Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

10 Reasons Why Some People Love What They Do

Some people get up each day looking forward to their work. What's their secret?

Kicking off 2013 with good vibrations, here are 10 thoughts on why some people love their work. And by “love” I don’t mean that they never have a day when they’d rather be doing anything but their job, but rather that they experience a consistent contentment with what they do. For the most part, these are the people that get up thinking about what’s going to happen at work that day, minus the impending sense of dread many of us have as we're brushing our teeth. To the contrary, they wake up to a challenge – which is a nice segue into the first item on this list.

1. They seldom feel disconnected from the challenge that first engaged their interest.

This understanding jumps out at me like a spider monkey every time I speak to someone who genuinely loves what they do. Though their career paths may have swerved here and there, they’ve remained connected to the initial challenge—that all important motivating “juice”—that compelled them toward their field. Sure, at times it’s harder to focus, because all of us wade into murky waters now and again, sometimes deep enough that we seem to be “losing the plot,” to borrow an English phrase. But people who love what they do never fully lose sight of the challenge and the sense of purpose that drives them; they fight their way back toward it no matter how murky things get because it’s the very thing that gets them up in the morning.

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2. They’re remarkably well-attuned to the “early years.”

I wish that more people would realize that if they dig way back into their personal histories (and I mean way back, well into childhood), they’ll connect up with some extremely important reminders. Memory is an odd beast to be sure, and cognitive science tells us that all of us “confabulate” memory to varying degrees (that is, our brains reconstruct memories combining shards of what actually happened with bits and pieces of imagined realities). While we can’t change how our brains work—and we cannot change the fact that memory is a reconstruction—we can dig like miners searching for even faint memories of what once fueled our passions.

People who genuinely love their jobs have done this—in fact, they’re usually doing it all the time—and are in touch with that kid who loved to write, or tell stories, or envision amazing buildings. The important part: what these people are doing in their jobs now may not be (and usually is not) a carbon copy of those passions, but they’ve successfully integrated elements of those passions into what they do. In effect, they’re energized kids with the seasoned perspective of adults – and that’s a great place to be.

3. They are “portfolio” thinkers.

Psychology research, using the vernacular of business, has made an important contribution to understanding how to effectively manage loss and failure – and it has everything to do with what’s in your personal portfolio. When we speak of stock portfolios, we’re talking about something that is neither consistently good nor bad; it’s a mixture of ups and downs. A down cycle doesn’t kill the portfolio—though it may weaken it for a time. And an up cycle doesn’t make the portfolio a permanent success—though it may get it a bit closer to that goal. The point is, portfolio thinkers know that their careers will always combine positives and negatives. The crucial thing is, they don’t choke on the negatives and they don’t get too high on the positives. They ride the wave of both and by doing so they navigate their way closer and closer to what they want. If you want to love what you do, that sort of balanced, even-keel perspective isn’t optional.

4. They don’t care what you think.

I don’t mean this observation to sound snarky, but the truth is that people who genuinely love what they do don’t allow others to talk them out of it. Imagine someone who all their life wanted to work with animals in some way. Maybe as a trainer, or researcher, of veterinarian – just in some way, because that’s the “juice” that compels them. And then one day in school along comes an allegedly knowledgeable career counselor who tells this person that, while it’s “nice” to dream about working with furry woodland creatures, the reality is that pursuing a career along those lines is fanciful. Consider practicality, consider the hard and fast realities of life – consider everything else except the juice.

Too bad most of us, particularly back in school, didn’t have the gumption and wherewithal to tell that person, “Thanks but no thanks – I’ll take the juice.” Those of us who make it through those impasses, guarded by naysayers aplenty, are much more likely to love what they do than those talked into a contrived conventionality. But, the good news is, even if we took bad advice back then, there are still opportunities afterward to get back to what fuels our passions. It won’t come easy, but precious little worth having ever does. To put a psychological bead on this observation: people who love what they do are self-actualized in the best sense of the term.

5. They are born succession planners.

I’ve spent most of my adult life in corporate environments and have no major complaints about that – but I also make no qualms about really disliking corporate-speak. Not all of it, but a lot of it (when someone in a meeting tells me they want to take a “bio break,” I start twitching like a meth addict). Nevertheless, some corporate-isms are quite important, and “succession planning” is one of them. It simply means that for every person deeply synced into his or her position, there’s another person in training to do that job when the time comes. And the time always comes eventually, because things change all the time; that’s the one constant we can all be sure of.

