Cusp

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"Find Your Passion" Isn't Always The Best Advice

Sometimes tying to "do what you love" can be bad for your health

Way before Big Bird sang “Aren’t You Glad You’re You?” in 1977, or Marlo Thomas wrote Free to Be . . . You and Me in 1973, or the hippies of the 1960s were telling everyone to Do Your Own Thing, Man -- long before all that, there was the advice to “do what you love.” Back in the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau talked about marching to the beat of a different drummer—a phrase Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys turned into a pop song in 1967. “Do what you love,” Thoreau wrote in Letters to a Spiritual Seeker. “Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”  Thoreau's own famous sojourn at Walden Pond was in part an attempt to uncover his own life's purpose (though I'd like to pause here to mention that the man so lauded for his solitary introspection also used to bring his dirty laundry home to Mama back in Concord, a short walk from his supposedly-remote cabin -- how Millennial).

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Abraham Maslow, who created the concept of a “hierarchy of needs,” put the need to gnaw one’s own bone at the very top of the ladder of human fulfillment. He laid it out in a 1943 paper in Psychological Review that’s surprisingly lyrical, full of phrases like “Man is a perpetually wanting animal.” A person’s basic physiological needs (hunger, sleep, sex) dominate his consciousness until they’re met, according to Maslow's hierarchy, after which they’re replaced by a succession of needs that come to dominate, in order, with similar urgency: first safety, then love, then esteem, and finally what Maslow called self-actualization. “Discontent and restlessness will soon develop unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for,” he wrote. “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be.” He called it “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

This idea, while meant to be liberating, can be a huge burden to a young person trying to make decisions about career and purpose. How do you know what you love? How do you figure it out early enough to be sure you’re loving the right thing at the right time, but not so early that you commit to a passion before you really understand what such a commitment means?

And is it even the best idea to try to make a living by doing what you love? What if finding a job that really suits your passion and your personality is exactly the opposite of what's needed to live a long and happy life?

That was the finding of a longitudinal study that began in 1921, when the Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman recruited nearly 1,500 11-year-olds who scored extremely well on the intelligence test he had just helped develop. (This was the Stanford-Binet test, now the standard assessment of IQ.) He enrolled them in the so-called Terman Genius Study, designed to see how these kids turned out -- what jobs they chose, how healthy they were, how long they lived. Even though this took place decades before the Millennials were born, many of the internal pressures on bright young people were the same. Which makes it especially interesting to see that the decisions that worked best for the Terman Genius Study participants (fondly known as Termites) weren't always what conventional wisdom would have predicted.

In the 1940s, when the Termites were in their early thirties, researchers kept records of every participant's interests, hobbies, and personality traits. Years later, Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin of the University of California, Riverside, went back to those early records to analyze how the subjects' personalities fit with their chosen fields. The Termites had been divided into six personality types: realistic, investigative, social, artistic, enterprising, and conventional. Each personality type was thought to fit best into a particular set of occupations. Realistic personalities, for instance, were thought best suited for jobs that involved doing things, such as engineer, firefighter, pilot, machinist, or veterinarian. Looking at the men in the study (since in that generation so few women, even these super-smart women, had careers) and following them to their deaths, Friedman and Martin tried to see whether there any connection between an individual's job-personality match and his subsequent health and longevity.

“Being well-suited to one’s job did not always predict a longer life,” they wrote in "The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study". “A match could actually be a health risk factor.” A good fit, they concluded, could exaggerate a person’s worst traits, while a less congenial job could sometimes serve as a moderating influence. For instance, men with enterprising personalities, which meant they were aggressive and hard-driving, might seem especially suited to jobs in sales or politics – but when they chose these careers, their Type A tendencies were reinforced, and the stress, bad habits, and constant anxiety led to a shorter life expectancy. When these same enterprising men found jobs that were less demanding, they tended to live longer.

“Living one’s dream was not what led to health and longevity,” Friedman and Martin wrote. “It was a productive perseverance, a sense of mastery and accomplishment buoyed by one’s career successes, that did that. We hope this is a comforting finding for students and young people on the brink of life-shaping career choices.”

Comforting? Maybe. But it’s also a little confusing. When is it better to find work that suits your essential self, and when is it better to have a job that thwarts it? It may depend partly on what kind of essential self you have – and on your definition of a good outcome. If your essential self thrives on risk, stress, and constant aggression, and if your definition of “success” is long life, it might indeed be better to force yourself to conform to a career that tamps down your most self-destructive qualities and brings out your calmer, more health-affirming nature. But if success for you is a yacht and a country house, or the thrill of mastering a difficult challenge, then a safer, less driven job – no matter how health-affirming – might not cut it.

from Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig, Hudson Street Press, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig.

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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