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Is It Possible to Feel Passionate About Being a Tax Consultant?

April 4th, 2011 · 33 comments

The (Lack of) Passion of the Tax Consultant

In the summer of 2008, I met John, a rising senior at an Ivy League college. He was worried about his impending graduation.

“What advice can you give to a student who wants to live more spontaneously?”, he asked. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but was clear about his “dreams to do something big.”

I gave John some advice, mainly centered around lifestyle-centric career planning, and then we went our separate ways.

That is, until two weeks ago, when John sent me a note.

“Well, I ignored your advice at my peril,” he began. John had taken a job as a corporate tax consultant. Though he found the work to be “sometimes interesting,” the hours were long and the tasks were fiercely prescribed, making it difficult to stand out.

“Aside from not liking the lifestyle”, John complained, “I’m concerned that my work doesn’t serve a larger purpose and, in fact, hurts the most vulernable.”

Longtime Study Hacks readers are familiar with my unconventional stance on finding work you love. I don’t believe in “following your passion.” In most cases, I argue, passion for what you do follows mastery — not from matching a job to a pre-existing calling.

John’s story, however, strains this philosophy. It poses a question that I’ve been asked many times before: can I generate a passion for any job?

In other words, is there a way for John to grow to love being a corporate tax consultant?

Here was my answer: probably not.

The Passion Disqualifiers

When I first started developing my career philosophy, my friend Ben Casnocha pushed back by asking whether my advice to a baggage handler at the airport would be to “become the best damn baggage handler at that airport.”

For a while now, I’ve been waving my hands in the direction of critiques such as these, noting vaguely that not all jobs are made equal. But John’s e-mail forced me to think more concretely about these issues. I ended up devising the following list of three traits that disqualify a job from something you can feel passionate about:

  1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
  3. The job forces you to work with assholes. (A term I use in only the most official, academic sense.)

Trait 1 prevents you from building the career capital needed to take control of your working life, while traits 2 and 3 prevent you from enjoying the work even if you could control it.

John’s job matches disqualifiers 1 and 2: so he needs to get out of there.

I don’t know that this list is complete. In fact, I would welcome your feedback in the comments about what I’m missing. What’s important here, however, is that these disqualifying traits, though perhaps distressingly common, have nothing to do with whether a job matches some pre-existing passion. In other words, my general career philosophy still holds: working right trumps finding the right work.

#####

This post is the fifth in my series on Rethinking Passion, which tackles questions concerning the reality of building a deeply satisfying work life. Expect a new post in the series roughly once or twice a month. Here are the previous articles:

(Image by madmolecule.)

 

 

33 thoughts on “Is It Possible to Feel Passionate About Being a Tax Consultant?

  1. Martin says:

    I have to disagree here. I think it is possible to generate passion for ‘any job’ as long as you focus on the here and now and set measurable goals that are attainable in the nearby future. John’s problem is that his focus is in ‘far’-mode and not in ‘near’- mode.

    It is my experience that anything becomes interesting if you spend enough time focussing on doing the actual job. John’s problem is his focus and this precludes him from becoming happy in any job.

    On the upside, if he stays a tax consultant and learns to focus he will earn a nice bundle to be happy outside the job as well.

  2. C says:

    This is a great post and I am glad to see how your thinking has changed over the years about passion and career. Personally, I feel that #2 in your list is what caused me pursue a different career path even though I “had it all” in my first field. I had an intelligent and caring boss, worked for a company I respected, I had nice co-workers, a close commute, challenging work, and it would have led to other job opportunities at other cool companies. Maybe it’s asking for too much on top of all that, but my mind always wandered to the only other career I saw myself in high school mainly because I didn’t think my first field made any difference in the world. I remember sitting at my desk thinking, “This is meaningless. It doesn’t matter whether I pick this pink vs. that one.” I remember talking about this with some co-workers and they said that the way we’re making a difference is by making kids happy through our design and also that I could fulfill my desire to make a difference by volunteering outside of work. The problem was that if what I was doing was making some faraway kid happy (which I only skeptically believed), it wasn’t enough of a difference to make my job matter to me.

