Apathy - curse or signal?

apathy or passion passion purpose May 07, 2024

Apathy is a curse in personal relationships where it acts like a drip-fed poison. But what about apathy towards your profession, with which you also, in a way, have a relationship?

One of the key factors that underpins your professional impact is the antithesis of apathy, being the passion they bring to the role. There is something about the whole endeavour that brings excitement, fulfilment, and your capacity to focus on the task. So apathy can be devastating. Professional life becomes a stressful bore, bringing into question your whole career.

Yet perhaps apathy is an essential signal for good change.

Dig a little deeper

In the first phase of my career as a headhunter, I remember my colleagues laughing at my delight at placing a candidate successfully, as if watching a puppy dog run around the lounge room. For me that moment was more than a ‘win’, it tapped into a passion, which has evolved over the years, for seeing talent well-placed. I didn’t quite express it in those terms then, but that idea has been a constant underpinning all the phases of my work as a coach to professionals.

Yet I have lost that passion at various points over the last 25 years – or thought I had. It’s a tough feeling to sit with. I never quite totally lost faith, and I ascribe that to some important distinctions that emerged as I wrestled with the issue.

Going deeper, for myself as well as my clients, I found it helpful to reflect on and distinguish between:

  • Apathy about the process.
  • Apathy about the outcome.
  • Apathy about the people.
  • Apathy about the client’s organisation.

These are helpful because they enable me to address apathy as a manageable symptom of work, rather than a sign that my world has fallen apart. The catastrophic path that apathy can lead you to is to forfeit everything because it feels like ‘nothing is worth caring about any more’ as one of my clients put it.

Listen to your internal dialogue

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been a solo consultant for so long that I’m a bit wary of how I talk to myself. As well as apathy, fatigue and frustration can lead to unhelpful self-talk. Of course, it’s interesting to ask who ‘I’ am when ‘I’m’ talking to ‘me’. When I play with that notion either in my self-reflections or with clients, what emerges is a realisation that there’s a genuine internal conversation that can be opened out – onto the pages of a journal, perhaps – to reveal how our mind is walking around a problem. On the face of it loss of passion can seem intractable,.

This internal conversation is where we hear the things our influencers would say. These are the voices of our parents, peers, teachers or social contacts who say they know what’s best for us. They have a long list of things we ‘should’ do. The other voice is yours, where you’re becoming something new, whose passion is transmuting into something your ‘voices’ don’t understand. The voice may even be small and fumbling for meaning, but that’s a good thing. It means new, richer meaning is possible.

So apathy is helpful as a signal that this thing, this professional endeavour, this firm, this way of working has become stale for some as yet unknown reason. Action is the antidote, which may require some breakages. You may need to break a relationship to fix it and put it back together in a way that better suits your future. You may need to let go of one aspect of your professional process because another aspect is what’s calling to you next. Or you may need to shift your client focus.

I’ve personally shifted from a focus on the organisation to a focus on the individual, from moving them between roles, to moving them to greater success within their role, from working with large organisations, to smaller organisations where my input has greater impact.  Each shift wasn’t a fully worked-out calculated decision but became clearer (and usually more urgent) when I realised what I simply didn’t care about so much.

This reflection goes past the symptom of apathy and helps uncover a root cause, where your action is more powerful and enduring.

Refreshing passion

Age brings experience but it can also bring repetitiveness & monotony, which are deadly if you value variety and change.

Apathy is a sign to turn to your passion for your endeavour and ask of it, what needs refreshing? In particular, how can I refresh my world to match better the person I’ve grown into and the future I see for myself? 

I’d suggest this is a task that never ends. Starting a big new role, changing from executive roles to focus on Boards, or putting together new projects to pursue after your main career, all call upon us to engage with, nurture and refresh our passion for issues, our professional impact, and life. So give yourself a fruitful break. Go and watch some waves or trees and let the grit of apathy form the pearl of insight into where your passion lies.

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