Stop Looking for Passion at Work; The meaning of your life won’t likely be found on the job

Posted: January 21, 2014

David Silverman is an author, teacher andsenior executive at a Fortune 100 firm.

Stop Looking for Passion at Work

I recently came across an interesting career website called the Paper Tuner. Among a variety of mostly good and useful material, however, I also found this:

I have one word for this TED presentation where we are told that we are pursuing our careers all wrong: shame. And I mean that in the sense of the word that means “shame on you for making people feel bad about themselves for not finding success through the workplace.” I say that because the presenter, Larry Smith, pushes hard on what I consider the “big lies” of what I’ll call the IPO-wins-Internet culture. (He also insists on calling Steve Jobs “Steven J”—really?)

Big Lie #1: Livelihood Is Life

Smith starts his video by telling the audience that they will fail to have a “great career.” By this he means, as he says later, that you don’t want to die with a headstone that reads, “Here lies the inventor of Velcro,” but with one emblazoned “Here lies the inventor of warp drive, who changed humanity forever.”

This makes two false assumptions: First, that Velcro isn’t that important; and, second, more seriously, that the measure of a life is its quantifiable accomplishments. This sort of thinking leads to the sad fate of so many child actors. Think of Danny BonaducciGary Coleman, or Anissa Jones, each of whom found that once their success faded, they were left questioning who they were and sinking into states of dejection, questionable career decisions, and too-frequent bouts with public humiliation.

Or, consider my father, a wonderful, great man who, when his career at IBM came to an end, fell into an alcoholic depression that ultimately killed him. He let his job define him and, without it, he felt he had essentially nothing worth living for.

Thus, I find the idea that you must achieve something big professionally, rather than finding life’s meaning outside of work, cynical at best, cruel at worst.

Big Lie #2: Hobbies and “Interests” Are a Waste of Time

Smith spends a good chunk of his talk disparaging “interests” versus “passion.” We are, he states firmly, supposed to have passion, and it should be expressed through our career, and only our career. The idea of leisure is abhorrent to him.

And this leads to people who feel ashamed that that they can’t make moneydoing what they love. My other parent, my mother, was an amateur artist. For decades, she produced elaborate ceramic and metal sculptures. But she felt a she was a failure because all that effort didn’t bring profit. Late in her life, she focused on trying to license sculpted characters she called “meeples,” which were odd little beings comprised of concentric circles. She sought the validation of commercial success right up to the end.

Or my own example: I love to cook—and after I served them a recent meal of pork shoulder and fresh guacamole, my friends tell me to open a restaurant. What a terrible idea, I thought. I don’t want to manage cooks and waiters, I don’t want to work from dawn to almost dawn sorting out payroll and kumquats. I want to cook for myself, my family, and friends.

And this isn’t just my opinion. Research shows that being paid to do something can make it mean less to us. By turning something enjoyable, like a jigsaw puzzle or a knitting project, into a paid activity, we turn hours of freely given effort into a commodity. It’s no longer a labor love; it’s $10 an hour. The intangible nature of pleasure that derives from the activity is lost.

By turning something enjoyable into a paid activity, we turn hours of freely given effort into a commodity.

Let me take that even further. I have, on occasion, had to wake up early for work. I don’t do it willingly; I do it out of obligation to my employer. On the contrary, I have happily woken up at 4 a.m. on numerous occasions to go mountain biking. Hobbies and interests are as much of what life is about as our careers, maybe more so.

Behavioral economists call this phenomenon, when one form of motivation replaces another, “crowding out.” Or, as this University of Rochester report on the work of experimental psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan puts it: “Deci’s and Ryan’s most startling finding was that rewards such as prizes and money were not only less effective than behavioral psychologists had long supposed, but under some circumstances could actually diminish people’s feelings of engagement and motivation.”

Big Lie #3: You Are Allowed Only One True Passion (And It Can’t Be Family)

My hobbies have included: CD collecting, writing, biking, guitar, cooking, travel, and being a dad. Yes, being a dad. As Smith defines it, anything outside the career, likely family, for which one is not paid, is a hobby. And I’m good with that. Because being a father is something I do not want to be my career. It’s too important to me.

To achieve Smith’s epitome of success is to be “Steven J.” from Apple—to turn your passion into a product and a career. Congrats to Steven. He certainly left a mark on the world. On some level, I desire that too, but not as much as I desire to enjoy the variety of life. I am content that my time in this mortal coil will be well lived even if I don’t become one of the .001 percent that wins a Nobel Prize or attains the corner office in a multibillion-dollar company. I am content to enjoy a journey where I find as much meaning and passion off the clock as on. I, and my son, will be the better for it.



About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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