07/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What is Work? Part II: Finding Your Passion

In my last post, folks who "work with work" spoke about the classical and modern definitions of work. Which leads us to the very modern idea of work as a means to happiness.

Work that works for us personally may sound like an unreasonable dream in tough economic times. But the good news is, the "ol' daily grind" can result in soul diamonds.

Careers replete with personal meaning are possible, says career advisor Debbie Robins, a woman who combines tough talk about jobs with mega-empathy for the seeker's process.

Part of that empathy comes from Robin's professional training in psychology. Which happens to be part of her second career.

Over a working lunch in New York (a city whose name becomes New Work if you switch one small letter), Robins told me that humankind's fear of change -- aka: "the pull to equilibrium" -- is a major challenge for people seeking happiness in and through their work.

Equilibrium sounds like something we should want. But it's more of a psycho-biological set of training wheels glued to a straight-jacket. The pull weighs us down in areas where we're naturally lighter and hems in where we're naturally ready to expand.

There is a reason for this, of course. A pull toward equilibrium was a great career tool for cave peoples. Back then, our primary job description was Not Being Dinner. Fighting and fleeing predators would take up a lot of the workday. At which point we'd rest. Our brains-in-progress deduced that this no-stress was good. And thus was born the concept of equilibrium as retirement.

Flash forward from the second half of the twentieth century until today. Jobs are more personal. Careers became more flexible - and tenuous. The idea of retirement is open to question. (If your life is a reflection of your person, how and why would you opt to stop it on some arbitrary date?)

Enter: the idea of work as calling. And the stress that comes as we try to find it. Which is something Robins knows a lot about, firsthand.

The first part of her career was a trip from A-B using someone else's map.

On paper, the map looked amazing. She had produced a hit play after college and wanted to do more of them. But then Hollywood optioned the play, and there was a chance to go to LA. And, well, only a fool would turn down Hollywood, right?

Flash forward a career. Deb Robins is a very successful professional. And a very unhappy person. She's a Hollywood Producer by virtue of having done it. But She -- if you think of our real selves with initial caps -- isn't a producer at heart. And her heart is breaking. So what is she?

(In case you're wondering: this moment of crisis is the same for everyone who arrives at a huge career change. Yes, someone who's been downsized is in a different boat from someone who's trapped in a job they hate, or is looking for meaningful work post-retirement. But the ocean is the same -- and appears equally vast and unswimmable.)

So, how does someone get across an ocean of fear of change to Work They Love?

The key, Robins says, is learning how to trick our biology.

"Getting really excited about a bigger goal," she says, can push "people through or past the pull to equilibrium."

The key is substituting eustress -- or positive stress -- for fear.

Here are Debbie Robins's tips for doing that:

1) Eliminate the words "should" and "try" from your career diet.

To say that we "should" work a certain job, earn a certain amount of money or stick things out is like ordering Equilibrium on wry -- without the wry.

"It's a loser's game," Robins says. And trying is equally fear-based, because, "part of your consciousness has already decided you've failed."

Remember: language is a brain tool. Use it wisely and your brain will do its chemical part. Substitute the words intend or promise into your career-seeking vocabulary and your confidence - and passion - rise.

2) See your present condition as a good thing, dammit!

You've been laid off. You have a job but hate it. You don't know what to do.

Look at life as a classroom as opposed to race, Robins advises.

"Bottom line," she adds, "if it's happened, you have to make it a good thing."

Debbie Robbins doesn't use the V word. But her idea strikes me as a great way to get out of Victim mode and into Passion mode.

We may feel like we're faking positivity the first time we say, "You know what? Losing that job was a real opportunity!" But the truth is, change is an opportunity to sink or swim. And once we decide how we intend to swim, the moment will feel real - and exciting.

3) Find Your Passion

Robins prescribes this exercise to her clients:

a) Imagine you had an endless supply of cash. You've taken care of yourself, your friends, family and community. But guess what? You still have a trillion dollars left - which you have to spend.

"What you would love to do with that money that would make the world a better place and serve other people?" Robins asks. And then:

b) "What would someone do in the world that is passionate about that?"


c) "What is a small easy next step toward that?"

Now, ask friends and family "Do you have any thoughts about how I can do this?"

"A lot of the answers like in remembering our human family," Robins says. "We forget that we're a tribe.

And this is where our professional passion can boost our personal world as well, creating a career that is life, work and love combined.

"The only way I know to do that is to discover what you really want to do and go for it. And those are the success stories at every tier of the economic ladder."

Coming up next in "What is work?" Working with passion...and major life changes.