I always have enjoyed traveling to new places and meeting new people. That’s good, because in my line of work, I have to fly quite a bit. The presentations I give have taken me, on separate trips, to Kuwait City, Zurich, Abu Dhabi and London in the past month. But I recently experienced my most exciting flight ever when I spent 90 minutes traveling at hundreds of miles an hour in a Navy fighter jet.
It was a blast, especially when I actually got to fly the plane. And in case you’re wondering, I never came close to ejecting the aircraft — or the contents of my stomach. This was something I always wanted to try, and I loved every minute of it. I was totally present and immersed in the experience.
Here’s the thing, though: While flying a jet was certainly an unparalleled rush, I almost always feel totally and happily absorbed in what I’m doing while I’m “on the job” because I love what I do.
Successful people don’t always love what they do, and that’s unfortunate. Take Dr. Warren Bennis, founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California and a visiting professor at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School.
Now, Warren is one of my personal heroes. In addition to being one of the greatest teachers and writers in our field, he’s also a good guy. At various stages in my career, he has taken the time to give me words of recognition, support and encouragement. His consideration has meant a lot to me. Besides being successful and brilliant, he’s thoughtful. These words don’t always go together.
However, at one point in his life, Warren was a practitioner of leadership, rather than a teacher of leadership, when he served as president of the University of Cincinnati. Once, when he was speaking to a university audience in his presidential role, one of his friends in the room unexpectedly asked: “Do you love what you do?”
A long, awkward silence filled the room as he pondered the question. As a president, he searched for the right answer, but as a human, he wanted the real answer. Finally, in a quiet voice, he replied, “I don’t know.”
That revelation plunged Warren into deep reflection. It dramatically altered his path through life. He had always thought he wanted to be the president of a university. It had not dawned on him that after he got there he might not actually enjoy it.
“Do you love what you do?” may be the seminal question of our age.
In yesterday’s world, professionals worked 40 hours a week and took four weeks of vacation. In the early 1980s, I remember visiting the corporate headquarters of one of the world’s most successful companies at 5 p.m. There was almost no one there. You could fire a cannonball down the hall and not hit anyone.
Those days are gone. Almost all of the professionals I work with are busier today than they ever have been in their lives, working 60 to 80 hours a week. They feel under more pressure than ever. Cell phones, PDAs and e-mails forever tether us to our work, whether we like it or not. Put it all together and, if you don’t love what you do, it can be a kind of new-age professional hell. We can waste our lives waiting for a break that never comes.
It was much easier to find meaning and satisfaction in activities outside of work when we were under a lot less pressure and worked far fewer hours. Not only did people have more time, they weren’t as tired. But these days, life is too short. It’s not worth it. In the new world, we don’t have to love everything that we do, but we need to find happiness and meaning in most of our professional work.
As for Warren, he loves what he does now. It’s scary to think what we all would have lost without his moment of insight.
Marshall Goldsmith is corporate America’s preeminent executive coach and a co-founder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.
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