    So I think one needs to not only consider whether his future career is useful, but also find out what kind of a difference you want to make (direct or indirect, for example) and sometimes that will come intuitively from experiences in your future career through internships and volunteering. Also another question to ask might be, “What kinds of jobs in the world have made a positive, lasting impact on my life?” Maybe that will lead you to the career path where you’ll feel like you’re making a difference in other people’s lives.

    In your list, I would add something about finances. “The job does not pay you enough to cover the basics.”

  3. paulien says:

    This is a really interesting take. I think my own job (consultand/phd student) has none of the disqualifiers. But while I agree with your disqualifiers, I also think that there is more to it.
    In order for someone to love his job, the job has to have some qualifiers that match the lifestyle you want. Say, if you want to help people you could be a very good carpenter but it would not make you happy. And this is a job that does have none of the disqualifiers too. So a job needs to match some or all of the things that matter to you, whatever that is. By this I mean things not related to the details of the work itself (you could help people in different ways, as doctor/teacher/trainer/car mechanic etc), but related to the effect the work has on the world and on your life.
    I hope I am making myself clear enough, and thanks for an interesting post.

  4. Fong says:

    Doesn’t this just go back to how Dan Pink defined motivation (in terms of a job) consisting of 3 factors which if all satisfied, should be able to make one intrinsically self motivated?

    1. Autonomy: (do the job the way you want to do it, when you want to do it, and how you want to do it.) Obviously, this can’t always apply to every position where time and people are out of your control, such as a baggage handler.
    2. Mastery: Doing what you do well with the opportunities to become better. As you’ve mentioned in past posts, passion is achieved through mastery.
    3. Purpose: Being part of something greater than yourself.

    Of course, this is all based on self determination theory and the concept of flow, the latter of which was founded many years ago by Hungarion Sociologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If you can achieve flow in the task AND find autonomy, mastery and purpose, then you are in a rare position indeed.

  5. Susan says:

    Just last week, my tax lawyer told me he doesn’t like to pay taxes and that is why he loves his job. I was definitely surprised to hear his enthusiasm and realize he genuinely did love his job challenging the IRS. He helps his clients and gets a lot of satisfaction doing it. I know he has helped me through a worrisome audit due to the IRS RETROACTIVELY disallowing a deduction. John may not be looking at a bigger picture. Fewer taxes mean more money for expansion and growth — and more jobs.

  6. Ben says:

    I’m not sure that either of the first 2 points necessarily disqualify passion. In an earlier article you had mentioned an Amy Wrzesniewski (which I probably just spelled wrong). I had actually written a paper largely influenced by her work, and one of the most interesting studies she conducted involved hospital cleaners, a field that certainly fulfills the criteria of 1. She noted that while some hospital cleaners were clearly dissatisfied, others were quite happy, a phenomenon she attributed to their approach towards their work.

    The second scenario also doesn’t necessarily cause dislike (I changed the phrasing because I cannot envision a situation in which it wouldn’t disqualify passion, but I think it more than possible that one exists). In this instance I call to mind people with absolutely vile jobs, like those that work in slaughterhouses. In order to preserve psychological well-being, it is absolutely possible that people, over time, change their view of their “bad” job to see it in a “good” light.

    I’m not sure how convincing these points are (I am certainly not convinced), nor how clearly I stated them, but well… there they are.

  7. Ben says:

    As an afterthought to that above post, the scenario with the cleaners would seem to challenge your conception of passion, Cal. In this case, the cleaners were passionate about their jobs because they felt they had value to the patients and not necessarily due to any particular mastery (the satisfied cleaners did work better, but this seemed to be a result of their passion, as the improved quality was due to interaction with each other and synchronization with other hospital staff)

  8. fahad says:

    I think that you got those qualifiers wrong. I generally follow Nassim Taleb’s black swan idea and focus on “you don’t know that you don’t know”. For example if you’re in a job, then you really can’t predict what kind of opportunities surround you, what’s the future going to be like in the job etc etc.

