The Problem with ‘Following your Passion’?


I came across a curious article a little while ago that got me thinking about the tried and true adage of ‘following your passion’.

The early stages of a fantastic career might not feel fantastic at all, a reality that clashes with the fantasy world implied by the advice to "follow your passion" — an alternate universe where there's a perfect job waiting for you, one that you'll love right away once you discover it. It shouldn't be surprising that members of Generation Y demand a lot from their working life right away and are frequently disappointed about what they experience instead.

Written on the blog of the ever trusted Harvard Business Review by the author Cal Newport, the article points out that the concept of “following your passion” is essentially made synonymous with loving every second of your job and never settling for anything less.  Such a perception, it is argued, is inherently problematic due to a number of reasons, including the false promises it holds and perpetuates.

I am not going to deny that I am through and through Gen-Y and am proudly guilty of repeatedly telling people to follow their dreams, pursue their passion and find something they care about. 

I do see the point of Newport’s argument though, and he again highlights his point in this Forbes’ article.

Trying to determine your passion and follow it…can be dangerous and lead to chronic job-hopping. You’d be much better off…improving and stretching your “rare and valuable” skills to become a “craftsman.” That will make you a stronger job candidate and help you have a successful career.

It is an interesting perspective.  My father is incidentally a strong believer of the same concept: working on finding skills that are transferrable and get you employed rather than simply “for enjoyment”.  Doing your duty, fulfilling your responsibilities.  There are a couple of points I think this line of thinking poses. It should be noted that I am referring explicitly to career options and not general interests and hobbies.

I definitely think there is immeasurable value in enjoying what you do.  There is no point hating your job or role and being dissatisfied with your existence…after all, YOLO.  However I think it important that a distinction be made between blindly following a passion and forever having good and easy times. When framed like that, the important message of hard work is left out.

For example, no one can say to you engineering is an easy degree.  If they can, either they are a genius or they did it wrong. However, many engineers love engineering. 

How is that possible?

Through the realisation that perhaps loving something doesn’t instantly make it effortless (I understand that this is the same case in marriage, although I can’t speak with authority on that yet).

Whether or not everyone has a ‘calling’ is perhaps disputed, however there are definitely things people enjoy doing more than others.  Whether you find something you love first and try find the job to match it…or find something you don’t mind and learn to enjoy and appreciate it, both are equally valid ways of following a passion.  Sometimes the passion may come not from the industry itself but in mastering the challenge and becoming good at what you do.

Is the latter a “compromise”? If you had asked me a year ago, I may have said yes.  Now, having entered the working world, I am less adamant.

After all, Steve Jobs did the same thing.  The technology re-imaginer started as a barefoot liberal arts student and ended up the face of technological reinvention…through a series of serendipitous occurrences as well as becoming extremely passionate about what he was doing.

If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, we would probably find him today as one of the Los Altos Zen Center's most popular teachers. But he didn't follow this simple advice. Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break--a "small-time" scheme that unexpectedly took off.

Excerpted from So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport. © 2012 by Calvin C. Newport.

Not everyone is a Steve Jobs in the making, but his example is instructive.  The way in which we find a passion may vary.  Some are fortunate enough to know what they want to do their whole lives, others are less sure but that shouldn’t be derided.  I know I fell in love with motorsport and cars after watching a movie in grade 9…so sometimes inspiration strikes in the strangest of places.
At the end of the day, I am not going to stop telling people to follow their dreams and passions.  We are human beings, passion is a unique gift.  I personally think it is important to care; caring and passion often come hand in hand.  I am finding that over time, my focus of passion is shifting from particular ‘issues’ to more about values that the issues embody, such as empowerment and equality (and in the case of racing cars, pure speeeeeed)
However, in doing so, I will suffix the message with a disclaimer that simply because it is a passion, it won’t always be sunshine and rainbows.  Hard yards are required, although isn’t that what makes an outcome worthwhile?
…and those who haven’t found a passion yet, don’t despair.  It is not always a lightening bolt that strikes overnight; sometimes passion comes in the form of stalactites and stalagmites – they never really mean to grow, but grow they do; ever so slowly, drip by drip just doing their thing, until one day someone visits and the realisation dawns that something truly beautiful has been created.