“What my true passion?” “Do I need to follow my passion to find fulfillment at work?” “Should I chase my dreams, or be satisfied with my current career path?” Are these the kinds of questions you’ve been asking yourself lately?
Perhaps you’ve been given the increasingly common advice to “follow your bliss” or “do work you love.” Or maybe you’re out of your mind working at a job where you feel miserable, and are drawn to the idea of finding fulfilling work. There’s a lot of contradictory advice about following our passion. For example, Steve Jobs encouraged Stanford graduates in 2005 to find what they love. But, others argue that “following your passion” is bad advice. And, still others propose a middle path, which says that you can find fulfillment in almost any job. What should you make of all these perspectives? Should you, or should you not, follow your passion?
The answer, in my opinion, is that there is no “best” course of action that applies to everyone. All of us have unique interests, strengths, values, priorities, and contexts. What works for me might not work for you. Finding the best course of action requires being having clarity about who you are and what you want from life, rather than trying to apply a universal formula for professional fulfillment. Research shows that increased self-awareness (along with an awareness of the environment) enables people to make more effective career choices.
The importance of self-awareness in making better career decisions may seem obvious. For centuries, philosophers and religious leaders have extolled the virtues of knowing oneself. Most of us are familiar with this advice. But, knowing something is important doesn’t guarantee that we do it. For most of us, self-awareness is a challenge. According to researchers Ethan Zell and Zlatan Krizan, most people have only “moderate insight into their abilities” (such as academic ability, language competence, intelligence, etc.). Similarly, researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University found that when it comes to domains people are unskilled at, they often grossly overestimate their capabilities. Despite the common belief that self-awareness is important, most of us don’t seem to know ourselves very well.
Why is that so? In part, it’s because we often employ ineffective methods—such as introspection—to enhance our self-awareness. Contrary to what many believe, introspection does not lead to complete self-awareness. Scientists now agree that much of the human mind functions outside of our conscious awareness. That being the case, we can’t become fully self-aware by relying only on personal reflection. In other words, there are aspects of our minds we simply do not have access to, let alone be fully aware of, no matter how much we introspect. Even though introspection gives us access to the contents of our conscious minds, that content is rather limited.
So, if introspection doesn’t lead to complete self-awareness, what does? According to researchers who study self-awareness, one effective strategy is to ask trusted loved ones for feedback. As surprising as it might be for some of us, other people sometimes have more insight about ourselves than we do. Now, you may have some questions about this. Is it always a good idea to ask others for their feedback? Will they be honest with me? What if they are wrong? Worse, what if I don’t like what I hear? You are right to be concerned, for several reasons.
First of all, getting people to offer you honest, accurate feedback can be challenging, because people are often reluctant to share undesirable information. Secondly, not all feedback received might be accurate: while others have insights about us, they aren’t complete experts on us. As researcher Simine Vazire has found, there are aspects of ourselves we know better than others, such as our internal traits (e.g. anxiety, self-esteem), while other people may offer more accurate insights about our external traits (e.g. talkativeness, leadership). Finally, true self-awareness often comes at a cost: it isn’t always a pleasant experience, because who we really are might be in conflict with who we wish we were, and that isn’t easy to digest.
Still, the benefits of self-awareness outweigh the costs. There is so much to gain from having a clear idea of our strengths (so we can use them) and our weaknesses (so we can work on them). Without that information, life lacks direction. So what can we do to prepare ourselves to receive feedback, even if it is unpleasant? In her recent book Insight, organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich suggests that if you want to be self-aware, it’s important to adopt a mindset that says you want the truth even if it is tough to receive. It will require courage, but will likely leave you wiser.
With that newfound wisdom, you’ll have better answers to the questions listed above. You’ll have a better sense of what goals and dreams make sense for you to pursue, and which ones are better left behind. Only you can answer these questions. But before you answer them, you must know who you truly are. Knowing yourself will give you more clarity about the path you want to take. Remember, it’s a combination of our own awareness and feedback from others that leads to more holistic self-awareness. While you’re making important life decisions, think deeply about what you truly want from life, and then actively seek honest input from people you trust. You may be surprised by what you learn.
About the Author
Yashi Srivastava believes that all human beings want to lead happy, fulfilling lives and that this is more in our control than we often realize. As a trained Positive Psychology professional and an ICF certified coach, Yashi helps individuals make intentional choices to improve their relationships, find more meaning at work, and respond with resilience when faced with adversity. To learn more about her and her work, please visit: www.yashisrivastava.com.
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