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Why Not to Pursue Your Passion or Happiness

The 'Are You Fully Charged?' author on the true keys to life

By Richard Eisenberg

(Next Avenue is republishing this 2015 article as part of Job Action Day 2016, an annual day of empowerment for workers and job seekers run by LiveCareer. This year, Job Action Day is Monday Nov. 7, 2016 and the theme is That's Why They Call It Work: Tough Jobs, Successful Careers.)

For years, we’ve been led to believe that the key to a meaningful and successful career — and life — is to pursue your passion. And no less than Thomas Jefferson and Will Smith preached the pursuit of happiness (OK, in Smith’s case, Happyness).

To each of these pursuits, Tom Rath says: poppycock.

Rath’s known as the bestselling author of Strengthsfinder 2.0 and for his groundbreaking work at Gallup on employee engagement, leadership and well-being. Now, the noted researcher is out with a fascinating new book, Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life. After reading it, I think you may decide to reassess your worklife, personal priorities and daily habits.


What It Means to Be 'Fully Charged'

Rath is fascinating in his own right. As a teenager, he was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder that causes cancerous growths and lost vision in his left eye. Since then, the father of two has had tumors in his pancreas, kidneys, spine and brain and has exhaustively researched ways to prolong his life.

I spoke with Rath about what it means to be “fully charged,” to learn more about what he calls “the keys to energizing your work and life” and to find out what’s so bad about pursuing your passion and happiness. Highlights:

Next Avenue: What do you mean by being “fully charged?”

Rath: Most people will go through days and feel like they got a little bit done and had a few good interactions. But very few people feel they’re at their optimal performance for happiness and well-being in the span of a given day.

There are three key conditions that differentiate days when you have a full charge from typical days. The keys are: Meaning [doing something that benefits another person], Interactions [creating far more positive than negative moments] and Energy [making choices that improve your mental and physical health].

When we surveyed more than 10,000 people to see how they were doing across these three areas, we found that only 20 percent felt they did meaningful work yesterday, 14 percent felt they had positive interactions and 11 percent felt they had a great deal of energy. So we’re nowhere near as effective in our lives as we could be as workers, spouses, parents or friends.

Is being fully charged something that’s especially important or useful when you’re in your 50s or 60s?

I think the good news is that it’s just as easy, if not easier, to be fully charged as you move into your 40s, 50s or 60s as when you’re really young. Your 50s or 60s might be the prime time in your life to focus on putting an even greater percentage of your daily effort on things that can make a difference for future generations to come.

What’s wrong with pursuing happiness to help you be fully charged?

When I looked at the essential elements of days that people are fully charged, one obvious candidate is happiness — that gets an extraordinary amount of attention in the popular press. But based on what I’ve looked at, the pursuit of happiness might do us more harm than good.

Aside from being shallow, in some cases it outright backfires.

There’s been a lot of research emerging in the last few years that found that meaning and happiness are distinct conditions. Every hour spent invested in creating happiness for others or meaningful work for other people is better than boosting your own happiness.

You say that part of adding meaning in our lives is getting small wins in the workplace. What do you mean?

In almost any profession, you should be able to find a way that your job makes a difference. If you can’t, it’s time to ask yourself if there’s a way you can meet the needs of the world a little better.

I think the majority of us have trouble connecting the dots seeing how we’re making a difference.

You’re not a big fan of the advice to follow your passion for your career. Why not?

When you hear that, it sounds like a wonderful, warm fuzzy thing that makes sense. But the more I got into it, the more I found that following your passion might be setting people up for failure.


Following your passion might be self-centered and misguided, as if your well-being was the center of the whole world. Start with what others need and then add to that what you’re good at and interested in.

You write that people who use their strengths at work can double their number of high-quality work hours per week, are likely to be far more engaged in their jobs and have overall life satisfaction. So why aren’t people using their strengths?

That’s a really good question. It’s an odd quirk of nature that we teach people to focus on where they’re struggling. At work, I’d say: Ask yourself how can you invest three-quarters of your time on your natural talents where you have more room for growth? Then manage around things that are getting in the way.

You also write about how distracted we are at work. How can we reduce distractions to help get fully charged?

Ninety eight percent of the stuff that shows up in our notification screens does not need to interrupt us. I don’t need a breaking news alert about two celebrities who broke up. Step back from your notifications; your default should be to pay attention to the person in the room you choose to be with.

A simple strategy you can try is to look at the things that are preset to notify you immediately on your phone and computer and set them to ‘off’ as a default. Then say that if your daughter calls you twice in a row, that can go straight through — because it implies it’s an emergency.

But I don’t see why every email should be read in its entirety immediately if you’re trying to do something substantive.

Another key, you say, is interactions. You believe people should make a conscious choice to add a positive spin to their conversations and to focus on what’s going right. Tell me more about this.

Most psychologists agree that social interactions throughout the day are our best predictor of well-being. It’s easy to take them for granted. But if someone holds the door for us instead of letting it slam shut, it makes a difference.

The ratio of those interactions matters, too. If you have one negative interaction, it takes three, four or five positive ones to get you back to neutral. So make sure at least 80 percent of your interactions are positive throughout the day. It starts with taking the initiative in your interactions.

You say people need to hit pause before responding to others. What do you mean?

One gift we all have from a relationship standpoint is no matter how awful something is that another person says, we get the opportunity to pick our response.

I’m blind in my left eye from cancer when I was young, so when I walk into a coffeeshop, I bump into people. What I’ve learned is that’s an interesting psychological experiment, because how people act when this happens tells me what’s going on in their life.

If someone is hostile, if you pause for a second and orient your response, it leads to a very different interaction.

And how is energy a key to energizing your work and life?

If you need to be sharp at 3 pm, you need a little activity during the day so you’re not sitting in a chair the whole time; you need six or seven hours of sleep and a relatively healthy breakfast and lunch so you’re not wiped out. Those little choices we make influence our near-term energy.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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