Each of us is unique and brings different skills and qualities to any situation. Each of us excels at certain activities and in certain environments. So why is it that most of us fail to spend sufficient time learning to understand ourselves and creating our own definitions of career success? It may seem so much easier to just keep doing what you’re doing—for now—and leave it to later to figure out what you’re really meant to do with your life. But if you’re looking to make a change, there is another way, and it starts with understanding your passions.
The word “passion” is frequently used in connection with emotions and feelings. It’s about excitement. It has more to do with your heart than your head.
But passion in your career is critical because reaching your full potential requires a combination of your heart and your head. In my experience as a business leader and business school professor, your intellectual capability and skills will take you only so far. Regardless of your talent, you will have rough days, months, and years. You may get stuck with a lousy boss. You may get discouraged and feel like giving up.
What would you like to tell your children and grandchildren about what you accomplished in your career?
What pulls you through these difficult periods? The answer is your passion: it is the essential rocket fuel that helps you overcome difficulties and work through dark times. Passion emanates from a belief in a cause or the enjoyment you feel from performing certain tasks. It helps you hang in there so that you can improve your skills, overcome adversity, and find meaning in your work and in your life.
So: what tasks do you love to do? What causes or missions inspire you? Many people I’ve encountered throughout my career are so worried about the cost of changing careers, or so influenced by what their friends and family think they should want, that they spend little time thinking about what they actually love to do.
To help figure this out, I often ask people to think about a situation when they were at their best—they shined—and loved what they were doing. Then I ask them to analyze why they felt this way. What tasks were you performing? What was the mission? What was the environment? Did you have a boss? If so, how did she manage you and what was she doing that made you feel so good? Try this exercise. It can help you defrost some of your self-understanding muscles and recall what sparks your interest, motivation and excitement.
Another approach is to ask a series of hypothetical questions:
If you had one year left to live, how would you spend it? What does that tell you about what you enjoy and what you have a passion for?
If you had enough money to do whatever you wanted, what job or career would you pursue?
If you knew you were going to be highly successful in any career you chose, what job would you pursue today?
What would you like to tell your children and grandchildren about what you accomplished in your career? How will you explain to them what career you chose?
If you were a friend giving advice to yourself, what would you suggest regarding a career choice?
These questions may seem painfully simple. They are, in concept—yet, in my experience, too frequently people tend to overlook them and find themselves seemingly trapped in a corner after heading down a road that doesn’t fit their skills or passions. Finding your true passion—what you’re really meant to do—is about better understanding yourself and creating your own definition of success based on your own unique qualities. This path may not be exactly what your friends or loved ones initially suggested, or even what you initially wanted for yourself. But ultimately, there is nothing more fulfilling and inspiring than a person who loves what they’re doing, feels that their work fits their skills and believes they are making a positive impact on others.
Try these initial steps to create your own definition of success—and then achieve it.
Robert Steven Kaplan (@RobSKaplan) is Senior Associate Dean and the Martin Marshall Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. He’s the author of the new book, What You’re Really Meant To Do, published by Harvard Business Review Press.