Why “Do What You Love” Only Paints a Partial Picture of the Perfect Job

My mother was a sculptor. Her medium of choice was welded steel. While she worked in her basement studio next to our playroom, my brother and I would lay on the playroom rug and watch through the studio door the fireworks display produced from her oxyacetylene torch as she welded mundane pieces of scrap metal into a new expression for her creativity. Sculpting was her passion—a passion she was forced to give up when my parents separated and she had to find more conventional, stable work that would support the three of us.

As a teenager, when I was thinking about what I would like to pursue as a career, I witnessed daily the high cost to my mother of this new conventional work she didn’t enjoy. Her work was confining for a creative mind.  It was dull, tedious, frustrating, and stressful. The stress affected her health, her mood, and her ability to enjoy her personal life. The stress came home with her and manifested itself in frustrated outbursts, constant fatigue, and depression.

Those experiences profoundly impacted how I chose my own career path. I wanted to do something I loved. And, while I was not motivated by money, I didn’t want to constantly worry about my financial security. My mother’s most morbid outburst still echoes in my head, “I’ll never be able to afford to retire! I’m going to die on the job!” 

In high school, I was a straight A student. Most things came easily to me. Like my mother, I loved art and had a creative mind constantly in search of an outlet. But, I was also particularly drawn to life sciences. I was fascinated with the intricate pathways and connection in living systems. I loved to learn. I loved ideas and possibilities, and I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. So I plotted a course in research. I completed two degrees and built a career as a cell biologist in the biotech industry. But, as it turns out, I didn’t love what I was doing. 

I thought I had been careful and analytical about my decisions. I chose to major in biochemistry, which I believed offered flexibility. From here, I could specialize, perhaps in genetics or molecular biology, or explore more generalized, broader fields. I researched colleges with strong biochemistry programs and chose a university in the middle of a biotech hub, where there would be plenty of job opportunities upon graduation. Science would feed my curiosity, love of learning, imagination, and desire to contribute value. Yet somehow, I wasn’t getting the kind of satisfaction from my work that I thought I would and didn’t understand why. I felt trapped. Now I had a highly specialized set of skills and training which, I believed, only qualified me to do exactly what I was doing. After 15 years, I felt like I was losing myself.

It was time for a change. A career coach encouraged me to take a talent and strengths assessment. The assessment included questions, forced choice items to reveal preferences, verbal puzzles, pattern recognition games, spatial planning tasks, and organizational reasoning, to name just a few. Its very format highlighted the many different ways in which people use their minds.  Of course, I know people are diverse. We don’t all think the same. But the assessment made conscious what had been unconscious. It created awareness, defined, and gave names to my specific patterns of behavior and the ways I use my mind.  Instantly, I appreciated at a whole new level that what comes naturally to me does not come naturally to everyone. And, that has value. This realization was empowering. It allowed me to let go of so many insecurities about what I am not and to fully embrace and leverage who I am.  

In hindsight, my lack of engagement in the doing of science was evident very early on. I love big ideas and discovering connections and interrelationships between pathways and processes. At times, I enjoyed the manual nature of certain tasks but the constant, tedious, repetitive nature of micro-focused lab work drained me. On a scale of generalist to specialist, I scored 53% to 47% on my assessment. So, I have a roughly equal capacity and preference for both. However, the nature of my day-to-day work only allowed me to draw on my specializing talent. There was little to no outlet for the generalist side of me.

Bench science offered even fewer applications for my creativity and expression. The source of my frustration and lack of engagement is now obvious. I have these strengths and innate talents that I naturally reached for, like a trusted tool or a dominant hand, but there was no outlet. It felt like an amputation.

When I chose a career path, I wanted to do what I love. Now I realize how important it is to also do what I naturally do well. I assumed they are one in the same. But they are not. A love of learning, of ideas and possibilities, and a fascination with connections are talents that underpinned my interest and aptitude in academic science. The “doing” of science, however, requires an entirely different set of aptitudes. Understanding what you do naturally well and why you love what you do requires a nuanced self-awareness. It requires introspection but is a powerful tool.

Armed with an awareness of my own talents and strengths, cognizant of when, where and how I leveraged those strengths every day, I decided to change direction. I chose a new path that I not only enjoyed but required me to do precisely what I do best. I had a new language with which to market myself and effectively describe to potential employers exactly how I could help them meet their challenges.

Within three years, I had landed the best job of my life, was certified in a new profession, and earned a promotion. Within four years, I was crafting my own dream job and pursuing my passion for empowering others to realize the very best of themselves.

What about you? If you love you what you do, are you doing what you do best? And, if you aren’t doing what you do best--what comes most naturally to you--do you still love what you do or is something missing? I’d love to hear your story.