You develop what the Japanese culture might call “wabi-sabi” – a beauty caused by the personalized texture you have earned and the places you are not quite symmetrical
- Instead, why not follow our blisters? A blister is the thing you come back to time and again, even though it is hard and you might not be that good at it (yet).
- For some people it’s writing, for others it’s public speaking, or data and analytics.
- If you want a satisfying career, ask yourself: What activities do I keep returning to, even though they are challenging?
When I lived in North Carolina, my family and I spent a lot of time in the mountain towns of Boone and Blowing Rock. For some reason, we would see disproportionately large numbers of vintage Volvos with hippy-esque bumper stickers saying “If it’s not fun, why do it?” and “Follow your bliss!” You know the type.
On the one hand, messages like these are helpful because they remind us to not “lose the plot” of life. After all, it’s easy to get so caught up in what we think we should do that we forget to do some of what we like to do. On the other hand, something about those messages seems a little too saccharine sweet.
When it comes to career advice, “Follow your passion!” is a little like “Follow your bliss!” Sure, passion sounds like a wonderful thing when choosing where to invest your time and effort. After all, the average person spends more than 90,000 hours at work in their lifetime. Yes, that is one-third of your entire life.
But, at the same time, “Follow your passion!” is perhaps just a bit too glib to be useful. It is this exact piece of advice that leaves people damaged if they don’t find a dream job that complements their natural abilities and fills them with an intrinsic sense of joy – not to mention that passions can be ephemeral.
So, of course it would be nice if that time was spent doing something you actually love
As a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, I’ve been studying and writing about people’s job choices and career success for 25 years. And instead of “Follow your passion” or “Follow your bliss,” my bumper-sticker career advice is “Follow your blisters.”
A blister appears when something wears at you – and even chafes you a bit – but you keep getting drawn back to it. What I like about the phrase is that it implies something about perseverance and struggling through tasks even though they are not always blissful. “Follow your blisters” makes me ask myself the question, “What kind of work do I find myself coming back to again and again, even when I don’t succeed right away, when it seems like it’s taking too long to make progress, or when I get discouraged?”
For me, it’s writing. Sometimes I write academic, empirical articles that I publish in scholarly journals. Other times I write books about social science. Sometimes I write articles like this one. And it irritates me a little that I’m still not that good at writing – that I still have to re-write and edit a lot and still often get rejected. I know I need a lot more practice, and somehow the practice is both frustrating and attractive to me. The draw of writing pulls me back, even when I have too many other things to do. Part of me likes how there’s still so much to learn about it, I guess.
So, if you’re looking to find a career that will matter to you, instead of looking only in the direction of “passion,” also think about the activities that you return to – despite the fact that they are harder to complete than things you are more immediately or emotionally drawn to.
Martin Seligman, one of the parents of positive psychology, asks the question this way: “What activities were you already doing as a child that you still like to do now?” It may not be the thing you love to do the most, and it may not be the most fun all the time, but ask yourself: Is there something I have to work hard at to get right, something that I want to get right because I care enough about it, no matter how much time and practice it takes? Is there something that gets me up a little early, or keeps me working late, after others have gone to sleep? Not because the project is due the next day, but because it’s important to me to make a little more progress? Not every day and night, but reliably?
What activities do you never need to put on your “To Do” list? You may notice that other people need to remind themselves to analyze the metrics of their social media posts while you are naturally pulled toward cracking the code of what performs well. You may notice that other people dread preparing speeches to give before the class while you are up late doing research to support your points and practicing in front of the mirror. Pay attention to this. And in comparison, also notice what tasks you have to nudge and remind yourself to complete at all.
For me, it’s hard not to work on this article, even now, late at night when everyone else in the house is sleeping, whereas I need to create reminders to prepare for administrative meetings (and even then I wait until the very last minute). The things that always seem to get done often reveal insight into what will fulfill you in your career – they are the things we never need to be asked twice to do, and ultimately, they are more satisfying than the things we may love to do largely because they come natural and easy to us.
Finally, “Follow your blisters” implies something that you come back to so many times that you eventually move past the blister stage, into toughened skin. Eventually, the activity “marks you” through use and practice, and you develop a special competence. When you practice an activity a bit more obsessively than other people, you build unique character – you earn some wear and some healing that makes you idiosyncratic, and a little unbalanced.