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Why it might not be helpful to ask yourself, “What’s my passion?”

Last night, after spending an unproductive day monitoring the stock market, I went to a talk by the brilliant Daniel Pink, hosted by the Japan Society. Daniel Pink has written three provocative, fascinating books on the changing nature of work: Free Agent Nation, A Whole New Mind, and most recently, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko.

In The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, Daniel Pink used the comics form, and although I don’t generally enjoy reading comics, I’m very interested the potential of comics to deliver information and tell a story. (In fact, I hope to include a short comics section in The Happiness Project book.)

Last night’s talk was about manga (a form of comics), which was fascinating. But Dan Pink’s most interesting observation came during the Q and A period, in response to a question about careers.

A twenty-something guy in the audience asked whether he should stay in a job that, although the people and the work were interesting, and the pay was good, wasn’t his passion.

I’m paraphrasing, but in part Dan Pink answered, “I never ask myself ‘What’s my passion?’ That question is too huge. It’s not helpful.”

I think that’s absolutely correct. One of my happiness-project resolutions is to “Think big,” but sometimes you can paralyze yourself by asking big, unanswerable questions.

When someone asks me for career advice (and I’ve been known to volunteer this advice, even unasked!), I say, “Do what you DO. What do you do already, in your free time? Try to do that as your job.” In my case, although as a Supreme Court clerk I surely had one of the most fascinating jobs for a lawyer, on the weekends, I was writing a book. This was a helpful clue as to a profession I might enjoy. I have a friend who always felt guilty in law school, because he was wasting so much time playing video games; after graduation, he gave up a prestigious clerkship to work for a – you guessed it – video game company.

A friend told me that she was going to try to get a job as an editor of a women’s magazine like Vogue. “Do you read those magazines?” I asked in surprise. I’d never seen her read anything like that. “Nope,” she said. I didn’t say anything, but I wondered – would she be good at helping to create those magazines, if she never chose to spend her time reading them?

It can be hard to identify your “passion,” but you can identify what you did last Sunday afternoon. “Do what you do” is useful because it directs you to look at your behavior, rather than to your ideas – which can be a clearer guide to preferences. It’s not possible for everyone, but to have work that is play, and play that is work, is a very, very happy state.

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