If you’re searching for your next gig, pull out your resume. Take a look at the experience it recounts and see how well it answers this question:
When did your passion for what you do really begin?
(Note to readers who aren’t even remotely passionate about what they do: You can stop reading here and check out this instead.)
Most resumes are reverse-chronological. They lay out your career trajectory backwards, from your current gig down to your past work. Scan the page through the "Experience" section (or whatever heading you use), get to the bottom, and you’ll see that first job (or at least an early one) listed there, right? In most cases, you’ll be looking at yourself in your mid-20s in an entry- or associate-level position, possibly with a job title like "production assistant," "junior account executive," or "sales associate."
And probably, when you’re talking about your work life—whether you’re interviewing for a new job or just chatting with your friends—you start the narrative off with this early gig. You might say, "My first job out of college was . . . " or "I waited tables for a while but then I got a real job."
But you can look at your career arc in a very different way. In fact, you may have actually started your career way before any employer ever direct-deposited a check into your bank account. If you ask me, your career began when you fell in love with doing something—a "something" that remains a vital, core passion to this day.
Why is this change of perspective important? It isn’t just about finding "purpose" and "meaning" in what you do (though that’s important, too)—it’s a much more material concern. I see dozens of coaching clients a year who are in danger of missing out on earning what they’re worth because they think a career is something that starts around age 26 and ends when their Social Security benefits kick in.
For me, a passionate career starts very early and ends in death. Personally, I want to work with people who are so in love with what they do that they can’t imagine ever stopping. And I want to see them get paid accordingly.
Believe it or not, so do most employers.
The love of craft starts with a feeling. So I spoke with some top-level creative professionals to find out which ones.
Love. Fashion designer and founder of Swan Bridesmaid, Samantha Sleeper, remembers looking through her beloved mother’s magazines. "I was 8 or 9, flipping through the pages of Vogue and tucking my own sketches between the pages of the magazine as if those were additional editorial pages."
But a lot of passionate careers begin from darker places, too.
Trauma. Doug Fast, who designed the Starbucks logo and its revisions over the years, remembers being sent away to live with his aunt when his mother couldn’t support him. He was in the first grade and still remembers drawing a volcano erupting dramatically. "I used red and yellow crayons," Fast recalls. "It was the fire that I made that got the most comment from the teacher and the class."
Escape. I was in foster homes and found myself poring over a Currier and Ives book about sailing ships, imagining the power of those great sails to carry me away. It was during that time that my teacher praised a drawing I made of Christopher Columbus’s ships.
Loneliness. Little Men director Ira Sachs, whose work was recently given a rare midlife retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, remembers a profoundly lonely three-month stretch when all he did was go to movies—197 of them. He was a student in Paris, he recalls, and "it was there—more than any other moment, job, or opportunity—that I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I felt both comfort and inspiration watching movies, and when I face challenges today, I find that nothing gets me out of them quicker than going to see a good movie."
These experiences are sometimes painful, but all are memorable. And for many, they’re the starting point for some kind of activity—done passionately and for its own sake—that later congeal into a skill or talent or driving force, something that propels an entire career. If you’re having trouble finding the source of your delight in your work, consider these prompts:
Beginning in the present, what do you love most about what you do right now?
Even if you’re waiting tables, what’s the highlight of your day? I’ve known a number of stellar salespeople who loved waiting tables for the customer interaction and the satisfying feedback-loop of tips (also known as "sales commissions").
When do you first remember learning that the activity you now love was something you could get paid to do?
A successful copywriter I’ve coached remembers the jolt he got as a small child when he realized that a person had written the words that filled his beloved books—and that he could be a person who did so as well.
Is there something sensory that your passion is centered around? If so, what are your earliest sense memories?
Sleeper, the designer, remembers the first time she touched charmeuse.
The dimensions of a resume are sadly inadequate for expressing your childhood delight at touching charmeuse. You have to think of your resume like a better-than-average skeleton key, filed to unlock a variety of doors.
But you should still reserve some space to express how your devotion to your chosen craft began. Rocket Fuel CEO Randy Wootton says, "I look right away at the ‘personal’ section of the resume and then ask them what their passion has been throughout their lives. I want to hear about how this passion has motivated them and shown up in the choices they’ve made."
Most employers worth working for do something similar. They try to see beyond the skills and qualifications to understand what drives a candidate. It takes real, devoted energy to build a great company, and that takes driven, passionate builders who know how they got that way.
Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. Follow Ted on Twitter at @tedleonhardt.