Aligning your work with personal purpose is an integral part of being fulfilled at work. In fact, it’s often advised to “do what you love; turn your passion into your work!” Despite its feel-good intent, it’s not great counsel. “Passion is not something you follow,” says Cal Newport, author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Search for Work You Love.” “Passion is something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.”
Most highly skilled people are that way because they worked hard at becoming their very best. Take Michael Jordan, believed to be the best basketball player of all time. Remarkably, he was uninterested in sports as an adolescent. Considered too short by his coaches, he didn’t make the 9th-grade basketball team. As a sophomore, he made the junior varsity basketball team, but not varsity. Embarrassed, he channeled his perceived failure into motivation to practice more than anyone else. First, at the gym and last to leave, he believed that he would get out of the game what he put into it. And, because he worked to be good at basketball, it became his passion. Once it became his passion, he overcame all obstacles.
While most of us will never be the Michael Jordan of our professions, we can learn from his dedication to hard work and practice. It’s rewarding to be great at something and since you spend 8+ hours a day at work, why not commit to being great at your job? It might just turn into your passion.
You can’t be great at something unless you know what “great” looks like. Your goals will change as you master your role so don’t spend time trying to figure out the end game; there is no end game. Pick one part of your job to master first, determine what being an expert looks like, set goals, then act, and then repeat.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
It’s hard to excel at something if you don’t go beyond your comfort zone; you will never achieve mastery if you don’t push yourself. Take on a challenging new project, ask your boss for in-depth, critical feedback on your performance, or learn a new skill. Rather than accept the status quo, raise the bar for yourself.
Don’t Get Distracted
It’s easy to be distracted by tasks that minimize the discomfort of working hard at something you aren’t yet great at. In my first sales job, I had to develop a book of business from scratch and I did everything I could to avoid cold calling. I hated cold calling. I checked email, gossiped with coworkers, brainstormed with my boss…anything but put my head down to do the uncomfortable work. I quickly recognized I wouldn’t be successful if I didn’t pick up the phone, so I bought myself a 30-second sand timer. As soon as I hung up from one cold call, I flipped the timer over and I forced myself to make another call before the sand filled the bottom chamber. In six months, I was named Salesperson of the Year. The moral of the story: don’t be your own worst enemy; minimize distractions.
Give Your Best Effort
There’s no way around it, if you want to be great at something, you must work at it. Channel Michael Jordan: practice, practice, and more practice. Look at new tasks and challenges as strength and conditioning exercises; with every task complete and challenge overcome you’ve built your “getting really good at your job” muscles. Give your best effort and analyze your performance. Then practice more.
Never Stop Learning
Read job-related books or publications, take a class, go to a conference, join a forum, ask for more training, try a new way of doing something, and find out how other people do your job. Be curious and never stop learning.
Ask for Feedback
Receiving feedback can be tough, but it’s critical to grow personally and professionally. Be coachable by checking your ego at the door. Ask your boss and coworkers for feedback on your performance. If you get criticism, don’t take it personally or give up; instead use it as fuel for improvement.
As Michael Jordan so wisely said, “I’ve always believed that if you put in the work, results will come.” I also believe that if you put in the work, your passion will come.
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