Call it Cinderella syndrome.
At least among Americans, there’s this idea that your soul mate, your dream job, and a shoe that fits you perfectly is out there. You just have to find it.
The assumption is that unless you discover that perfect match, you won’t be satisfied.
But new research casts some doubt on that assumption, at least when it comes to work. Some people inherently believe that they can grow to love their job over time — and they generally end up just as happy as those who seek out the ideal fit from the start.
The study, led by Patricia Chen, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, divides people into two camps: “fit theorists” and “develop theorists.”
Fit theorists believe in the fairy tale: Passion is something that’s found. According to a series of experiments that the researchers conducted, the majority of people are fit theorists. Fewer are develop theorists, who think you can cultivate passion, even if you don’t necessarily feel it at the outset.
In the study, fit theorists were more likely to say they would take a (hypothetical) low-paying job that offers enjoyable work; develop theorists tended to say they would take a high-paying job that doesn’t involve very enjoyable work.
It might seem as though fit theorists would end up happier in the long run, but that wasn’t what the evidence suggested.
The researchers asked participants questions about their actual jobs, including, “How good a fit do you think there is between you and your current line of work now?” They asked similar questions about how well-matched participants felt when they first started their current job.
Participants also reported how passionate they felt towards their work; how satisfied their were with their work; and how successful they thought they were in their work.
Results showed that fit theorists were more likely to say they felt well-suited to their job initially. But when it came to their current feelings about their work, fit and develop theorists were similarly passionate and satisfied. They felt equally successful and made comparable incomes.
In other words, your implicit beliefs about achieving passion at work can shape your expectations and your decisions — but probably not your levels of happiness and success.
Chen says these findings are revelatory in light of popular messages about achieving passion for work. (The study authors quote Steve Jobs, who famously said, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.”) Her research suggests that you can still be happy and successful even if you don’t love what you do at first — as long as you believe that love will come eventually.
Chen thinks that the notion of knowing what you love and finding work that allows you to do that is probably unique to Western cultures, which generally place a high value on independence. In the future, she hopes to conduct similar research in East Asian countries.
She may also study whether develop theory is overall a healthier approach to achieving passion at work than fit theory. Right now, she sees advantages and disadvantage to both mindsets.
As for develop theorists, “they will probably be more tolerant of difficulties integrating into new vocations (and perhaps even new work environments) because starting fit isn’t as big a priority for them,” Chen said. On the other hand, the downside is that develop theorists “may even persist longer than psychologically healthy for them in a vocation that is really unsuitable.”
Fit theorists are very efficient about searching for their job match and determine pretty quickly whether they’d be suited to a particular line of work. “However, the reality is that you’ve got to be in a practical position to do be picky if you want to adopt this approach,” Chen said. Not everyone has the means to turn down every job that comes their way because it doesn’t seem enjoyable.
Ultimately, if you’re stuck in an unfulfilling career, you have two options. Obviously, you can switch gigs — which isn’t always easy to do, especially in a tight job market. Or you can try changing your beliefs about how to achieve passion at work. If you’re a fit theorist, that means adopting a develop mindset.
Chen said that research hasn’t yet established whether psychologists can help people change this way. She pointed to another study, which found that 20-minute interventions can change people’s beliefs about whether intelligence is fixed or malleable. A similar approach might work with fit theorists.
None of this is not to say that Cinderella, or Steve Jobs, was wrong. But their experiences only reflect a piece of a complex puzzle. If you think that your dream job is out there waiting for you, go ahead and search for it. But if you think that you can take a decent-looking position and grow to enjoy it? That’s probably fine, too.
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