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Stop Looking for the “Right” Career and Start Looking for a Job

August 4th, 2014 · 32 comments

A Reality Check from Mike Rowe

Mike Rowe and I agree that “follow your passion,” as a piece of advice, tends to make people more unhappy about their working life.

A reader named Steve recently pointed me toward a hilarious and yet profoundly relevant example of Rowe articulating this position.

Allow me to set the scene…

Rowe  receives a piece of fan mail that opens as follows: “I’ve spent this last year trying to figure out the right career for myself and I still can’t figure out what to do.

Rowe then responds. In his response, he explains, without apology, exactly why this complaint is dumb.

I won’t spoil the whole thing (you can read the original letter and Rowe’s full reply here), but I do want to point your attention to my favorite paragraph:

Stop looking for the “right” career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. You can always quit later, and be no worse off than you are today. But don’t waste another year looking for a career that doesn’t exist. And most of all, stop worrying about your happiness. Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.

In my opinion, you could substitute the above suggestions for just about any commencement address that was given this past spring, and the students would have ended up much better prepared for the real world.

Well said, Mike.

32 thoughts on “Stop Looking for the “Right” Career and Start Looking for a Job

  1. Totally, totally agree! What Mike and Cal say is completely in line with Shawn Achor’s research – the old model that happiness follows success is dead in the water; Achor’s studies of the most successful Harvard students and business leaders show that it’s the other way round: happiness breeds success, and happiness grows by immersion in the process. Which all sort of reflects what the ancients of Vedic times learned in their studies of happiness: that it increases reliably every time we expand our awareness.

  2. Totally, totally agree! What Mike and Cal say is completely in line with Shawn Achor’s research – the old model that happiness follows success is dead in the water; Achor’s studies of the most successful Harvard students and business leaders show that it’s the other way round: happiness breeds success, and happiness grows by immersion in the process. Which all sort of reflects what the ancients of Vedic times learned in their studies of happiness: that it increases reliably every time we expand our awareness.

    Watch the now-famous Shawn Achor TED talk on happiness.

  3. Matt says:

    Alot of what he says is really in line to the realities of the world of work. Change is now the standard with careers. Six or seven career changes are likely by the time someone reaches their mid forties. Being in a job 2 to 3 years is now becoming the norm. Be the best you can be in your work and do the best job you can. The most valuable commodity are transferable skills where you can make an immediate impact with a new employer.

  4. Chung Chin says:

    Well said indeed, Mike. I stumbled upon this letter after being pointed to it at another blog and I find that this is a very nicely written letter; insightful without being mean.

    However, your choice of words in saying, ” … he explains, without apology exactly why this complaint is dumb.” indicates that Mike thinks that the person writing the letter asking for advice is dumb. I did not sense that at all reading through the letter. Hence, it’s unfair that you’re using your bias and thrust it upon Mike’s letter.

  5. Rory says:

    Yeah, so, I’ve followed that exact advice. Got a job in marketing out of Uni. Been doing that a couple years and I hate it, and am actually in a worse position since the only things people will hire me for are more jobs in marketing. And I’m very good at my job. And I feel a piece of me die every time I do a good bit of work for these shitty clients in the shitty world that is marketing.

    As per the “just get *a* job advice”, it seems pretty hollow. There aren’t exactly a lot of people twiddling thumbs waiting for the right job to come along after Uni. Esp. in recent years, we’ve all been desperately looking for any job we can get, so…. I’d say that just getting a job, and not worrying about passion, is exactly what people wind up doing anyway.

  6. J says:

    The obvious problem is, “work traits” aka “values” are at most times *inseparable* from “work specifics”. How can you convince yourself that you are “autonomous” and “making a contribution to the world” if you are working extra time all day long, for example in some IB, hedge fund? It’s simply impossible as *this work totally goes against your core values*! So to treat all works indiscriminately is impossible. You should have discretion, based on your values and aspirations, when finding your job. The only thing to pay attention to is one should not use “passion” as an excuse to procrastinate or escape from the reality. But to totally bash the idea as wrong is way too extreme. In more conservative societies such as China, we suffer way too much from the anti-passion mentality already, and we need the importance of adhering to your values, your passion to be known by more. In all, I just can’t understand how you could talk about “values” while treating “passion” as if it’s a totally distinct thing.

  7. Rory says:

    Hi,

    Tried posting from my phone earlier but it kept failing, so: apologies if this comes out as a duplicate.

    Basically, I’ve followed this kind of advice. Left Uni, worried at first about passion, but then accepted I should just start working and start trying to find the happiness in the success of my work.

    So, I work in digital marketing now. I do good at it, but I hate it. I work hard and resent the job. Worse off, when I speak to recruiters, I’m pegged as not only a marketer, but a digital marketer. I can’t even transfer, given that only two years in I’m already pegged as just being this guy. Obviously, it’s not impossible for me to change, but it is very hard.

