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37 Signal’s Formula for a Satisfying Career (Hint: It’s Not Passion)


Rethinking the Laborious Slog

Supporters of the passion hypothesis assume that the key to enjoying your career is choosing the right type of work.

I’ve been arguing that there are many other (and often way more important) factors that help determine whether you end up loving your career.

What you do for a living, in other words, is just a small piece in the satisfaction puzzle.

A recent Fast Company article by 37 Signal’s David Hansson (promoting his new co-authored book, REMOTE), provides a nice case study for my philosophy. Here’s Hansson:

“[T]he problem isn’t actually the work itself. It’s the fight against the hostile environment surrounding the work that’s the laborious slog…The fact is that most people like to work. Really work, that is. Engage their brain and their talents in the creation of value.”

As the article then elaborates, the “hostile environment” causing people to be unhappy with their jobs includes factors such as long commutes, requirements to live near the company offices (even if you otherwise dislike the location), and hyper-distracting office cultures.

If you can minimize these environmental negatives (i.e., by promoting remote work agreements), Hansson notes, you can significantly increase peoples’ happiness.

As career advice, “follow flexible work arrangements” sounds less sexy than “follow your passion,” but Hansson reminds us that career satisfaction is not a particularly sexy pursuit, but is instead the outcome of many careful decisions about many subtle factors.

(Photo by The Other Dan)

9 thoughts on “37 Signal’s Formula for a Satisfying Career (Hint: It’s Not Passion)”

  1. I have always felt that if you’re spending most of your waking hours doing something, you are bound to e passionate about it at some point. We just need to stop other things from preventing people reaching that point. We must enable them instead.

  2. I read/heard somewhere from you that we should choose an interesting career and then become good at it. After a while we will become an important asset to the company and thus promotion and opportunities would follow. Then you stated that we should not take these offers but leverage ourselves to live a life we want, a happy life. For example choosing my own work hours, or working at home, etc. How do you know exactly when you have enough leverage to obtain these things ?

  3. The idea of a hostile environment rings very close to home for me. My son who found his passion (which was a huge surprise) wanted to be a Tree Care Specialist, found himself in a very hostile, I would argue, a criminal work environment with his first job. He almost gave it up and went back to school when we suggested he request a transfer. He did, he got it, he had to pay for his own move, but he got out of there and with a great deal of fear, he embarked on is chosen profession once again with a boss who not only appreciates him greatly but protects him as well. He is now flourishing. If nothing else he knows, it wasn’t his industry, but a single person with the power to make it difficult for him and those around him.

  4. Good points. Unfortunately, many people end up disliking their jobs not because of the work itself, but because of the negative spillover from factors such as disempowerment at the workplace, inflexible work location and schedules, or leadership that doesn’t resonate with the feelings and motivations of its employees.

    One way to prevent this negative spillover is to look for a new job with well-defined criteria for what kind of work environment you would like and with a strategy for gaining access to well-informed contacts that can provide information on the reality of the workplace you are looking at.

  5. This is true. Sometimes when we say we have a passion for a particular career, we really mean we have a passion for the work environment associated with that career. For example, my passion for academia is really just a passion for having autonomy and being surrounded by smart interesting people, which is hard to find at regular jobs.

  6. I’ve been in my job for 27 years. Worked in three different offices in three different cities and have always had a long and trafficky commute. We’ve had a work-at-home program for the many years and I’ve taken advantage of it in the last three –rarely going into the office. I have to say, I love working at home (now). I love not having to shower at the crack of dawn and love not having to put on “work clothes” and make-up. And I’m in my home at 4:00pm when my day is done. No annoying commute and giving away hours of my life sitting in a car in traffic. Having said all that, I would not have wanted to be working at home all alone in my 20s, 30s, or even my early 40s — I’m almost 53. I wanted and needed to be around people, to be part of life, not segregated & all alone in my home. There’s a large part of working that is social. Connections. Friends. At it’s best, it’s a community and I know a lot of people having a hard time retiring because of that (although a lot of people won’t admit it, especially men). It’s a huge loss to retire if you have a work community.
    There’s other downsides to working at home. I’ve had more experienced people in my office who have acted as mentors to me–doesn’t work as well when you never see the person. Even sharing work experiences/knowledge. Much easier in person than typing it up in an email (I’m already tired of writing this!) or having to call someone and talk on the phone. In my opinion, texting, emails, computer sharing of information, etc. cannot come close to in-person interaction. Especially the little things – going out for a cup of coffee together. Sharing a laugh. Being at someone’s desk and helping them solve a work problem. I miss

    • I agree with LAB that certain parts of knowledge sharing are much easier done in person than on email. I believe individuals starting out in their careers could tolerate a certain level of “hostile environment” such as commutes and the requirement to live close to work so long as they perceive themselves to gain enough benefits in the way of networks and knowledge sharing. Writers such as Susan Cain promote the benefits of working alone, especially for introverts, and caution against the unproductive results of imposed group-think. However I believe that there needs to be a “sweet spot” where an individual is able to strike a balance between working on their own in an “unhostile environment” and tolerating a certain level of “hostility” to better their skills.

  7. In respect to above comment, I believe it’s critical that we have a job that let’s us express our own preferences in our work environment, whatever that preference may be (e.g. isolation vs. company of others.) Having a draconian supervisor who forces his own style upon you and doesn’t grant you the basic right to do your work in your own way will never be pleasant unless you are in fact an exact clone of your supervisor. Thus, autonomy and freedom may be the most important ingredients to a satisfying career. With this freedom, one can then choose how to structure their work environment in such a way to maximize their satisfaction, whatever form that may take.

  8. It’s true that when the whole world works in your favour, you will derive the maximum satisfaction, specifically when one has a good career where the office is close to home, reasonable hours thus allowing one to have interests outside of work, a team of collegiate coworkers and a supportive boss.

    But one can’t overlook how ‘resilience’, ‘ambition’ and ‘passion’ plays a part as well. When you have a good career, but you’re not passionate about your work, the most you can derive is complacency and satisfaction that at least you’re making decent wage and there are worst jobs to be had out there. You’re not pushing yourself to achieve the most you can. You’re not putting those ‘ideas’ and ‘every day solutions to every day problems’ to the test. T

    he worst is using these perceived ‘luxuries’ as an excuse to stay in a job that is not satisfying to someone. In fact, this is what some companies do – some provide good health insurance, good working hours, and friendly coworkers but at the expense of less promotions and less intellectual rigour. There is always going to be a trade-off wherever you go. The best of people can get satisfaction knowing that they are doing something that they want, even if the peripheral conditions are not ‘optimum’.


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