Today, in the modern world, many unfulfilled office workers pining for a fulfilling career or to become "actualized" are told by motivational writers to "Follow your passion" or are asked by career counselors, "What are you willing to suffer for?" The answer can help indicate what other job the respondent should have instead.
Another common question, "If you were guaranteed to not fail at it, what would you do for work?"
I presume a degree of reasonableness is expected by the respondent. A 45-year-old answering, "I'd be an NFL quarterback" would undoubtedly and sensibly be met with qualifying questions, such as what aspects in particular of being an NFL quarterback appeals to them, because the career path itself is Not An Option.
The matter is that of eudaimonia, a Greek word meaning a full, flourishing life. The advice of the motivators seems to assume eudaimonia requires a job with passion That may be true for many people. But, I suspect not for all. I feel that Epicurus' definition of eudaimonia sometimes gets overlooked: eudaimonia as ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—aponia—the absence of pain—and living self-sufficiently among friends.
For such a life, having a job that isn't fulfilling but at least causes no pain may be a satisfactory mean to an end that is tranquility and friendship: the job pays the rent, buys the food, and so long as it does not compromise the pleasures of adequate self-sufficiency and friendship, is the useful mechanism for Epicurean eudaimonia. In practical terms, this might mean, for example, a job free of a micromanaging boss and that doesn't require regularly working until late.
I look at the world-traveling freelancers abundant on Instagram (photos of Angkor Wat abound) and read the newsletters of the motivators, and I wonder at what point the quest of achieving a career involving "flow" at work—tasks so engaging that a sense of time is lost—and finding your passion become a kind of cult or obsession so consuming that more Epicurean delights nearer to hand get frequently overlooked.
Shantideva, Bodhisattvacharyavatara (A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, c. AD 700)—
They actually run toward misery itself.
Although they want to be happy, out of ignorance
Perhaps the philosophers were looking for an ultimate eudaimonia that satisfies all people. I don't know, I'm not a student of philosophy. But my assumption is that eudaimonia differs based on the individual.
For some, perhaps Epicurean eudaimonia is at best a happy and periodic way-station. It may hold for some a potential as a trap, even a doorway to later misery from boredom, it's tranquility a siren call, a dangerous allure into being safe but not happy, because for them happiness requires, perhaps, thrill or even risk. But for others, it may be eudaimonia fully achieved, and the desire to seek "flow" and to follow their passion—perhaps it's not wholly a desire but also an external pressure—is the bedeviling temptress. They're looking to photograph Angkor Wat or to write the great American novel, but the ladybug would do, if only they'd look, the well-crafted e-mail to a friend in need, if only they'd write it, or the sunset shared with a spouse or offspring, if only they'd take them by the hand.
The real trouble is, I suspect, that most people are a bit of both, the work eudaimonia and the life eudaimonia or Epicurean, and the trick is to find out what proportions of each you are and live—that is makes choices—accordingly. The ancient Delphic maxim "Know thyself" has several possible meanings, but surely one viable option is something like knowing what eudaimonia is for you.
Images: The ruins of Delphi, Tholos, Greece. Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC (alabaster mantle added in modernity), Palazzo Altemps, Rome, Italy.