By Sonita Lontoh, Executive, Trilliant
Some students in business schools know exactly what they want to do for their careers and go after them with conviction. Others are not quite sure and may follow the consulting and banking route to see whether they like it and build the skills and network for their next jobs. Still others are wondering whether they should just follow their passion in order to be happy.
Problem is, sometimes it is not clear whether what one thinks as a passion is actually just a hobby. As I was pondering my own career decision after business school, I had a guiding principle that I wanted to work in an arena where I was contributing something greater to society rather than just selling a product. I also wanted to work in a career where technology, business and policy intersect. On a more personal note, I also knew I had to go back to San Francisco as my husband was living there and we had been living in separate cities while I was pursuing my graduate degrees. I worked on a career plan on finding a purpose where my passion and skills could be put to use to help solve a problem in this world. At the time, I had the choice to go to green technology, biotechnology or high-tech sectors. After thoughtful consideration, I decided to pursue a career in green technology.
People are often mistaken to believe that in order to be happy, they need to pursue their "passion." This belief is further reinforced by the millennial generations entering the workforce today, who proselytize to pursue their passion. There also seems to be a clear distinction between what constitute "non-passionate" careers – businessmen, lawyers, bankers, and "passionate" careers – teachers, writers, artists. Although this line of thinking affects both men and women, there seems to be a belief that women are more likely to be in a position to pursue their passion for a “full-time career” because they are not usually the main breadwinner in the family. This somewhat also implies that passionate careerists oftentimes cannot make a good enough living to be the main breadwinner. After all, how many writers become Pulitzer-winning or best-selling authors? Is following your passion worth it?
I believe this type of thinking is flawed because time and again, it has been shown that in order to be happy, both men and women need to have a purpose in life. There is a difference between having a purpose and a passion or hobby. For example, just because someone likes fashion as a hobby, it does not necessarily mean he/she will make a successful career as a fashion designer. Instead of confusing passion, hobby and a career, I suggest people focus on finding a purpose -- finding ways on how you can leverage your passion and skills to solve important problems in the world. Finding a solution to climate change is one example of how one can help solve one of the world’s biggest problems.
People who are working hard in solving the biggest problems are often compensated in the biggest ways, not just in financial terms, but also in human satisfaction terms. Solving problems shift the focus from you to others. It shifts the conversation from what you like to do (having a passion or hobby) to how you can be a valuable contributor in helping society solves its problems (having a purpose). This paradigm shift in thinking is quite empowering as it shifts the frame of reference from the self to how we can help others. People become less self-absorbed and ironically, more likely to be genuinely happy. Don’t you sometimes find that you’re happiest when you don’t think too much about how to become happy?
The good news is that there are a lot of big problems in this world to solve. Each of us has the unique skills to solve some of these biggest problems. Which ones resonate with you?
There are a few things you can do to try to figure this out. Broaden your horizon and network with others who may be working to solve big problems. Look to solve problems for which you can personally identify with. Develop emotional maturity to realize that the world does not revolve around you.
We don't find true happiness by focusing on ourselves. We do by connecting with and helping others.
True happiness comes from the intersection of doing what we love, what we’re good at, and what the world needs. The easiest is to focus on the first, let’s combine it with the second and most importantly, the last.
Sonita Lontoh is an executive at Trilliant, a venture-backed Silicon Valley clean tech company. She is a clean/green technology expert recognized on Wikipedia and is a frequent speaker/contributor on energy, clean tech, and women leadership topics. She is passionate about leveraging innovation to transform our energy use to combat climate change, and to encourage more women in technology leadership positions. Sonita earned her Master of Engineering degree from MIT, where she was also cross-registered at the Harvard Business School. She holds an M.B.A. from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a B.S. in Industrial Engineering & Operations Research from UC Berkeley. Follow Sonita on Twitter @slontoh and see her speak at the 2012 Forte MBA Women Conference.