Self-help books and career-building workshops love to peddle one secret to a successful career: Follow your passion. Ever since Confucius proclaimed, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life," chasing one's passion has been frequently served up as a quick fix for career happiness.
"Following your bliss" may be perfectly good (if a little hackneyed) advice, but when it comes to building sustainable success in your career, the answer might not be that obvious, according to Monique Valcour, a professor of management at EDHEC Business School in France, who has spent 15 years researching careers.
"The 'follow your passion' self-help industry tends to under-emphasize this key point: all of the self-awareness in the world is of little use if you can't pitch your passion to a buyer," Valcour wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review blog. "A sustainable career is built upon the ability to show that you can fill a need that someone is willing to pay for."
So what would a sustainable career even look like? As Valcour describes it:
Year after year, you perform work that makes full use of your skills and challenges you to develop new ones. Your work not only interests you, it gives you a sense of meaning. You enjoy opportunities for learning and development. You work with people who energize you. You are confident that your skills and competencies make you valuable and marketable and that you can access opportunities through your network. You are able to fit your work together with the other things in your life that are important to you, like family, friends, and leisure.
Unfortunately, this picture is a far cry from the typical U.S. employee's experience: At a time when work stress and burnout are at a high among American workers -- and employee engagement and job satisfaction are at a low -- sustainable careers seem to have become an increasingly rare commodity.
According to Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, the lack of sustainability in the American workplace is a result of our current male-defined model of success.
"Right now, the two metrics of success that drive the American workplace are money and power, but by themselves, they make a two-legged stool -- fine for balancing on for a short time, but after a while, you're headed for a fall," she wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal blog post. "And guided by this limited definition of success, more and more 'successful' people are falling."
To help build sustainable careers and lives, Huffington has called for a movement to redefine success beyond money and power, and including the metrics of well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving back.
"Ultimately, success is not about money or position, but about living the life you want, not just the life you settle for," Huffington wrote.
As Valcour points out, there's a whole lot more to finding lasting joy at work -- and in life -- than simply "following your passion." Here are five practical, effective ways to be happier at work and build a sustainable career.
1. Analyze the data of your daily life.
"Self-reflective practice is really critical," Valcour tells The Huffington Post. "There are an awful lot of people who are seeking meaning but they don't really know what gives them meaning ... I think it's critically important that people be aware and very observant of their daily experience at work."
Instead of focusing on passion, look deeply at what energizes you, what you find rewarding, what you're good at and what comes to you easily. Valcour advises examining your high and low points at work, and identifying the times that you felt more energized, engaged and fulfilled -- and why you felt this way.
Also look at all the factors surrounding times when you felt frustrated and unfulfilled. (What were you doing? Who were you working with? Did you feel too challenged or not challenged enough?) You'll get a lot more insight into yourself this way than by simply asking yourself what you like doing.
2. Find a workplace that supports your priorities outside the office.
The idea of work-life balance may seem increasingly archaic in today's world of 24/7 connectivity, but finding an employer that allows you the flexibility you need to have a life outside the office is crucial.
“There’s a real epidemic of people feeling that they’re completely overwhelmed at work,” Valcour says. "[In unsustainable careers], there are a seemingly endless amount of demands that makes it impossible to live a healthy, balanced life at the level you want with your family and the people you care about most."
Seek a company that's aware and supportive of your life outside work, and ask for flex time if that's what you need.
3. Don't underestimate the power of learning.
Continuous learning and growth is key to staying happy and fulfilled in your career over time, according to Valcour.
"If you want to have a sustainable career, you have to be able to look for places where you can aquire new skills, where you can move into an area where there is growth," she says. "To have a sustainable career places a big burden on the individual to be constantly learning."
And this may require doing things a little differently. Some people craft what Valcour refers to as "flash careers," in which they pursue different interests by working several jobs part-time or freelance, with various activities that bring in a paycheck.
4. Work with inspiring people.
"Many of my executive students recount that their biggest career boosts have come from working alongside smart, energetic, connected people who have taken an interest in them," Valcour writes on HBR.
Research has also found that employees who have close friends in the office are more passionate about their work, feel more connected to their employers, and are less likely to quit their jobs.
5. Develop rare and valuable skills.
Cal Newport, author of "So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love," has written extensively about happiness and work. His conclusion? Following your passion is just plain bad advice. Instead, he argues, develop passion around your work through the cultivation of rare and valuable skills. People who end up loving their work often follow a pattern of creating these sought-after skills, and then using them to better leverage their career trajectories.
"Don't set out to discover passion. Instead, set out to develop it," Newport wrote in a CNN blog last year. "This path might be longer and more complicated than what most upbeat career guides might preach, but it's a path much more likely to lead you somewhere worth going."