Being Individuals in an Increasingly Individualistic Culture

Career advisors and motivational speakers are obsessed with “passion” as the key to a happy successful career. I do not question the underlying message but I do think the message ought to be complicated a bit and placed in a broader context.

First, “find a job you’re passionate about” isn’t a simple task that you can just check off the list. To do it right requires a lifelong commitment to a set of values. Second, I think these are new values. Advice to pursue your passion is a profound shift from what a young person’s parents heard. Finally, the passion imperative is rooted in a larger idea of individualism, which operates on both the global and local level, and it affects everything, not just career thinking.

Back in the day, spiritual fulfillment was not on the check list when thinking about work. Career-advice instead assumed that a job first and foremost puts food on the table and supports your stay-at-home wife and children, that stability matters more than stimulation, and that to get to the top you have to earn your stripes and respect established hierarchies (and thus stay at one employer for a long time).

Today, career-advice assumptions start with a conviction that you are special and need to find work suited to your special interests and strengths. In other words, before picking a career, you need to first “find yourself.” This involves an extended period of self-discovery, aka The Odyssey Years, in which you try on for size a bevy of jobs. Then, after experimenting, you settle on a career (or perhaps multiple careers in parallel) about which you are truly passionate. Nothing says “I am unique and passionate” like starting your own business around your passion. No surprise, then, that we are witnessing a golden age of entrepreneurship. Along the way you struggle with self-doubt, loneliness, and the nagging issue of whether you are actually passionate about chosen career path, but if all goes to plan you come out with a life uniquely stitched to you.

That is the ideal career trajectory presented to Gen Y and I do not think it was the one presented to Baby Boomers. What happened? One theory: the shift in career messages is part of the larger blossoming of individuality.

Individualism has been the dominant cultural force since the 60’s. The birth control pill ushered a new era of sexual freedom and related identities. Cable television and now the internet (the greatest individualizing force of all-time) have allowed people to opt out of mass media and instead construct a personal blend of information sources. If you are what you read, you can now be a great many things, including all-your-own hybrids. The feminist movement has caused a huge expression of individualism: women are free-thinking individuals who can opt out of pre-written career (or non-career) scripts and lead unique, unpredictable lives. And around the world, democracy and capitalism, ever the enablers of choice and individual identity, has been on the march; history ended in 1989, after all.

The development of norms and the clarification of societal expectations around new behavior usually lag the actual behavior. This is one explanation for the Quarter-life Crisis phenomenon: 20-somethings are being told to do the new behavior — applying the spirit of individualism to their career — without the guideposts, case studies, and advice from people who’ve been there / done that.

Imagine being a teenage girl listening to your stay-at-home mom telling you to break through the glass ceiling. Imagine being a teenage boy listening to your dad, who’s had one employer his whole life, now encouraging you to start a business or at least get into a job you’re passionate about. Or imagine being a 28 year-old ambitious, career-minded woman, one rung away from Managing Director. If you have kids, the career will certainly suffer, and you’ll also think (rightly or wrongly) that the kids suffered as well. Skip the hard work that it’d take to get the promotion and have kids, and you’ve let down the feminists who’ve come before you. It’s not clear what you “should” do or how others will judge your actions.

Bottom Line: When people say, “Find a job you’re passionate about” they really mean to include it under the broader 21st century mandate: “Go out there and become self-actualized.” This sounds a whole lot scarier and impossibly vague. That’s because it is. A lot of the career angst over “passion” is part of a larger learn-as-we-go process of how to be individuals in an increasingly individualistic culture, as Wilkinson puts it. We should celebrate greater individualism and the quest to personalize our career, despite the associated stresses — just as we celebrate women’s freedom despite how it complicates women’s lives. It would be nice, however, if the career advice industry would frame their obsession with passion in larger sociological context, and reinforce how new a concept it really is.


Thanks to Will Wilkinson for inspiring this post via his diavlog with Kay Hymowitz and his blog post Menaissance and Its Dickscontents.

