Maybe… Don’t Follow Your Passion?

I don’t think there’s any advice given out more than “follow your passion” or some variation of it. There are literally hundreds of books and articles written about finding your passion and capitalizing on it.  We hear it from peers, parents, school advisors, CEOs, and motivational speakers.
Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 10.37.59 AMNow don’t get me wrong – I subscribe to this belief. A lot.
Well… kind of…
Let me explain:
Yes, if you are passionate about what you do, it’ll probably be easier to become successful, enjoy your work, and therefore enjoy life in general. Few things inspire me more than people that are passionate about something, and go after it, and let nothing get in their way. The world needs more of these type of people (unless you’re passionate about killing puppies or something similarly terrible). However, I think the advice to “follow your passion” is overly simplistic and might have some negative consequences for individuals as well as society.

# 1 It’s Made Us Self-Entitled A-Holes.

In the Harvard Business Review, Cal Newport does a great job explaining how being encouraged to “follow our passion” has made my generation into self-entitled brats. I highly recommend you check out his article here, but I’ll try my best to sum up. Historically speaking, the idea of finding a job you’re passionate about is a fairly recent phenomenon.
Passion pic newport
The chart above uses Google analytics to track the amount of times the words “follow your passion” has been printed in the English language throughout the years. Past generations grew up in times of war and depression, and were more concerned about just getting by than being passionate about their work. Our generation, on the other hand, has been increasingly told that not only can we have a job we love, but that we should settle for nothing less. Just listen to Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford Commencement speech:

Well if Steve Jobs says it, it must be true, right? Cal Newport points out that while that speech is super inspirational, it’s also kind of bullshit. Steve Jobs didn’t really follow his passion. He was more concerned with Eastern Mysticism when he stumbled into his career path, and then developed a passion for it. He also worked really f*@#ing hard… a clause that often gets cut off of the phrase “follow your passion”.

When there are millions of people out there who would be thankful for any type of job, who are we to think we deserve nothing less than to be passionate about our job? Unfortunately the idea that we shouldn’t pursue a career unless we’re really passionate about it, might be contributing to why 29% of adults 25-34 still live with their parents (Parker, 2012). I’ll elaborate more on this throughout.

# 2 What If I Don’t Know What My Passion Is?!?

Anyone else remember the stress of graduating high school/entering college and the extreme urge to punch anyone in the face that asked you “So what do you want to do?” graduationWhat an extremely overwhelming question for anyone, never mind a teenager! “Hey you’re barely 18 and have next to no life experience, what do you think you would be happy doing for the rest your life?!” I think a lot of the pressure comes from the consensus that you must find your passion and pursue it. This message is so powerful that it gives a sense that if you don’t find your passion, you’re bound to misery. So instead of majoring in something that we’re kind of interested in, we’re more likely to stay undeclared for fear of committing to anything that might not be our “true” passion. Many might not even go to college, because they have no idea what they want to study. Even after graduation, many will hold back professionally due to uncertainty about what the right career path is. Job searching can be hindered by a lack of conviction as to what job we should even chase, or we might pass on quality jobs while holding out for one that perfectly captures  our passion. Alternatively, we might take a job but half-ass it, because we’ve labeled it as a  “good enough for now” job until we find our true calling. So it takes us longer to establish ourselves on our own two feet, hence many parents end up having to change the “guest room” back into “our room”.
UnknownNow I’m in my mid-twenties, and the majority of my peers still don’t know what they want to do with their lives. Hell, most people I know of any age still don’t know what they want to do with their lives! Meanwhile, our fear of investing in something that might not be our true passion can keep us from gaining enough experience in anything to find out if we’re passionate about it, or to develop a passion for it.

imagesWhen hearing the message “follow your passion” over and over again, we get the feeling that we should know what our passion is. Furthermore, it makes us feel like something is wrong with us if we don’t know what we’re passionate about. Cal Newport identifies that part of the problem with this message is that it assumes each one of us is born with some predetermined passion we’re destined to uncover… and this probably just isn’t true. He suggests that instead of looking for our passion, we should be cultivating it. This made me think about my discussion on passion vs. dedication in relationships (which you should check out here). Maybe it’s not so different with careers. Sure there are topics you might become interested in, but if you really want to enjoy what you do for the long-term you need to put effort into being passionate about it.