    You gave an example of a baggage handler. I personally know of a baggage handler who migrated to dubai in the 1980s as a young kid and the only work he could find was to carry baggages at the old run down airport in extreme desert heat. Now dubai in the 1980s was a small desert town with nothing to really look forward to. But slowly the small desert town started to boom. The guy handling the baggages slowly started to progress and hired more guys eventually expanding his business to the dubai container terminal and then moving into the container lifting business. His company now operates in Dubai and Singapore and his company operated cranes are at work at different building sites around the world.

    I think you’ve been lead astray by some of your friends. The best way to do a job is not to think in terms of passion. Treat a job as a job and don’t take it seriously, the world around you would change and the job you’re doing wouldn’t even exist a few year down the line. Look at all those finance quatitative analyst who can’t find a job now. The world changes and jobs come and go. Look for opportunities instead and have a purpose and passion to life which is outside of your work.

  9. fahad says:

    @martin
    Martin’s got it mostly right. The future is too unpredictable, focus on the here and now. I am sure all those nuclear engineers are right now busy pulling their hairs as they realize that the nuclear industry is going to go through a really rough phase and may even get shut down. Just two months ago, everyone was saying that nuclear was the way to go. The world changes very very quickly. Don’t live in the future. Here and now is the way to go.

  10. James Hayton says:

    It usually depends who you work with, as much as the job itself. I’ve done more or less the same job in two different places, but one was infinitely better than the other simply because my boss listened to me.

  11. Gary says:

    I have been reading a lot about personality and how up to as much as 50% of our personality is fixed (or at least very very difficult to change). See Helen E. Fisher and Daniel Nettle. Based on this, I would add number 4 which is that is does not fit with your personality.

  12. Gary says:

    Sorry, posted before completing. I would say – the work REALLY does not fit with your personality. It is the extreme cases where this occurs, such as an true introvert doing lots of public speaking for example. For most people though, in my books, Cal’s philosophy is accurate – working right trumps finding the right work

  13. homes says:

    I’m afraid that not everyone has the luxury to spend time looking for jobs which ignite a burning passion, or allow them to develop rare and valuable skills – some people really need the money first and foremost.

  14. Eric says:

    So, if everyone listened to this advice, we would have no tax consultants or baggage handlers or (insert undesirable job here)?

  15. Study Hacks says:
    So, if everyone listened to this advice, we would have no tax consultants or baggage handlers or (insert undesirable job here)?

    The argument “it wouldn’t be practical for everyone in the world to follow this advice” applies to basically any self-improvement argument. In other words, it’s not that interesting to note. Not everyone, for example, has the ability to save 10% of their income for retirement: yet this is still useful advice. Not everyone has the time affluence to exercise every day or the finances to eat healthy: yet this is still useful advice. And so on.

  16. Study Hacks says:
    I have to disagree here. I think it is possible to generate passion for ‘any job’ as long as you focus on the here and now and set measurable goals that are attainable in the nearby future. John’s problem is that his focus is in ‘far’-mode and not in ‘near’- mode.

    This doesn’t match my experience.

    In your list, I would add something about finances. “The job does not pay you enough to cover the basics.”

    Definitely a good rule! But probably orthogonal to feeling passionate about the work? i.e., it’s possible to feel wildly passionate for a volunteer gig.

    She noted that while some hospital cleaners were clearly dissatisfied, others were quite happy, a phenomenon she attributed to their approach towards their work.

    It’s an interesting study. I need to read it closer, but I think what “happy” means here might be something different than what we imagine when think about feeling passion toward our career.

    The guy handling the baggages slowly started to progress and hired more guys eventually expanding his business to the dubai container terminal and then moving into the container lifting business.

    Fair enough. This example probably applies to many different manual labor jobs: it’s always possible to expand from employee to boss and then from there the sky’s the limit.

    Based on this, I would add number 4 which is that is does not fit with your personality.

    I wonder if this can be integrated with 2: they both seem to deal with somewhat person-specific traits.

