Stay Passionate About Work By Asking 'What Am I Excited About?'

When was the last time you were truly excited about something at work? If it's hard to come up with an answer, you're not alone. As Jay Nathan explains, the first step to changing this is asking yourself a simple question.

Image remixed from Yuri Arcurs (Shutterstock).

A year into my new role as a product manager, I was in a funk. Things were getting done, but I wasn't making an impact. My product roadmap was full of must-fix issues and critical gaps, and it felt like my agenda was being written for me as opposed to being the CEO of my product.

I was preparing for a meeting with my SVP, and had a 20-slide presentation to walk her though. One ingrained myth from my prior decade of professional services management was that slides are the most effective way of communicating with execs, even one-on-one. I showed up for the meeting not particularly enthusiastic about what I had to share, but intent on keeping the lines of communication open.

We talked for a while before I launched into my slides, diligently reviewing the content on each. About halfway though, she stopped me and said:

This is all good, but what on your list are you most excited about?

Excited? I'd never been asked a question like this, and my planned discussion points clearly didn't reflect excitement. Had I answered the question honestly, I'd say I wasn't particularly excited about any of it. But instead I quickly rattled off three items in no particular order.

The meeting ended uneventfully, but the question rang in my ears for days "What am I excited about?"

Over the next few weeks I had the opportunity to visit with customers. With this question now seared into my subconscious, something interesting began to happen. I started to see problems worth solving. Even better, I could see which ones were important to solve first. Seeing these opportunities and knowing there were solutions made me — could it be? — excited!

It turns out that for me, seeing users' problems firsthand and helping energise my team around solving them is a real motivator.

The following are a few reflections on the experience:

  • We don't have forever. If you desire to make an impact, focus on it right now, where you are. It's easy to jump ship and go somewhere else, but the funny thing is that you always take yourself with you when you go.
  • Start small, make little bets, get little wins. The little wins are bigger than you think, and little wins turn into bigger ones with perseverance and time.
  • Prioritise. It's easy to get frustrated that you can't resolve all the issues at once. But one thing's for sure, you'll never succeed unless you take the first step.

I have to go back and give credit to that one simple question, "What are you excited about?" If you are a manager, ask your people this question, care about the answer, and help them do things in their work that also provide personal fulfillment.

If your manager doesn't ask, ask yourself, and don't let "nothing" be your answer. Find something to get passionate about and your work will become your life's work, not just a job.

The most important question I've ever been asked [Jay Nathan]

Jay Nathan is a director of platform product management for a software company based in Charleston, SC. He's passionate about the Internet, software, and the development of great products. Follow him on Twitter @jaynathan.


    So true. I had a similar thing happen to me, via a question from a colleague of a friend that my friend told me I should introduce myself to when I was at a particular trade show. I said hi, and explained the connection, and he said hi, said some kind words about our mutual friend, and then asked me, "So what do you do?". Cue the 30-second elevator speech summary, right? I had just opened my mouth to recite it when he finished the question: "Best?".

    You could have knocked me over with a feather due to my sudden realisation that what I did at the time had very little to do with what I do best. It was the work that was most common in my area at the desired salary/rate level, which was NOT the kind of work I did best. I was passionate about what I knew I did best (which is possibly why I did it best ;-). I was not nearly as passionate about other professional pursuits, even if I could excute those tasks adequately enough to get contract renewals, new offers, etc.

    I don't even recall how I answered the question, but it was a pitiful enough answer that I followed it up with an email a couple weeks later.

    It took forever to get one of those roles that fit the "what I do best" criteria, but I looked for one starting from THAT DAY, and never gave up. That question had convinced me, maybe I won't ever get it, but that's no excuse not to try. Of course, because I hadn't had much experience in my desired niche over the prior decades (I was stuck in a geographic region that limited my work options, primarily), I had to start at entry level when I was finally offered a role in something that excited me. WIthin 2 years I'd nearly doubled my salary, represented my employer internationally in some challenging situations,, and multiple senior VP's at a Fortune 100 company knew me, knew what I did for their organisation, kept recommending me for promotions, etc.

    That one shot at what I do best, though it took me literally 22 years of career time to get it, changed my life. Even if you're not doing what you want to do today, but rather doing what you "have to" for whatever reason (sometimes the two just don't coincide due to other obligations, such as the geographic limitation I had faced), KNOW what you want, so that you'll know it when you see it in the future.

    Some people might say, "22 years? SHOCKERS! What an awful thing to consider an achievement, I hope to be retired by then". And to an extent, I agree. But here's the deal: it's how long it took, for me. I sure as heck wish I'd gotten my break 5 years into my career or even 10. And I'd certainly worked hard to get that break early on, but the opportunities just weren't where I had to be. Given that, I'd rather have had the chance when I did, than at 24 years in, or not at all. And I think a LOT of people resign themselves to "not at all".

      That was full of interesting insights and personal stories. Thanks for sharing!

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