# 3 It Sets Too High Of An Expectation

Ok I’m probably starting to sound redundant, because the same themes keep popping up in each of my posts – but bear with me! We’re lead to believe that we’ll be happy if we’re passionate about what we do. The problem with this is that whenever we become too convinced that a particular set of circumstances will make us happy (a job, a relationship, a boatload of cash), we will be disappointed. I rant about this more here, but basically the only thing that determines our happiness is our own perspective on things. If you’re the type of person that looks for reasons to be unhappy, you’re going to find reasons to be unhappy with any career. If you’re the type of person that looks for things to be happy about, you’re going to find them in any career.WantingWhatYouHaveThis is another area where careers are like relationships: If you expect a relationship to feel passionate/fulfilling all the time, when it’s not you’re going to start doubting it’s the right relationship. Similarly, when you’re convinced you should be over-the-moon passionate about your career, you’re going to assume any job that doesn’t make you feel that way is wrong for you. Once you have the idea that a certain job isn’t right for you, you’ll have a confirmation bias. For you non-psych nerds out there, confirmation bias is a social psychology term referring to the phenomenon where, once we have a belief we pay more notice to all information confirming that belief, and less notice to all contradictory information. So basically if you’re not happy with your job, you’ll notice all the crappy parts of it, and disregard any redeeming qualities. Therefore having such high expectations sets us up for failure.

Even when people do follow their passion, and become wildly successful, it often doesn’t make them happier, in fact they often end up being less happy. Think of all the great musicians and actors that followed their passion, and sadly ended up committing suicide or overdosing. Perhaps this is partly because they achieved everything they thought they wanted, and realized it didn’t make them any happier.
Celebrities that have committed suicide or O.D.ed

# 4 What if your passion is dumb?

Ok I’m being facetious here – I don’t really think any passion is dumb. Ya passionate about making necklaces out of macaroni? Awesome! You make those necklaces! Ya want to make a career out of it? …Let’s think this through.

"Where's my money, bitch?!?"

“Where’s my money, bitch?!?”

I know people have made careers out of the weirdest passions (check out Natalie Irish painting with just her lips here) but I’m just saying you better have a plan… and probably a back up plan.

When we get to college and try to pick a major that will lead us to a great career, plenty of people are happy to suggest we follow our dreams and pursue whatever we’re interested in. No one want’s to be the bad guy, and say anything that might discourage us away from becoming the first multi-millionaire macaroni jewelry designer. When I chose my major I had no idea what I could expect to earn when I graduated, and I believe this is true for most people starting out college, and even true for many people when they graduate college. No one sat us down and explained that if you follow this path, you might end up with 6 figures of debt, and are likely to make $25,000 a year (if you’re lucky enough to even find a job).
images-3This is partly why so many people in my generation are either freaking out because they’ll be dragged down by debt for the rest of their lives, or they’ve become so desensitized to the idea of debt that they’ll just keep living financially irresponsible lifestyles forever.

"Hello dreams!... Good-bye economy!"

“Hello dreams!… Good-bye economy!”

# 5 What if your passion lies outside of your career?

Who says that what you’re really passionate about has to be the source of your income? Sure, we would all love to get paid to do something we already really enjoy, but we might not all be so lucky to find that. Why can’t our passion be in another part of life? Maybe you’re passionate about being a father, and you hold a nice steady job that allows you to support your family. Maybe your passion is skiing, and while you’re not so good that anyone is going to pay you to ski, you have a good job that allows you to tear up the slopes on the weekends. Maybe you’re not passionate about one thing, but about dabbling in lots of different things. I think this might be true for a lot of the people out there who are having a hard time “finding” their passion, because they’re not passionate about any one thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just going to be difficult finding a career to fit that. So do something else that gives you the flexibility to pick up a new hobby every month.

The Solution

Do we give up on pursuing our passion and just accept crappy/mediocre jobs?
Nope. Here’s what I suggest:

  1. If you have something you’re passionate about, you should absolutely pursue it. BUT think it through:
    Can you really make a living out of it? How will you do that? What’s your back up plan? Is it a passion you can pursue outside of your career?
  2. Don’t forget that to find success doing what you love, might mean working really really hard… like harder than most people are willing to… and harder than is probably even psychologically healthy.
  3. If you don’t have a passion, or know what it is – There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with you.
  4. If you don’t know what you want to do, do anything. Find something even remotely interesting to you, and then find the meaning in it. Look for reasons to enjoy what you have. Take pride in whatever it is you do.
  5. Don’t expect any one person, place, or thing to make you happy – The very expectation sabotages itself.

I’ll leave you with some links to smarter people than me saying what I just said but more good.

TedxTalks: Don’t just Follow Your Passion Follow Your Passion is Crappy Advice The Problem with Follow Your Dreams 5 Reasons To Ignore The Advice To Do What You Love

11 thoughts on “Maybe… Don’t Follow Your Passion?

  1. “follow your passion” is a human response to an unnatural condition that we were not supposed to be in: a life that spins around survival, where you struggle and sacrifice your human potential just to keep yourself alive in some acceptable conditions. No other being, no other human culture except our civilization, has a life with so much hardword and so little rewards.

    “follow your passion” is a first step, a first response to try and liberate us from that, in search for something new, where we can live to explore our true potential.

