served me well and I had a rich and varied experience in my working life.But over time, the niggling feeling that I needed 'A Career' grew ever stronger and went hand in hand with a need to discover and commit to My Passion. (The P word had just come into vogue in a major way in the management consultancy world – and has since infected wider society with little sign of its over-use lessening).
 
Not only did I feel inadequate that I had little idea as to what My Passion was but I seemed to be surrounded by lots of people who knew exactly what they were passionate about. Simultaneously, my old decision-making strategy seemed ever less useful: Some doors were going to have to shut and simply choosing the most difficult option was not a recipe for happiness, nor success.
 
Feeling I had to choose what I was going to do for the next 30 years was so paralysing, I might well have stayed in management consultancy for many more years. Luckily, someone gave me some great advice, which I’d like to repeat here, with some additions of my own:
 
  • Don’t feel you need to decide now on the next 30 years; you just need to find something that will keep you motivated for the next two to three years. Who knows what will happen after that.
  • Don’t be intimidated by the professed passion coming at you from all quarters; often the most evangelical are the first to burn out.
  • Get out there and explore things. Changing careers is not an on-paper or intellectual exercise however long your pro's and con's list is; meet new people doing interesting  things and try out what they do.
  • Remember that changing sectors is not a one way street  - try something out, it’s unlikely the door behind you will close completely and in many places a wider set of experience is increasingly valuable.
I believe that this is why programmes like On Purpose are valuable to so many early-career professionals looking for a change. They provide a safe way to experiment, to try out a new career and gather experiences that will help them discover their next purpose. By the end of On Purpose, our Associates may well not have found their life-long passion but they will have broken through the paralysis of inaction and set themselves on a path they are more convinced by and in which they will likely be happier.
 
The worst that can happen is that you spend a year widening your horizons, learning about yourself and others and meeting a set of fun, supportive and challenging peers and friends who are travelling alongside you. At best, in the words of many of our alumni, the career change that On Purpose helps you achieve, is a life-changing experience.
 
On Purpose is currently recruiting it's next cohort of Associates, starting in October 2013. Find out more and apply.