The Science of How to Find the Perfect Job

Namita Azad
Namita Azad
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The Challenge: You want a job that you love and are passionate about.
The Science: Wanting to do what you love might actually make you miserable.
The Solution: Here’s the science of how to find the perfect job.

In his viral 2005 Stanford commencement address, Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs famously said: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” These words have been an inspiration for new cohorts of Millennials entering the job market. But these very same words can also be a curse.

According to a Gallup poll, in 2014 only 31.5% of workers reported being engaged at work. And the generation that reported the least engagement at work is that of Millennials, paradoxically the ones most exposed to the follow your passion message. Cal Newport, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, explains the paradox by arguing that the follow your passion mantra can easily turn into the passion trap, which he defines as follows: “The more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have”. Because any job has its tedious, challenging or unpleasant tasks, there is a lot of potential for unhappiness if you believe that you should love every second you spend at work.

The passion trap can also limit your professional growth. Research shows that success requires dedication, practice, effort and the occasional failure. In other words, professional growth is a process that implies discomfort. However, if you are under the spell of the passion trap, you might interpret the healthy discomfort you feel when you are being challenged at a job as a sign that you are in the wrong line of work. The result is that you might quit just when you are about to have a breakthrough.

The follow your passion idea not only affects the assessment of the work you have — it also affects the assessment of the career choices you have, because it means that you need to find the perfect fit between who you are, what you are passionate about and the career options on the table. That is a pretty tall order. If those three elements do not align perfectly, then you are doomed to a life of regret.

But are you?

In a recently published paper, a group of researchers from the University of Michigan led by Patricia Chen, Ph.D., tackled the issue of how people think about passion for work. It turns out that most people endorse a fit mindset: they believe that passion for work is found through a fit with the right career. However, about 20% of the people endorse a different view of passion for work. They believe that passion is developed on the job over time instead of being found at the outset. These people have a develop mindset regarding passion for work.

And here’s the key: adopting a develop mindset is freeing and – ironically – can make you passionate about your job. No need to feel bad if you have not figured out what you are passionate about. No need to obsess about finding the perfect match between what you are passionate about and a job description. This research tells us that you can develop a passion about some aspect of any job.

But how? By getting better at what you do. Teresa Amabile, Director of Research at Harvard Business School, found that a sense of making progress  is one of the main predictors of engagement and satisfaction at work. Similarly, the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan found that experiencing a sense of competence is one of the main drivers of motivation and engagement.

But aren’t people who seek and find a line of work that they are passionate about happier than those who develop passion for their work over time?

As it turns out, no, they are not.

People with either the fit or the develop mindset report similar levels of wellbeing at work and also similar incomes. If anything, people who endorse a develop mindset report more professional success, probably because they start out with the idea that they need to invest effort in their work.

The takeaway

There are two routes to achieving passion for work: investing effort to find a career that you are passionate about; or investing effort to get better at the job you have. They are both equally effective strategies. So if you do not have the luxury to wait for the perfect job opportunity, or if you have not figured out yet what you are passionate about, no worries — get better at what you do, and chances are that you will grow to love it.

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Paolo Terni

Paolo Terni

Dr. Paolo Terni, MAPP, PCC, is an expert on the psychology of achievement and on the development of human capital. A Solution-Focused coach based in California, he empowers his clients to work smarter, to accomplish more, and to thrive in challenging circumstances. Since 1997, Paolo Terni has been using his coaching and training skills to help companies in Europe and in the USA to successfully implement Organizational Development (OD) projects. Passionate about education, he mentors coaches for ICF accreditation purposes and he works pro-bono with schools and no-profits. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Master of Applied Positive Psychology, Paolo Terni is conducting further research on the development of character strengths in conjunction with the Positive Psychology Center.
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1 Comment

  • Tyler says:

    Great article, Paolo! Since we spend the majority of our lives at work, it’s so important to find the one you’ll really like and won’t get bored of. You’ll definitely have to try out a few before you’ll realize what you love doing.

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