    • I disagree. Human beings in our society have a very easy time surviving compared to previous generations and cultures. The threat of violence, famine and disease are very low in the developed world. It is the absence of real struggle that makes us idle and bored and unhappy. We invent the idea of society, our jobs, our circumstances, oppressing us to satisfy our need to break free from boredom. “Everybody’s trying to bring me down man!” No they’re just tired of listening to you complain about bullshit while they’re working their ass off trying to save for retirement, taking care of their parent with dementia.

  2. Pingback: It’s My Birthday! | C to C Friendspirations

  3. You know, I think you make some good points about how it all comes together. Someone linked me to an article in recent weeks called “FOMO Addiction: The Fear of Missing Out” ( Some have touched on the idea that dating is messy, in part because we’re afraid of missing out on someone better.

    I’m beginning to wonder if passion is not victim to the same folly; thinking that we must find that absolute best option or we will forever regret our decisions in life. This makes sense to me because surely not all the people who have “found their passion” are liars or dreadfully confused? For example, I stumbled upon this website ( today and the writer seems to do a good job of covering many of the overlooked details of what “follow your passion” truly entails.

    With that in mind, I know that I often get caught up in this idea that I must find the perfect passion that fits me absolutely or else I’ll waste my life on meaningless things and have only regret at the end. It’s hard for me to admit it sometimes, but it’s obvious to me when I take a step back that life is not an instant shuttle from beginning to end, wherein I have to decide what single shuttle I’m going to take.

    I guess what I’m driving at is that maybe the engine that powers the “follow your passion” adage is simply the idea that it’s not healthy for yourself, or anyone else, to be living a life, working a job, etc., that you hate. The adage assumes the converse “if you shouldn’t live a life you hate then you must live a life you love.” It’s intuitive on the surface, at least to me. But I think it’s often far easier to hate than it is to love, especially when we are faced with media-chosen ideals of people to look up to – people whose lives seem better in ways that we only dream of.

    The reality, of course, is that media portrays people as ideals and they are just as human, struggling, and imperfect as the rest of us. But that’s an intellectual stance that I take after-the-fact and my emotions have already started brewing jealousy and fear (in particular, a fear that the life I live is not as good as what it could be).

    So perhaps the point of the adage – lost in translation – is that you shouldn’t let fear stop you from doing things that you desire to do. And that throwing aside a dead-end job, poor friends, or an unhealthy lifestyle is a way of showing yourself that throwing away things that do you harm (but which you cling to out of habit, and for the security that they provide in their routine) is not something that will kill you – but instead, it is something that may improve your quality of life.

    That angle to it reminds of a quote by the character Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The connection I see is thus: “When you eliminate the negative – those things in your life that you hate and that drain you of your energy – whatever remains, however strange, must be what you love.” Perhaps that is the point?

  4. Pingback: Reminder to self: Read the links when have time. | breathinshootinstar

  5. Great post. I have read loads of books on sales, personal development, goal setting, and psychology. I recently started listening to, and they mentioned Cal’s book. It is really good. Over the last five years, I have looked at many options of starting my own business but never bit the bullet all the while becoming an extremely skilled sales rep. Now that I have stuck with it, an opportunity has just been birthed within my field of expertise that I would never have come upon had a jumped ship. Career capital is worth a million bucks! Great post, thanks for sharing.

  6. Wow, you are quite the anti-passion crusader…lol. I jest. I think the word ‘passion’ gets a very very bad rep and like love, no one really knows what they are talking about when they talk about it, especially because it is linked to the emotions. I cannot talk about what Steve Jobs really felt in order to go from being into eastern mysticism to producing shiny computers – I wasn’t in his head – and whether being romantic about a career increases the unemployment rate or not is another argument to me, but I can personally vouch for the virtues of following – or finding – a job you love. I have had 10 years between a job I did because I had to do it, and a job I’m currently doing because I thought it was ‘very’ me. And guess what, the difference between my enthusiasm for both jobs is astounding! I am constantly working now and I love being at work. No, it doesn’t feel like I’m in a utopia of steak, trifle, homemade ginger and unicorns, but I look forward to work and I work very long hours, without feeling sad – that’s got to be great, huh?

    Maybe some people will search for their passions and never find them. Maybe those people will have no choice other than to ‘be sensible’ and find something more in line with what everyone else is doing. And maybe some people will suffer while searching – or following – their passions, being ‘useless’ for most of their adult lives until they find what they love doing. The pros and cons of any position could be argued upon, but to have a blanket view for everyone…I guess there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion, even if the opinion is prescriptively objective in scope, but hopefully, people will take a good look at themselves and the world without, and make their own decisions.

    • I think you highlight a point that I was trying to make (maybe not so well), that it’s probably different for everyone. Of course having a job you love, you finding what you love about your job is important. No one should have to spend the majority of their time doing something that brings them no satisfaction. I guess it comes down to semantics. I just think “find you passion” has some assumptions and sets some expectations that can lead to frustration and disappointment. I would hope people just think about the advice critically before accepting it, just as I hope they would any advice I gave them too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s