    So, I’d take the above advice with a grain of salt. I still believe you should get to work on something, and be flexible, and be willing to find the joy in the success, rather than the success in the joy. However, I also believe that you can’t just go anywhere, as the above suggests. It can be a recipe for resentment, depression and for getting stuck in a rut.

    1. Rory says:

      Just to add, I’m saying all this as a big fan of your work. Bought the book and try to implement the lessons best as possible, but I think this particular recommendation misses the mark.

    2. George Kao says:

      Hi Rory,

      Congrats on getting good at what you do in digital marketing. Those skills are highly valuable today.

      What part of your job do you hate?

      What if you used those skills to serve companies or organizations that you believe in?

      Instead of trying to get another job, what if you went into business for yourself doing digital marketing for businesses you want to support?

      Looking forward to your reply.

  8. J says:

    The obvious problem is, “work traits” aka “values” are at most times *inseparable* from “work specifics”. How can you convince yourself that you are “autonomous” and “making a contribution to the world” if you are working extra time all day long, for example in some IB, hedge fund? It’s simply impossible as *this work totally goes against your core values*! So to treat all works indiscriminately is impossible. You should have discretion, based on your values and aspirations, when finding your job. The only thing to pay attention to is one should not use “passion” as an excuse to procrastinate or escape from the reality. But to totally bash the idea as wrong is way too extreme. In more conservative societies such as China, we suffer way too much from the anti-passion mentality already, and we need the importance of adhering to your values, your passion to be known by more. In all, I just can’t understand how you could talk about “values” while treating “passion” as if it’s a totally distinct thing. When we say “follow your heart” we are not saying that you should dream, but exactly that you should follow your values and don’t compromise them for the sake of just getting a job that you don’t really want to do!

    1. Sam says:

      Getting a job at a hedge fund is not that easy so chances are that the employees either worked hard on something that matters for being hired, or they were headhunted from a similar position at a competitor.

      If you are seriously saying that the only job you can find is working for a hedge fund I would recommend you to take it and then figure out how to make a transition from that into what you want. Being loaded has the benefit that it allows you to take risks that others can not afford.

  9. J says:

    I love many early writings of Cal but this and related pieces simply make no sense. I understand you probably have an urge to fight the mainstream “dream” mentality but you have to understand that when we say one should follow his heart, follow his passion, we are *not* saying that he/she should dream unrealistically! On the contrary, we are saying exactly what you’re championing here: caring your values make you happy, therefore, find a job that matches your values and don’t just get a job for money or whatever stuff, which will go against your values and make you unhappy and regret the choice in the long run. What’s the contradiction of this mainstream wisdom with your theory? They are essentially the same! I don’t quite get the point here.

  10. Rachel Lacey says:

    Good morning, Dr. Newport –

    As you know, I am a big fan of you and your work, but in this case I think the paragraph you highlight goes too far, and actually contradicts what I get from your writing. Mr. Rowe is shooting fish in a barrel on this one, because the writer of that letter does use unrealistic language i.e. “always be happy.” And at first Mr. Rowe gives the type of advice you might give, in that he suggests going into a field with opportunity.

    But to say someone should get any job, and be no worse off at the end of it, should really only be directed at two groups of people. First, those who have no work experience. And second, those who have no choice. There are many, many exploitative jobs out there, particularly in this economy, where the only thing you are going to learn is that people are happy to exploit other people. That’s probably not a lesson that needs to be relearned after you learn it the first time.

    If I had “followed my passion,” I would have gone into a social services type of job, where the pay, hours, and general treatment are exploitative. Instead, I came across your writings, and changed direction to a field where I could expect to be paid reasonably and have a future, eventually getting to that cutting edge you talk about, where the interesting work is done, and you have more autonomy. And I couldn’t be more grateful for your insight.

    But telling someone to “get a job, any job” can be just as much a dead end (probably more) as “follow your passion.” The myth that we will always learn something new or be no worse off is just that, a myth. There are many people in the work force who are working in dead end jobs because they have no choice, or because they don’t know how to reach for something better. And I don’t think we should glorify that trap or write if off as some kind of learning experience.

    Thank you for continuing to write on these issues. Looking forward to your next post.

    1. reader says:

      great point rachel. precisely what i think.
      i used to think i wanted to work in social services/ philanthropy / social justice law but the truth is the type of jobs are really exploitative and don’t pay well at all.

  11. Carl says:

    I cringe whenever I hear someone say they’re looking for a job they’ll love. Usually they’re really saying they are looking for a job that will love them, which obviously can’t happen. Their search will have no end and be fraught with self doubt, as they falsely assume something is wrong with them.

