Following Your Passion: A Calling For The West, A Caution For The East

"Do you have the fire in your belly to pursue your passion?"

"Are you in love with your job?"

These introspective questions are the preface of most career advice scripts.

Inspirational speeches by world leaders start with follow-your-passion stories.

Truth be told, I've been the biggest cheerleader of this philosophy. While I'm still discovering my true calling, I cultivated passion through my work. I strongly believed that passion should be the only drive to wake up and go to work every morning.

When I asked [my team] what they are passionate for, I got a "this is an out-of-syllabus question" look. It left them flustered.

I would coach my team on these lines to: "You absolutely have to love what you do!"

And then I moved to India.

Almost all the people I know work very hard and are extremely diligent. But most of them have never introspected whether their work is aligned to their passion. Also, my usual coaching script somehow didn't connect with everyone on my team. When I asked what they are passionate for, I got a "this is an out-of-syllabus question" look. It left them flustered. It also left me a bit flustered.

Why is it that in most developed countries, people are willing to explore their passion and pursue it, while in India they call it a rich person's problem? The few that are passionate here are usually dubbed as "intellectual" or even "eccentric".

Over the next few months I got closer to understanding this incongruity.

One of the conspicuous differences between the two worlds is the starting point of this self-discovery journey or what I call the baseline.

To explain this, the best metaphor I can think of is through Maslow's hierarchy of needs (below for those who need a reminder).

The bottom of the pyramid defines basic needs. Once survival needs such as food, water and housing are met, you move to the next level, which is about financial security for yourself and the family, good education and proper healthcare.

Exploring your passion requires a higher degree of self-awareness related to the top of the pyramid. You can't succeed reaching to the top without crossing the baseline.

In most Western or developed countries, the bottom of the pyramid is usually supported by the government. The social security system in the US, NHS in the UK, the HDB model in Singapore... this is the kind of economic infrastructure that allows people to draw their baseline above the bottom. It makes it easier to move forward in their quest of finding their passion. Even if they fail in their journey, a safety net is built for them. (Of course this doesn't stop them from going on periodic strikes demanding for more "cushion" in the net!)

I remember signing up for fulfilling a wish-list of some "underprivileged" kids with an NGO in Singapore. The top item on their wish-list was to visit Universal Studios—a distinct difference from their underprivileged counterparts in the developing world.

In countries like India the political and the economic infrastructure is not strong enough to support its largely rural one billion-plus population. The proportion of needs to the available resources is far too skewed.

There needs to be fuel in the belly before there can be a fire.

Most of the middle class in India does not move past the bottom levels over generations (78% of the population earns an annual income less than $4363 or marginally less ₹300,000). Everyone is running at lightning speed in the race for survival. Most of them live and work to make ends meet. The price of following a passion could be paid through their stomach. And if they fail, the fall is too steep in a dark, unknown trough with no supporting social infrastructure.

If I were to ask the wish-list of the "underprivileged" slum kids I teach here in Delhi, the top item of their list would be some good food and warm clothes. Talking to them about the importance of following their passion is like talking to a Neanderthal about the importance of owning a smartphone.

I've realised that it's important for leaders to empathize with this difference and understand individual needs before beginning to coach.

There cannot be universal follow-your-passion advice. Sometimes it may not be the right advice at all, especially when it involves quitting jobs and losing financial stability. Instead of ruing (like I initially did) that they are not aware of their passion, try to create a conducive environment that can help them cultivate passion towards what they are already doing.

And for those privileged ones who have a comfortable cushion, you kind of owe it to the rest to complete the journey to the top of that pyramid.

One of the lessons India humbly taught me is this: "There needs to be fuel in the belly before there can be a fire."

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