The Power of Passionate People

A comprehensive survey of employee satisfaction in 2009 showed that only 14% of respondents were extremely satisfied with their jobs. Among Millennials, only 35% were even somewhat satisfied, with over 62% of Millennials responding that they intended to intensify their search for a new job in the following 12 months. Such high levels of satisfaction show a fundamental problem with the current division of labour.

People are simply not doing what the are called to do.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II, career began to take center stage in American life. What a person did defined who they were. We need this to be reversed. Who a person is should define what they do. This is the beginning of revising our understanding of vocation, but it will be a long and difficult process, for the mere acknowledgment of our poverty of passion does not begin to undo the numerous institutions, norms, and cultural expectations that have ingrained the careerist mentality in our collective psyche. For this reason, we must start at the beginning, at the root of the problem.

Our schools and universities are factories. Indeed, the modern schooling system was developed in the age of industrialization, the heritage of Prussian military organizational principles applied to production and then modified yet again for public education. The division of students into age-based ‘grades’ and the division of learning into rigid disciplines, with each teacher consigned and labeled “a physics professor” or “a literature professor” has all the trappings of a factory. Each cog has its function, and the output are uniformly educated ‘graduates’ who have been bequeathed a common body of knowledge. That product is then shipped to factory-like corporations who can plug these cogs into their own machinery.

As we are witnessing the twilight of the era of mass production (and with the advent of 3D Printing, we are truly near a revolutionary time in decentralized, small-scale production), this model of education could not possibly be more archaic.

Universities regiment students into pre-defined disciplines, and although there is lip-service paid to the value of “interdisciplinary studies,” the emphasis continues to be on high degrees of specialization in these pre-defined disciplines. The innovation economy at once demands a more generalized body of knowledge (in order to connect the dots between different disciplines) and a higher degree of specialization (in order to produce a specific product or service to meet customers’ demands). The university is not merely poorly equipped for this task, it is intensely counter-productive.

Our learning environments need less structure, less testing, fewer arbitrary metrics for assessment, and more emphasis on embracing the chaos and rapid change of the innovation economy. More than teachers we need learning coaches, who help people equip themselves with the ability to continually learn and adapt, and most importantly, to discover their own passions and calling.

Moreover, we must embrace the fact that people can have multiple passions over the course of life, and that they may be substantially different from each other. Today if one wants to change careers he must take 2-4 years (or sometimes more) out of his life to go back to school and get a new degree and then start at the bottom of some new ladder. Lifelong learning communities should supplant the university model. Participation in research, study & discussion groups, and other forms of learning should become part of our daily lives.

We attend the gym for our bodies, and church for our souls, why do we not dedicate similar attention to the expansion of our minds throughout adulthood?

If we embraced a more fluid, flexible model of learning that embeds it as a taken-for-granted part of life, we will not only have happier, more satisfied professional lives, having discovered our passions and then equipped ourselves to dedicate our work to pursuing them. We will also unlock vast creative resources locked in the minds of people who currently live for the weekend because they hate their job. These creative resources will propel society at-large past our current boundaries in innovation and could just solve some of the seemingly intractable problems that plague our world.

Passionate, driven people have given the world the automobile, the airplane, the Internet, antibiotics, the Human Genome Project, and so much more. Imagine if that tiny minority of people were expanded to all of us. In less than a generation, this little blue planet would be unrecognizably better. We cannot allow inertia, vested interests in the status quo, and a “that’s just the way things are / have always been done” mentality to deprive us of such a future.