  12. Nitin Puranik says:

    My wife, who just graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering, has been actively seeking jobs for the last few months in the VLSI industry. She does have the choice of blindly opting for a software job instead, which are aplenty in the Silicon Valley where we live. However, she possesses no interest in software development and I myself will be disappointed seeing her abandon all her years of electrical studies and switch to a software career.

    Mike’s advice indeed is great if we can read between the lines and not take it at face value.

    1. Carl says:

      Yes! Mike Rowe’s only flaw is that he’s exaggerating to drive the validity of his point.

  13. BA says:

    Show up early, stay late and volunteer for extra work? All this in a job that you don’t have to like? Happiness may not come from your job, but if you are doing something you dislike for more than 40 hours a week, that is going to negatively affect your happiness. I normally agree with what you write, but supporting that point of view is just ridiculous.

  14. Hi Cal,

    Harvard Law School gets neglected again! Take a look at Preet Bharara’s speech last spring: “Try to Be Good.” http://today.law.harvard.edu/preet-bharara-try-good/ I think you’ll like it. To be sure the audience is all lawyers, but that doesn’t mean they all think they’ve found happiness. According to “Harvard Law Today,” Bharara said, among other things, “Nothing matters more. . . than doing your job and doing it well every day, even when no one is looking.” If you do that, he said, “your entire career will take care of itself.”

    Cheers,

    Mary

  15. A.I. says:

    While it is certainly quite unrealistic to have a job or career that is always exciting, challenging, interesting, filling you with passion and paying obscene amounts of money, I’m not sure that it is realistic to propose the opposite extreme.

    The negation of a proposition isn’t always the opposite, or actually, most of the time it’s not. If there are bowls with red and green marbles, the negation of “All marbles in the bowl are red” is NOT “All marbles are green”, but “Not all marbles are red” or “There is at least one green marble amonst the marbles in the bowl”.

    So if someone is doing a job far below one’s qualification, skill, or intellectual ability, it isn’t going to be fulfilling for that person.

    It is equally unrealistic to propose that one could take any random job and be happy and fulfilled with it. Even at first sight this proposition is utterly ridiculous.

    I suppose it is about finding the optimal compromise between what you are able and willing to do, and what you like doing. It is very difficult to perform well if you really hate what you are doing.

    The negation of this does NOT mean that you need to be passionate about what you do in order to perform very well. It’s just the absence of dislike that’s required.

  16. Akram Ahmad says:

    The unvarnished truth is exactly what Cal has spelled out in this post. Some (many?!) may find it a bit unpalatable, but the ideas herein are pretty much the reality on the ground. I had sensed the same at a visceral level years ago, but Cal totally gets it, and he has articulated in exquisite details the fine points here and elsewhere in his writings. The good news is that this is likely the most effective way to finding work that you will love doing. And I will echo a point that Steven Levitt (professor of economics at the University of Chicago) and Stephen Dubner (award-winning author and journalist) nicely make in their book Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain where they note, “Why is it so important to have fun? Because if you love your work… When you’re that engaged, you’ll run circles around other people even if they are more naturally talented”. I can also recommend the thoughtful book Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career Paperback by Herminia Ibarra (Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD).

  17. gauthma says:

    Hi Cal,

    As noted in other comments, this post seems to be at odds with what you otherwise defend. Constrast start looking for a job. Any job. with Happiness […] comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.. It all too easy for those goals — find *any* job and be happy — to be contradictory. In other words, your job, if you just grabbed the first that popped, may require you to do things that go against what you believe (or, as some might put it, “things you don’t feel passionate about”). Then what?

    Moxie Marlinspike had this to say about choosing jobs:

    be careful what job you take, because your job will change you.

    The context of one’s life defines not just what but how one thinks, and a job tends to dominate the context of one’s life — particularly when that job is considered to be part of a career. Your job will change you.

    And finally:

    In the context of a career, these concepts make it simple to look into the future. Jobs at software companies are typically advertised in terms of the difficult problems that need solving, the impact the project will have, the benefits the company provides, the playful color of the bean bag chairs. Likewise, jobs in other fields have their own set of metrics that they use to position themselves within their domains.

    As a young person, though, I think the best thing you can do is to ignore all of that and simply observe the older people working there.

    They are the future you. Do not think that you will be substantially different. Look carefully at how they spend their time at work and outside of work, because this is also almost certainly how your life will look. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often young people imagine a different projection for themselves.

    Look at the real people, and you’ll see the honest future for yourself.

    I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

  18. Study Hacks says:

    It seems that many of you are interpreting Rowe as saying that all jobs are equal and that you should give up on the goal of enjoying your work. This, of course, presents an easy strawman to attack.

    But it’s not what he’s saying.

