I’m normally one who opts for stories over statistics, but here is a statistic that spawned a series of stories for me. According to a study done by the Conference Board in 2005, half of the American work force is unsatisfied with their jobs. That means that one out of every two people in a workforce that collectively totals one hundred and fifty million gets up in the morning with the weight of a bowling ball on the back of their neck and trudges off to work.
That’s sad, it’s significant, and once I read that sentence as a senior in college, I wanted to do something about it.
In April 2007, I was one of those dispassionately placed workers that maintained my existence through bi-weekly paycheques earned through painstaking hours of auditing corporations. By the end of April, after flirting with the idea for ten months, I quit. By the beginning of July, I was leading a fully sponsored tour across the country with three friends.
We called our tour “Pursue the Passion,” and it was created in response to the statistic that had grabbed my attention during my scholastic years, and had taken on meaning during a soulcrushing year of corporate hell. Our mission with our project was to find out how one could become passionate, or find a passion, in a career. The way we chose to address the assignment was to interview ordinary people—not captains of industry—who loved what they did for a living. We wanted to find out where they were at our age, how they got to where they are today, and what advice they would have offered themselves at the tender age of twenty-two, were they able to do so.
What we found in our journey across the United States that spanned thirty-eight states, sixteen thousand miles, a hundred and twenty days, and a hundred and seventy-five interviews is what I share with you in this article.
Six degrees of Zach Hubbell
The world is smaller than you think. Much smaller. Zach Hubbell, who came on the trip at the last second, is a mildly socially active guy, modestly claiming about a hundred-and-fifty Facebook friends in his online network. About three months into the trip, we needed a place to stay in Nashville, Tennessee. It was hot and humid in the south, and to stay in the RV with four guys for five days while we interviewed people in Music City was not going to happen.
Zach searched for potential people to stay with in the “Nashville” network on Facebook. It turned out that a girl there whom Zach met five years ago, and who was also the ex-girlfriend of Zach’s friend that we stayed with in Boston, was living in Nashville. Zach wrote her a message a few days before our arrival asking if she knew anyone we could stay with. She wrote back with the name and number of one of her friends, and next thing you know we are painting Zach’s friend’s ex-girlfriend’s friend’s living room green in return for a five-day stay of southern hospitality.
That’s how we found places to stay. We stayed with approximately fifty different family members, friends, and strangers that turned into friends throughout the tour. That same method of finding temporary housing was applied to finding interviews as well.
I went to school with a guy named Faham Zakariaei, who now works for his hometown major league baseball team, the San Francisco Giants. Faham referred us to Jarrod Dillon, whom we interviewed at Oakland Raiders headquarters, who led us to Cory Shakarian, who worked for the Los Angeles Clippers. Cory knew a guy that worked at Major League Baseball, and the guy he knew then passed us on to Matt Klentak, who deals with salary and contract arbitration issues involving major league baseball players at the Office of the Commissioner. We ended up interviewing him in New York City, and even got to sit in Commissioner Bud Selig’s chair.
Now apply this method to finding a job that you really desire. How would you get a job at Forbes? Or Nike? Apply this method to creating a job that you really want. How would you stay afloat as a freelance writer? Or how do you find clients for the new company that you want to launch? You ask. And you keep asking. Because the world is a small place and there is someone out there that knows someone that knows someone. The cliché “ask and ye shall receive” takes on a whole new meaning when you actually apply it.
I interviewed a cheerful couple in Madison, Wisconsin, who run a company called “Kim and Jason.” Not surprisingly, their names are Kim and Jason. What they have done is created a term called “adultitis,” which affects adults that have disconnected themselves from their playful, child-like tendencies, and transformed them into serious, joyless adults. They do a podcast where they ask people about similarities between their activities as a child and their profession. (You can find them online at kimandjason.com).
Their podcast struck me as particularly interesting because in my interviews I found that there was a direct connection between what people enjoyed in childhood and what they enjoyed in their profession.
D’Wayne Edwards, who designs Michael Jordan and Carmelo Anthony’s shoes at Nike, used to get in trouble in the seventh grade for sketching shoes during class. Robin Sheets, who is the senior killer whale trainer at Sea World in San Diego, grew up on a farm around animals and spent large portions of family time in the ocean, scuba diving for abalone. Joanne Gordon used to play at her friends houses when she saw their fathers walk through the door in a suit and briefcase. She just wondered what they did all day. Twenty years later she still questions what drives people in business, formerly as a Forbes journalist and now as an author of a book called Be Happy at Work. My favourite video game growing up was Cruis’n USA, and here I was twelve years later travelling the country in an RV.
There is often a disconnect between what you enjoy and what jobs are out there. And it is tough to bridge that gap. But sometimes it’s as simple as looking what you did as a child to remember what it is that you want to do. So if you find that “adultitis” has gotten to you, try to bring out the kid in you. It’s there somewhere.
What we found in talking to thousands of people across the country—some getting the most from life, some not—was that a difference between the two groups was their perceptions. While some saw opportunity, others saw obstacles.
Stephen Hopson was born totally deaf. His parents, forced to make a crucial decision about his education, decided to “mainstream” him, meaning that all of his peers and teachers had normal hearing. He spent the next twenty years in speech therapy, practicing how to read lips and expending many hours putting his hand to his mother’s throat to feel the way words were pronounced.
When we crashed Stephen’s couch in Akron, Ohio, he had told us in clear, audible English, with a slight hint of a New York accent, of his former career as a Wall Street stockbroker, which he left to become an inspirational speaker, and to pursue his passion of learning how to fly a plane. This man had achieved more in his career than most of us in a lifetime.
Stephen’s refusal to acknowledge obstacles can be traced to a single word on the back of Scott Hatley’s wheelchair, who was another person we interviewed for the project while in Portland, Oregon. The sticker on the back of his chair says “Handicrap,” meaning that handicaps are crap excuses, only really limiting yourself if you allow them to. Try applying this handicap theory to the way you think. See what happens.
We set out to find what makes people passionate. What we found is not what we expected. There is no formula, or five-step process to becoming passionate. There isn’t a singular, universal passion shared among all we deemed worthy of a thirty-minute interview. Instead, we found the passionate possess an open-mindedness and an ability to be in touch with their true selves.