    I’m afraid that not everyone has the luxury to spend time looking for jobs which ignite a burning passion,

    See my above comment regarding the critique that “this advice cannot apply to every person in the world.”

  17. Will Ferguson says:

    This is more tailored to your recent book, but what if I’m interested in something that doesn’t provide me many opportunities for distinguishment in high school, such as writing fiction? I don’t want to feign an interest in the sciences for more opportunities, but it seems, sadly, that this is the only way to go.

  18. Ron says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the day to day social environment of a workplace as a factor in job/career fulfillment. Does the job have a lack of human interaction, or is most of the human contact that happen toxic? Is one able to make genuine, trusted friends at work?

    Human beings are social animals. There’s a reason people go crazy in solitary confinement in prison. On the same token, is sitting in a cubicle staring at a glowing screen 9, 10, 11, 12 hours a day like most modern office jobs that much better?

  19. Beth says:

    Is there really no way for him to distinguish himself by developing rare and valuable skills? I know that things are probably very different in the US, but both my parents trained as accountants and work in tax and are actually the only people I know who genuinely love their jobs. I think a lot of their enjoyment comes from the fact that they do have fairly rare skills and they’re insanely good at what they do. My mum works within the oil industry as a tax manager and has been headhunted by other firms plenty of times, whilst my dad is director of personal tax at an accountancy firm. Both started out in fairly boring jobs and got to where they are through specialising in a particular field.

    Also, I may be a little bit cynical in regards to #3 but what job doesn’t force you to work with assholes at one point or another?

  20. In this hypothetical, I’m wondering… if you really don’t like Tax Accountancy, why would you do it? Pressure from Mom and Dad, I suppose. Change what you measure, to find new motivation in your work.

  21. Hey Cal, great post as always. I partly agree. I think what most people are trying to get is job-happiness. I like the way Martin Seligman thinks about this topic (watch a summary here: http://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology.html). He says that there are three levels of happiness:

    1. the pleasant life: happiness that is derived from physical pleasures, travel etc.

    2. the good life: happiness that is derived from flow – as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines it. This is the type of happiness one can attain by practicing a certain subject and by becoming really good at it. As I understand it, this is close to what you are talking a lot about on the blog.

    3. the meaningful life: happiness derived from having a higher purpose and meaning.

    From my experience, passion derives a lot from #3. It’s more than just enjoying the actual work. It’s alignment of your job with your values and goals in life. I think you kind of acknowledge this fact (reversely) when you say “The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world”. So in my understanding of the word, you are a believer of passion nonetheless ;-)

  22. ChristianKl says:

    I have been reading a lot about personality and how up to as much as 50% of our personality is fixed

    The claims isn’t that 50% is fixed. They claim that in our society 50%* of the variation in personality is due to genetics.

    *I use 50% for the sake of the argument. Different traits will have different percentages.

  23. Ashish says:

    I completely disagree with the premise that passion follows mastery. Well, maybe I also disagree with the implication that one can develop true “mastery” in a field in which one is not passionate, though in chess it does happen – and those players leave the game.

    Some people (I am one) love to think of the big picture, of ideas, in broad strokes. Others love nothing more than detail. (I work in Silicon Valley. Many engineers are this way.) They often lose sight of the forest for the trees, but they love those trees, and they’re really good at doing their tree thing.

    Big picture people and detail people are not interchangeable. They never will be.

    I can absolutely imagine being happy as a tax consultant. But the tax consultants and the massage therapists of this world are very different people. Knowing yourself takes a certain number of years of life, and a certain number of mistakes made.

    As an aside, EVERY career in the real world involves dealing with assholes to some extent.

  24. Sarah Kim says:

    This helped. I have to take IB Diploma next year and and am currently in the midst of choosing my HL’s. I am deciding between History and Biology, and peers keep telling to do Histroy because I “love” it and I’m not a “Science” person but taking Bio could open up arenas.

