IT’S a piece of career advice that we have probably all been given at some point in our lives: “Follow your passion”. Like many coaches and other advisers, I admit to having delivered that hackneyed phrase many times. But in recent years I have used it far less, and for one main reason – simply “following your passion” in life carries no guarantee of success (or happiness). And it also offers no useful guidance to the people who, for large parts of their lives, do not know what their passion is or cannot imagine a way of following it.
When I work with a dental or other professional client, feeling disillusioned or burned out at any age or stage, I start by asking them if they know what they truly want. Ninety per cent of the time the response is some variation on: “I have no idea – but definitely not this.”
But in my experience, knowing what you want from life in the long term is far more valuable than focusing solely on identifying and pursuing your “passion”.
A turning point for me was reading a 2016 article on the career advice website “80,000 hours”, which carefully dismantled the “follow your passion” approach.
I concluded that passion is helpful but is not all you require. Without the other key ingredients for job satisfaction – being engaged, helping others, having talent, working with good people and fitting the rest of your life – the flame of passion can soon be extinguished. To paraphrase the article, if you find a fulfilling job that meets these needs then you’ll become passionate about it.
Finding out what you want
If you feel you have reached a crossroads or even a dead end, try looking back to when you thought you knew what life would be like. How far has your path diverted from what you imagined? Can you see a way of moving from your current place to another path? What would be the first step? Do you know anyone who seems to have done what you imagined? How did they go about it? Dentistry (like life itself) is filled with individuals who have taken their own routes. It’s a bit of a cliché but the important thing is the journey, not the destination. Spend time looking at others who appear to have it “sorted”. How did they deal with their obstacles?
The money myth
One key point to bear in mind is the myth that money brings happiness. But as many a grandmother has said: “money only means that you can be miserable in nicer places”. While established professions like dentistry can deliver attractive financial rewards, the money is often a diminishing return. Weekends and late evenings can bring in plenty of cash but reduce the ability to enjoy time. Very few dentists say on their deathbeds: “I wish I had spent more time at the practice”.
Another common complaint is that dentistry is “too stressful”, and I sympathise with this. Yet it is rarely the “nuts and bolts” that deliver the excess stress. Most dentists enjoy helping people, delivering good results and working within a team. The stressors then are usually short term and manageable, the challenges achievable and the individual dentist has control.
Problems arise when the stress is external and constant, where the individual feels little control or power and is isolated. They may be under pressure to hit financial or performance targets that feel unachievable. If you find yourself in this situation, try asking yourself the question: “what’s stopping me?”. Turn the “I can’t” into “how does John or Julie manage?” And then ask them: what small things might I try to make a difference?
Heading in the right direction
It took me 25 years, with jobs in hospitals, general practice and eventually my own successful, private practice before I accepted what it was that made me unhappy. I believed I could never do “perfect”. I had little confidence in my manual skills and did not experience satisfaction from working with my hands. I had a practice where I had control but it was not enough. My original passion to prevent disease and to care for children and phobics once realised was insufficient to maintain my satisfaction and enjoyment of work, and therefore life in all its facets.
I changed direction by accepting that this wasn’t what I wanted. I still help people. I am still able to use my history taking, diagnostic and treatment planning skills. I deal with emergencies, medium and long-term plans. But I experience more satisfaction. My life is varied as I not only coach and consult, but also write and speak and I look forward to every day. There are still plenty of challenges, but they are the ones that I have chosen.
Writing in the Financial Times recently Janan Ganesh put his finger on this: “knowing what you want is the most important life skill, worth more than talent or hard work. Have it and disappointment is still probable but on your own terms. Lack it and you will be done to and acted upon. The creature of events.”
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