16 comments on “Being Individuals in an Increasingly Individualistic Culture
  • I’m glad you wrote this post. I hope to be self employed and believe that because of this I tend to think about what my passions are more often than average(at least more than my friends). From reading online there seems to be two different main view points on entrepreneurship. The Gary Vaynerchuk passion route, and the Tim Ferriss measure and testing of markets. I hope to start a business that I am passionate about as well as test and measure but it is definitely a tougher path. One concept from your blog I have been trying is seeking randomness. Having said all of this my japanese grandmother just thinks I’m crazy. So I also agree that these are new values as well as american values. I’m curious if you believe you know what your passion/passons are or if you actively search for them?

  • Great Post – was just thinking about this very topic earlier today (and the last 4 years!)

    I’m not sure if we will every know when we have arrived on the ‘self-actualized’ journey – if that knowledge is only possible in hindsight.

    Having a guide post would certainly be helpful, but I guess there needs to be pioneers in every movement!

  • Great post framing the topic in more general terms. I wonder though, what’s your conclusion? I’ve been reading your posts for a while and you seem to be holding back your individual opinion more whilst posting more general conclusions or summaries of arguments. Is that assessment correct?

  • Like the post. I write a great deal about finding your passion in my new book, The Leap. I think one area where people get so confused is that they think about passion as simply something they are a fan of. Many people love music or sports, but that is not at all the same as loving working in the music or sports related industries. People who truly love animals would often find themselves unmotivated as a vet, where you are around sick animals all day.

    Passion as it relates to work refers to the types of challenges that you are most engaged in solving. What are the problems that you are most enthusiastic about solving. Companies pay you to solve a problem, and if you can find a place where you like solving the problems every day, you will remain engaged.

    But don’t write off passion as a “nice to have”. My research has shown that those in a job which leverages their unique strengths and passions everyday were much more likely to be fulfilled in their work, less likely to leave, and 4 times more likely to consider themselves successful.

  • Unsure if you’re referring to this post or generally – I think this post has a POV but I agree for others I just summarize. That’s because I do not have my own opinion on everything!

  • Yes you want to find the overlap between something you’re interested in and something that’s viable.
    I also agree that individualism is particularly American (and not particularly Japanese!), though not exclusively so. As to my own passions, I’m still thinking about that. 🙂

  • I like your hypothesis about what’s catalysing the quarter life crisis. Like happiness, passion really cannot be chased. It is intrinsic and external factors can only, and to an extent, help its expression. What we need is a lot of self-awareness. But when the comparison is with external parameters – as most are wont to do – the time to reflect and discover oneself, including one’s prejudices, inconsistencies and dissonances, is less and less. Yet that’s where I believe most should start.

    Secondly, like oxygen, the effects of passion are felt most in its absence for they are long-lasting. Passionate people rarely dwell over what makes them unhappy. They are too busy whistling zip-a-dee-doo-dah as they get on with their life. (That if I recall correctly is a description you used about yourself once; which, I believe is why your blog is a constant charm to read! Your passion is out here for all to see.)

  • Ben,

    I enjoy your writing though I cannot tell whether you’re being glib in glossing over the primary driver for the different approach between Baby Boomers and Gen Y with regards to their careers.

    What happened? Among the other given societal adjustments you mentioned, the destruction of an understood social contract is precisely what happened. For the Boomers there was in general an understood loyalty clause that if you killed yourself for the organization and became a company man or woman you would be rewarded well with recognition, regular advancement, comprehensive healthcare coverage, and a solid pension. It was an era of tightly linked hierarchies driven by command and control leadership rather than that of small pieces loosely joined inspired by visionary leaders.

    Take the crumbling of that contract through regular waves of layoffs under the onslaught of business process redesigns caused by corporate restructuring to remove bloat and combine it with the globalization of the world marketplace aided by a massive communications network explosion and suddenly you have a career market where Hamlet’s refrain, “To thine own self be true” becomes the Prime Directive.

    Then add on top of this the glittery vision of extraordinary wealth – and early retirement natch – for those who come up with the next great idea (witness our recent economic Booms) or get in on the ground floor with such amazing visionaries and suddenly everyone is an entrepreneur.

    When you can’t count on your employer to be loyal to you then you have to determine what it is you really want to do and then pursue it with absolute passion – wherever that may take you.