    Rowe’s advice is to get out of your head. You cannot identify in advance your perfect job. Instead, you need to get out into the working world and start practicing the art of becoming valuable. This is why he suggests grabbing any job that is available and start right away down this path. If you hate the job, quit. He says this clearly: “You can always quit later, and be no worse off than you are today.” The point is that passion is developed over time, and therefore, you need to start the process of developing.

    1. Akram Ahmad says:

      I agree with Cal’s take on this, in that it resonates with my mindset that you you can steer only a moving ship. First, and most importantly, one has to set things in motion. There is plenty of time, afterwards, to, secondarily, iterate over the process till one arrives, if such a thing ever happens as they say, the journey is the destination upon one’s true calling, i.e. work that one truly enjoys. While this may not be a perfect process, it does have the advantage of actually working quite effectively in the real world of work; that’s my two-cents’ worth.

    2. ZB says:

      Hi Cal,

      Big fan. Read all your posts and books. I rarely agree with the push-back you get on articles and ideas, however in this case I’d take the majority opinion disagreeing with you.

      If you just changed the above quote to: “Instead, you need to get out into the working world and start practicing the art of becoming valuable [within the realm of your general interests]” I’d agree.

      However, implicit in your argument, without my addition, is the notion that a) you don’t have the faintest idea of what you’re interested in and b) taking a job, any job, the first job that whirls by you, will never be limiting. Because you can always quit, according to Rowe, and be no further behind.

      However, the practical implications of the advice in the second point is not only wrong, but can lead to severely limited options. Consider someone pursuing medical school. They’re all ready to work at a prestigious lab one summer, but then it suddenly doesn’t work out. They have past lab experience, but they’re an undergrad, so they aren’t yet the most desirable commodity in the world. Taking Rowe’s advice they take the first job they can get – at Starbucks – and work tirelessly at it; pursuing every shift they can get their hands on. Instead of taking a few weeks of working tirelessly researching other labs and making their best attempt to salvage their summer, they work grueling hours building no relevant skills. In the future those reviewing lab, scholarship, and medical school applications, in my experience, would look at that experience rather unfavorably as it shows a lack of interest, commitment, and tenacity within the medical realm. So taking Rowe’s advice, far from just being neutral, would actively be working against you.

      But what if his advice really was just neutral? What if it made you no further ahead or behind? Instead of taking the time to pursue your area of interest; perhaps where you have some prior experience/interest, but not loads of career capital; you’ve just coasted for a certain amount of time working tirelessly. So tirelessly you’ve mitigated the pursuit of job experience that would actually build career capital and move you closer to a meaningful career.

      What if career capital is like a muscle? If career capital is unused, not actively built upon, it begins to wain in strength? Rowe’s advice, when hard times hit or things don’t pan out, seems to be “take the path of least resistance (the first job to come along), work hard at it, and then try to figure things out later”. Chances are this first job you come across, whether you take as extreme an example as Starbucks or not, won’t be overly well-tailored to your career capital, or perhaps will utilize just a small portion of it. Is it possible then, because you aren’t building that career capital, that your career capital wains and so to does your desirability in the marketplace? I’d say so and Rowe’s advice, that you’re endorsing, seems to dangerously disregard building on career capital and instead focuses on just being busy.

  19. Matt K says:

    What if you have an idea of what you want to do like become a mechanical engineer? Surely, I shouldn’t just look for any job and get good at that, but become a very good engineer right? I’d hate to feel resentment for not going after that dream.

  20. Hi Cal,

    We all do better when we love our work, but we can’t sit outside the world of work and try to figure out what that work is. I know, because I tried it.

    Cheers,

    Mary

  21. Tara says:

    I don’t think this idea is straightforward; I think it depends, but it definitely is good advice. I teach college freshmen and the first week I usually ask them what their majors are and what careers they to have in the future. Some say they hope to play in the NFL, others say they want to be a singer. I can’t help but think to myself “and how likely is that to happen?” I think it is great for people to strive for a career they are passionate about, but if that is ALL they work towards, they may get disappointed when that dream doesn’t come true. So, to those who tell me they want to be in the NFL, I let them know the cold hard truth and that while they are here, they need to work at hard at getting grades and choose a backup career they think they would enjoy, even if it is not their passion. I think many college students don’t think about the future, bills, etc.

  22. Ashley says:

    AWFUL, AWFUL advice. I graduated with an accounting degree in the heart of the depression. I took a dead end admin job and have been pigeon holed ever since. My degree is worthless now. Taking a job beneath your qualifications does nothing but discredit your qualifications. Nobody is going to take an engineer who has been working in fast food. It makes it look like you couldn’t do any better and you get pigeon holed into low wage work. For the sake of everybody, don’t listen to this guy.

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