Several years ago, a friend decided she wanted to follow her passion. She loved the liberal arts and academe. She was a talented graphic designer, a great writer, and was the president of a student club. But the prospect of working a nine-to-five job was never interesting. I can't blame her. After all, ours is a millennial generation proselytized to pursue our dreams. So she spent seven years getting a PhD, writing an award-winning dissertation in the process. It was a wonderful ride while it lasted, and she was among the happiest people I knew.
Then the recession hit. The value of university endowments crashed. Teaching and research positions were cut. She moved back in with her family, stopped paying off her student loans, and waited two years before getting a minor teaching role in a small research center. Throughout this time, she suffered the anguish of an uncertain future, became socially withdrawn, and felt a sense of betrayal.
It's a poster tale for our times. Was following her passion worth it?
Like myself, today's twentysomethings were raised to find our dreams and follow them. But it's a different world. And as the jobless generation grows up, we realize the grand betrayal of the false idols of passion. This philosophy no longer works for us, or at most, feels incomplete. So what do we do? I propose a different frame of reference: Forget about finding your passion. Instead, focus on finding big problems.
Putting problems at the center of our decision-making changes everything. It's not about the self anymore. It's about what you can do and how you can be a valuable contributor. People working on the biggest problems are compensated in the biggest ways. I don't mean this in a strict financial sense, but in a deeply human sense. For one, it shifts your attention from you to others and the wider world. You stop dwelling. You become less self-absorbed. Ironically, we become happier if we worry less about what makes us happy.
The good thing is that there are a lot of big problems to go by: climate change, sustainability, poverty, education, health care, technology, and urbanization in emerging markets. What big problem serves as your compass? If you're a young leader and you haven't articulated this yet, here are some things you can do.
Develop situational awareness. There's too much focus on knowing the self. Balance this with knowing the world. Stay in touch. Be sensitive to the problems faced by the unfortunate and marginalized. Get out of the office and volunteer. If you're in school, get out of the classroom. It's been a long time coming, but business schools are finally instituting changes that put the real world at the center of their programs.
Look into problems that affect you in a very personal way. We're more likely to be motivated by problems we can relate to on a personal level. In Passion & Purpose, Umaimah Mendhro recounts her story fleeing a war-torn Pakistan with her family and how the experience of dodging bullets to escape helped her summon the wherewithal to found thedreamfly.org, an initiative that helps create connections across communities in conflict.
Connect with people working on big problems. In a world where problems are by their very nature interdisciplinary, just getting to know people who are passionate about one problem leads to discussions on how other problems can be solved. When Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala helped reinvent Manila Water to better provide for the Philippines' capital, he had to deal not only with the typical issues a public utility had to face, but also with problems related to climate change, technology, and community development.
Take time off and travel. Forget about traveling as a tourist. Instead, structure a trip that takes you off the beaten path. Go to an unconventional place. Backpack and get lost. The broader and richer experience pays dividends down the line. Steve Jobs described his time living in India as one of the most enriching and mind-opening phases of his life, and this undoubtedly helped him develop the intuition to solve the big problem of making lives simpler through technology.
We don't find happiness by looking within. We go outside and immerse in the world. We are called to a higher purpose by the inescapable circumstances that are laid out on our path. It's our daily struggles that define us and bring out the best in us, and this lays down the foundation to continuously find fulfillment in what we do even when times get tough.
Happiness comes from the intersection of what you love, what you're good at, and what the world needs. We've been told time and again to keep finding the first. Our schools helped developed the second. It's time we put more thought on the third.
What big problems are you trying to solve?
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 1/13/2012.