People who love their jobs not only know this, they embrace it wholeheartedly and actively look for others to share their passions with, in hopes that they’ll want to do that job one day as well. These folks aren’t doing this because the company handbook tells them to – they do it because they love what they do, and that passion compels them to share their knowledge and acumen with others. And if the would-be successor isn’t passionate about that position, people who love what they do take pains to help them figure out what position will fuel their motivation – because success is unabashedly addicted to creating success.

6. They will stay…but just know, they’ll also leave.

Why will they leave? Because for people who love what they do, organizations are important--since they provide the infrastructure to do that which fuels their fire--but no single organization has a monopoly on providing that fuel, and if a company or firm or nonprofit—whatever—ceases to provide an adequate venue for doing what they love to do, then it’s time to move on. I’d like to say “It’s not personal,” but the truth is, it’s extremely personal. It couldn’t be more so. A full commitment to doing that which one loves is among the most personal parts of one’s life. Passion always supersedes the functionality of infrastructure and organization, and that’s part of what makes it such an essential part of who we are.

7. They won’t be stopped.

I have lost count, seriously, of how many managers I’ve watched try to talk a passionate person out of pursuing a path toward the thing that fulfills them. The manager has a plan, and this person needs to fill a prescribed role in that plan, period. But for a passion-driven person who loves what they do—or is trying to connect up with what they love to do—that plan will receive their deference for only as long as it takes them to navigate around it. To put that another way, when a manager says, in so many words, “this is your role in my plan, and failure to fill it will have negative consequences,” the smart person usually obliges, at least temporarily. But the passion-drive person bent on doing what they love is already figuring out how to blow the walls off that plan and move on. You can’t hold them back. Just try it and see what happens. Passion-fueled tenacity will win in the end, even if it means taking some hard knocks in the short run. Amen.

8. They draw people to them without even trying.

If you’ll excuse the cliché – passion sells. Well, it does. People want to be around people who are passionate about what they do, because it’s an infectious feeling. So, let’s take the hypothetical person who loves what they do--and they exude passion about how connected they are with the challenges of their day—and place them among a group of people far less directed, far less passionate, and frankly a little confused about why what they do means anything at all.

Some of those people are probably so jaded that nothing is going to change their perspective, but some of the others are going to take notice. And when they get a taste, they’ll want a bigger taste – and pretty soon, even if they aren’t exactly sure why—they’ll start feeling a strange, uplifting sensation about coming to work. That’s the infection of passion, and if you’ve ever worked somewhere without at least a little bit of it to go around, you already know how vapid and miserable the days seem. People who love what they do pass along what psychologists call “psychosocial contagions,” and just a few drops can change an office for the better. As this happens, those doing the infecting are affirmed by the infected, and a positive cycle begins.

9. They live in the now.

People who love what they do are not short-sighted thinkers, but they’re also not going to wait around too long to see if “the pieces come together” or whatever other euphemism you want to insert for quasi-hopeful thinking. Sure, they’ll give it some time – of anyone, they know it takes time to pursue one’s vision of fulfillment. Nothing just happens without work and time, and more work. But if you think you’re going to convince a genuinely passionate person that an array of external forces must align before they can act, you’re wasting your time. The “now” for someone who loves what they do is precious, because it can disappear in a heartbeat. And that, as it turns out, is one of the most important lessons they pass along to the rest of us.

10. They never, ever limit their vision to serve the interests of petty competition.

Stephen Covey famously said (paraphrasing), highly effective people don’t see the “pie” as having a limited number of pieces. Instead, they see a pie with pieces enough for everyone, and it doesn’t bother them to watch others get their slice. While we cannot escape the fact that we live in a competitive culture—or that we are a competitive species, just like every other species on this planet—there’s quite a difference between healthy embodiment of competition, and petty pursuit of selfish ends. People who love what they do are competitive. They wouldn’t be able to reach their goals if they weren’t. But they don’t invest their time and energy in scheming and undermining; they don’t try to deny the other guy his piece of pie just because that means there’s one less to consume. Loving what you do—no matter how competitive you have to be to attain your goals—does not require stepping on others to get there. The folks we’ve been talking about in this article know that intuitively, and it’s a big part of the reason they're worth writing about.

You can find me on Twitter @neuronarrative and at my website, The Daily Brain.

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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