  25. Neuroscientist says:

    I agree with Franz. And I think by saying that you cannot feel passionate about “the job [that] focuses on something you think is useless”, you accept that there’s such thing as ‘pre-existing calling’. For example, a scientist may not be happy about his job because he thinks the field he’s working on is useless. You know that people can easily feel that way toward an arbitrary academic field esp. those fields that do not have and may never have tangible applications in the real world. Or, even though the field is useful, it may not be useful in the way that the individual cares about. So when you get a job that doesn’t match your passion, you are not motivated to pursue mastery. This criterion goes against your argument that passion follows mastery.

  26. Sri says:

    Everything is like a relationship. At the very beginning there is just some infatuation involved or it may even be an arranged one. Then soon, reality ensues and there are many places where relationships go through difficulties. The relationships that focus on succeeding through them over many many years eventually learn what real love is. Now how many couples can you spot have been married for 50-60 years? In my country I’ve seen plenty. They weren’t trained up in the dream romance philosophy because it doesn’t last. Love and passion also evolve through many challenges and ups and downs and only after succeeding through all that you can really claim you know what love and passion are.

    The way you see things after decades of experience is so different from how you’d have understood it as a newbie or a child. Wanting is different from HAVING and there’s even a saying “Wanting is better (easier) than having”. Passion doesn’t develop by the art of wanting – that’s just infatuation. Reality is about mastering the art of having. And when you do that all your life, then you can say you’re passionate and you love what you do.

    A lot of people who are described as passionate are those who’ve been mastering the art of having for years and decades. What would an inexperienced newbie understand who’s still in the stage of wanting? That can’t be called passion. It’s called love/passion after it’s withstood the tests of time and reality.

    You don’t get better by doing only that which is within your comfort zone. The truth is that it’s more like exercise. You do what is difficult for you, what’s beyond your comfort zone (with sufficient time for recovery) and improve by bringing it into your comfort zone. Then on to the next challenge. Love and Passion are no different either. They are the result of mastering the art of having. Merely wanting isn’t love and passion because that time and again fails when reality ensues and one realizes that wanting is just not enough, you have to learn to have what you want.

  27. Sri says:

    Personally I think the passion hypothesis is overblown. You know I started music long before I could even talk and spell P-A-S-S-I-O-N and things were fine. I know a guy who keeps talking about finding passion, but name anything and he asks “What’s the point?” That goes even for relationships and it’s disturbing. I believe this is because at the bottom of it, he believes everything is meaningless. And the fact is he isn’t someone who’s had a difficult life by any means. So it’s probably his belief system that is screwed up.

    There’s a guy who lost his passion in work and life because over time he neglected his health, had few things that could help recover his energies, was screwed up with his relationships because he was not spending enough time and care on them and finally he was feeling that his work and life were disconnected from his values and beliefs. On a scale of 1-10 it was probably between 2-3. Then he began to fix all those issues by healthy routines to build up his health and his relationships and also started taking proper breaks to recover his energies. He identified his values — health, loving relationships, energy, family and focused on spending enough time on them. The results spilled over on to his job and soon he could connect his job to what he valued. Just 6 months later, he was reporting his life as 9/10 on the scale.

    Love and passion are not one dimensional. You need to value and believe the right things and you need to ensure that your energies are high at all 4 levels – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

  28. sonja says:

    Reading this, I keep thinking of Roman sewers. amid the odor and sewage, was it immediately obvious that being in charge of sanitation could become such a magestic career? If one hates their job, can their personal passion (aka work ethic) carry the job they hate to newer heights? If one is the best baggage handler that ever was, this may not result in their revamping the baggage handling industry, but will their dedication and passion for being a great employee go unnoticed? Probably not. And at the very least this person should get a kick ass letter of recommendation to use when they`ve complete training needed to get that next best job. I hated waiting tables with a passion and I hated selling wine/customer service even more. But when I applied for my first teaching job, i had great references and ultimately got my position. I believe that you MUST create passion for your job and use it as a stepping stone for a job that feeds your passion. You give 100% until you land that job that gives you 100% back. Like a good relationship (still working on that one).

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