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
Theminimalists.com: Follow Your Passion is Crappy Advice
Psychologytoday.com: The Problem with Follow Your Dreams
Forbes.com: 5 Reasons To Ignore The Advice To Do What You Love