  • I would only add that some people only value a public, or at least overt, display of passion. Some folks are fully exercising a very strong passion while engaging in what from outside appear the most boring of activities.

  • There is also room for a middle ground. Living in Boulder, I know a lot of outdoors fanatics who do 9-5 jobs they like — but merely like — so they can devote weekends and vacations to the things they love (rock climbing, triathlons, climbing fourteeners etc).

  • Yes. The art is in knowing the difference between what amuses you and what drives you to do something about, here and now.

    I for one see passion as something that lets your mind off duty, though for an occasional brief while. It consumes you totally and you’re feverishly absorbed. But then why does it not last? Perhaps while passion drives you, reason holds the reins. The occasional interference of reason is why we stop half-way and don’t overreach ourselves to glory / destruction ; that lack of early signalling also explains why everyone can not follow passion to its last mile. Obviously, you can’t shake hands with a clenched fist. So go redefine and renew your passion everyday. Something should precipitate in the end :-)))))

  • I really like the views expressed here. Had many similar conversations myself the past few days talking with college students at Berkeley and Stanford interested in entrepreneurship.

  • I like this sentence from your Bottom Line and I think that it definitely gets glossed over in many people’s talk of finding passion:

    A lot of the career angst over “passion” is part of a larger learn-as-we-go process of how to be individuals in an increasingly individualistic culture

    It seems to me that a lot of the angst is precisely because people forget about the learn-as-you-go part and put pressure on themselves to get it right, on their first try at 20. Many people (and I would often include myself in that demographic) think of their life as a trajectory of events that, once it starts heading in one direction, can only continue in that direction. Part of the difficulty is having to constantly remind ourselves that we can experiment, we don’t have to discover our passion in one big “eureka” moment, and that our lives are a series of choices, not contingent on one decision that then sets the course for everything else.

  • Baby Boomers had a lot of this. We called it “Do your own thing!”
    It was our parents who believed in keeping your nose to the grindstone, and working your way up.
    The Pill (and the bra burnings) started then–not later.
    Alas, following your own path can be both hard and lonely. As they got older, many left the communes & craftsa for the corporate suite

  • It’s a relief to hear someone such as yourself admit that you’re still “thinking about” your own passions.

    I find that the Gen Y population has a very daunting challenge ahead of us. Not only are we going through a quarter-life crisis, but unlike the baby-boomers (who are having their mid-life crises), most of us don’t have the financial support that will allow us to explore what our passions could possibly be!

    And what with all these messages bombarding us to “be true to ourselves” and “do what makes you passionate”, there’s a lot of pressure to already know what our passions are. But knowing ourselves takes years, sometimes even decades, of work and experience and change. How can we possibly figure out who we are in our 20s? We’ve barely experienced life yet!

    Also, on another note, I find that much of the Gen Y population feel paralyzed with so much choice. “You can do what you wish! Make it phenomenal!” We feel pressure to make our lives this mystical “phenomenal”, rather than simply living out our daily pleasures and realize that that simplicity in itself can be phenomenal.

  • The majority of people feel having “passion” and a paid job are key to happiness, yet I jumped off the rat race at age 26 (lucky to be able to do that, I know) and have never had true “passion” for any career/hobby and yet feel I am easily in the top 10% of the population as far as level of happiness goes. Now if someone has the desire to be *eminent* in a field, I suspect having “passion” is a key if not necessary element, but if you can be happy without being eminent, I don’t think you need passion or even a paid job. I’m happy my only meeting today is one for an organization for which I volunteer and am not *required* to do anything for, so I only have to do what I enjoy doing. And I’m happy that while my spouse does work for pay, the work is enjoyable overall.

    There is a saying:

    Success is getting what you want.
    Happiness is wanting what you get.

    The problem many “successful” people have is that they get what they want (fancy custom house, expensive cars, trophy spouse, healthy kids, career kudos/awards, etc.) but then it’s never enough…they always want more. On the other hand, those of us just appreciative of what we have (I’ve had the same spouse for over 23 years, the same house for over 21 – allowing for it to have been paid off years ago, and drove the same cars for about 20 years before replacing them) don’t tend to “advance the world” but are happy for the microcosm of world we are in (even realizing its imperfections).

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