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Which work are you willing to suffer for?

Jul 03, 2022 Success, Sunday Nation

Follow your passion. It’s oft-repeated advice, and tells us to do the things we feel most zest, most enthusiasm for. If we do what we love to do, we will do it with unbounded energy and application, and perhaps discover the best in us.

I myself gave out this advice in a book I wrote, The Bigger Deal. To wit: “It is true that many of life’s truly outstanding achievements are clocked by people who feel fervent, unbridled zest for what they do. Without this magic nectar, we are merely competing for mediocrity.”

I went on to state: “Those who are wholeheartedly in love with their work need to do their thing, only their thing and no other thing, and do it to the highest possible level of achievement before they’re done.”

I stand by those words. And yet.

I also noted in the book that passion alone is far from being enough. Success also requires capability and aptitude. We must develop the skillsets, driven by passion, that allow us to excel. And we must be careful when we use words like passion, for passion can be short-lived, or cause a self-absorbed derangement.

Professor Dan Cable of London Business School teaches organisational behaviour, and is one of my favourite thought leaders, because he brings both intellect and heart to his work. He wrote something along the same lines recently in the Harvard Business Review. He pointed out that “follow your passion” is just too glib. It can leave people damaged if they don’t find their dream jobs or work that fills them with intrinsic joy. There are too many people who hate their work because they feel other people get to follow their passion, while they don’t.

Having studied people’s work choices and career successes for decades, the professor has different advice for you: follow your blisters. What an excellent way to put it. What causes blisters? Something you do repeatedly. It hurts—but you keep doing it. He asks us to note which tasks we persevere through, even though they don’t always lead to immediate joy. In other words: what work do we keep doing, even though we don’t succeed right away, and even when we are discouraged? That might be the clue that leads us to the best work of our lives.

This rang very true for me, personally. I have great enthusiasm for most of the work I do—teaching strategy and leadership to others, acting as an advisor and sounding board, writing books and this column—but I also have the blisters. It is hard, demanding work. I am often exhausted and even dispirited. It requires long hours and intensely focused attention. I often feel mentally drained and in severe need of a recharging break. So there’s passion, yes; but there are also endless blisters and even scars.

Would I stop doing all that stuff, because it’s demanding and taxing? Hell, no! It is the work of my life. It is the work I left other work to do. It is the work that makes me say no to other opportunities, every day. It is what matters to me, and my blisters are a necessary consequence of doing it well.

Dan Cable’s advice is sound. We should not only focus on work that gives immediate emotional payback. We also have to say: “I keep returning to this work. Why?” Mothers have literal blisters, every day, from caring for their children. Yet they get up every day to do their thing. Even when they complain, they know they will keep doing the daily grind. Their passion and their blisters are wrapped up in the same activity.

What work matters most to you, even though it is sometimes tedious, sometimes repetitive, sometimes unrewarding? That’s the nature of all work, by the way; nothing that is worth doing is easy to do. What is more important to identify is the work that we are willing to work hard at, willing to wake up early and sleep late in order to complete. Those blisters make you better and stronger, and give you a better chance at ultimate success than just looking for emotional gratification.

As I wrote in The Bigger Deal: “For some of us, the magical match between work and passion will happen naturally. For many more, meaning will come not from the love of the work, but from an acceptance of the necessity of work, and of doing it well and with good spirit.”

I wish this for you: that you will be able to not only do what you love, but also love what you do. That you will look not for quick and easy joy and fulfilment, but for the work that is worth doing, no matter how difficult. That you will hang in there and go beyond the blisters, to true competence and achievement.

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