Wake up. Get dressed. Leave for work. Work. Eat. Commute back home. Sleep. Rinse. Repeat. The humdrum of the American work-life schedule is familiar to many of us and often leads us to wonder if there is more to life outside this rigid routine. It’s so common to feel disillusioned with the mundanity of our day-to-day that it’s become a pop culture punchline, working its way to the center of some of our favorite shows and movies from “The Office” and “Superstore” to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “500 Days of Summer.”
The long and short of it: we work a lot. We spend most of our lives working actually, which is reflected by the US’s increasing age of peak retirement benefits being set to 70 years by the Social Security Administration. With most people joining the workforce between 18-22 years old, we can count on working for almost half a century. That’s a lot of time! Work is so central to our culture that worth can even be assigned based on vocation; here in the US we are often asked what we do within the very first few seconds of meeting someone new. With work so integral to our identity, no wonder we want it to mean something! Throw in recent events of the past few years and it makes perfect sense that more of us are questioning our morality, careers and ultimately our purpose. We have collectively experienced a global pandemic, escalating nuclear threats, political upheaval, increased policing of BIPOC communities, policing of women, frequent “once in a lifetime” natural disasters and countless other socioeconomic, biological and political turmoil.
So yes, wanting to find some purpose makes sense. Which leads us to one of the toughest career dilemmas modern Americans face: duty or passion?
What is a life of duty?
While there are many different viewpoints and definitions, the perspective we will explore relates to a life of duty to oneself and others. A life of duty is primarily centered on fulfilling our responsibilities and obligations as dictated by the society we live in, and at the core of this belief is the sacrifice of oneself for duty. This is played out by our actions and behaviors, like accepting a job that pays the bills but is not satisfying, giving up on our dreams in favor of the “sensible” choice and/or sacrificing opportunities to take care of our loved ones.
Despite the hardship and sacrifice, a life of duty can also be rewarding and fulfilling, providing some people with real meaning and purpose. But it can also lead to burn out and may even make expressing our emotions, feelings and thoughts difficult. We may feel we never measure up and worry if we’re doing or sacrificing enough. At the end of the day, living a life of duty can be exhausting and may lead you to reevaluate your life choices.
What is a life of passion?
A life of passion means just that! It is a life where you follow your passions rather than societal obligations. The key difference between a life of passion and a life of duty is that with the former you engage in work and activities that personally matter and/or bring value to you. While you can certainly find passion in a life of duty, a life of passion posits you at the center of your decision-making.
People who live a life of passion at times are called self-centered, selfish or unwilling to sacrifice for others, but the reality is that being selfish can be a positive thing when utilized appropriately. Being selfish can allow you to prioritize yourself. It is OK to want to do the things you want to do and not ask for permission. It is OK to take up a long-held passion, interest or new career without worrying about what others might say. It is OK to pursue personal fulfillment. People who live a life of passion may be able to better express their emotions without feeling the need to apologize or repress their feelings, thoughts and beliefs.
Following your passions can feed your soul, but it’s not always the easiest choice nor does everyone have the flexibility to do so. Sometimes you do need to make money to survive, sometimes you do have to take care of your family and loved ones, sometimes you do have to make sacrifices.
How to find your way
“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
It helps to evaluate your work. Remember, we work a lot. This is a great place to assess and make changes for a more passion-driven life. Questioning your job is very common; the average person changes their job approximately 12 times throughout their life. While it’s easier said than done, finding a job or career that aligns with your personal values, wants and needs is possible (and can be transformative). But not all of us have an obvious passion, so does that mean it’s a life of duty? Not necessary.
There’s a notable psychological theory called The Minnesota Theory of Work Adjustment (TWA) which helps people find jobs and careers that best align with the individual, job and environment. This theory breaks down job satisfaction into three categories: personal values, work values and environmental variables. The thought is that by discovering how these categories work together, we are better able to predict if someone will stay at a job, make changes or seek employment elsewhere. Below, we’ll break down each of those three variables.
Think of personal values as things that make you you. This includes your mental and physical capabilities (math aptitude, emotional intelligence, physical fitness, etc.). Next, think about what motivates your behavior and what you hold of high importance. Do you want to do something meaningful at work or is that not such a big deal to you? Is flexibility important or do you not mind working long hours? Asking yourself these questions helps ensure your values align with the job.
Core work values
In the TWA model, work values are broken down into six values.
- Comfort - this relates to having job security, fair compensation and good working conditions.
- Status - this relates to being recognized for the work you do and how others view you in your role.
- Altruism - this relates to working with others in relative harmony.
- Safety - this relates to feeling supported by management.
- Autonomy - this relates to feeling independent at work and able to maintain control.
- Achievement - this relates to feeling like you’re using your abilities in a way that provides a sense of accomplishment.
This category simply refers to the requirements of the job (i.e., job tasks and job role) and the rewards received from the job (i.e., benefits, pay, resources, etc.). When our personal values line up with our environmental variables, we are more likely to be satisfied at work.
In the TWA model, core work values are ultimately important because they help us make the decision to stay at our jobs or explore other options when we start to question our careers.
It’s not always one or the other
Careers are not like they used to be. Not everyone has one set career path or job. It’s become increasingly common for people to have multiple jobs or work part time. It is normal to have multiple interests and to explore what works best for you and your needs (which may change throughout your life). You may find one job is more aligned with duty and another job is more aligned with your passion. This is OK!
In evaluating a life of duty or passion, asking yourself these introspective questions can provide some clarity. That said, while the TWA model is a useful tool, it does not have to dictate your career choices. Think of it as a jumping off point. You still may find yourself deciding to quit or wanting to change careers – and that’s fine! It is also fine to take your time to ponder your vocation. Know that you are not alone in asking these questions. Your path to finding a life of duty, passion or a bit of both is yours to decide.