“‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous advice.” – Cal Newport
It seems like everyone has become fixated on their passion. We are no longer satisfied settling on a career for the sole sake of monetary gain. Searching “how to find your passion” on Google Trends is evidence of this cultural phenomenon.
This post probes deeper into the idea of following your passion and considers a better path to achieving career happiness. In order to follow your passion without the danger of severe disappointment, it is helpful to understand how your passion works.
So why is “follow your passion” bad advice?
First of all, it assumes your “passion” is a specific thing inside of you, waiting to be uncovered and acted upon. In fact, it is the other way around: our passion is a byproduct of doing great work. In Drive, Daniel H. Pink makes the case that career happiness comes from having a position that allows for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
This means we need to have a level of control over our work, feel that we are advancing our skills, and have a sense that we are contributing to a larger purpose outside ourselves. Therefore, our passion develops with an activity, not uncovered beforehand. Defining your passion beforehand can limit potential opportunities to attain work that offers these three characteristics that facilitate career happiness.
Your passion may not be what you think…
Take the example of Gary Vaynerchuk who has been a successful entrepreneur since he could ride his bike around the block to collect cash from his various lemonade stands. Growing up, his first passion was baseball cards. As an adolescent he learned everything there was to know about baseball cards, turning his passion into a very profitable vending business. He dreamt of opening up enough baseball card shops one day to buy the New York Jets. Gary relentlessly pursued this passion until one day his father forced him to work a dull inventory job in the basement of his family’s liquor store.
Although this looks like a cruel injustice, it was the very thing that opened up a world of opportunities for him to peruse his passion at a larger scale than he had ever conceived. Noticing customers in the store collected wine, he saw an opportunity and applied the entrepreneurial sense he developed through baseball cards to wine. Becoming a wine expert, he eventually turned his small family shop into a sixty-million-dollar business. But was wine his “true” passion? Far from it.
Just like the baseball cards and the lemonade, wine was merely a vehicle to execute his relentless entrepreneurial passion. Gary Vaynerchuck has now taken the business skills to his digital marketing startup and is a strong advocate for loving what you do. The lesson is to not define your passion too narrowly, since you might mistake the vehicle for the engine – in other words, don’t mistake the passion’s present exterior form for the passion itself. The same can be said about defining your passion too broadly, since almost everyone can identify with a passion for “helping people.” The question then becomes the particular form your passion takes: how are you helping people?
Let your passion follow you, instead.
Getting your passion to follow you requires developing skills that offer as much value as possible. Progressing on one’s path to mastery, based on one’s innate or developed strengths is the best way to achieve a passionate work-life. Passion is earned. Vocations are not handed to the amateur, they are achieved by walking the path and doing the work. Vocations can be shape-shifters, outlets for one’s craft that don’t necessarily take on a stable or specified form.
In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport urges us to be like craftsmen of our skills. The craftsman mindset allows passion to serendipitously emerge through one’s work, distinct from the passion-centered mindset which fixates on a pre-existing set of ideal conditions. He gives the example of Steve Jobs’ “messy” career path, stating, “Steve Jobs was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.” He became passionate in the tech business only after developing his skills in this area and walking the path to mastery.
This advice is also useful during times of transition. Rather than having your passion depend on your social role, take your passion with you to the new role and find ways to apply your unique skills to the new situation. Like Gary’s sequence of business ventures, your vocation can take on several different external forms. The key is that you find a way to bring your unique skills to the situation and be “so good they can’t ignore you,” as Cal Newport says. This means you must understand your strengths, understand the market, and craft your strengths to align with the market.
Nearing the end of my doctoral degree in sociology, I have discovered how relevant this advice truly is. Throughout my grad school career, I have been asked repeatedly, “what are you going to do with that?” To which I always replied, “the only job available for someone with this degree: research and teach in a university setting.” As much as I would love to land a tenure-track professorship, I now recognize that my passion for writing, deeply qualitative inquiry, and strategic problem-solving are not dependent on the university context. I am now broadening my horizon, contributing to projects outside the walls of academia, and am open to potentially collaborating with any organization I can bring value to.
Stay on your path to mastery, become a craftsman of your work, and know that vocations are earned. Perhaps then, instead of following your passion, your passion will start following you.
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