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Why “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice

This idea explains why “follow your passion” is such bad advice. The qualities listed above are almost impossible to find in an entry-level job because we don’t yet have a skill set that makes us rare and valuable.


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Aanika Dalal

3 years ago | 7 min read

Over the course of the last several decades, the idea that we should choose a career based on what we are passionate about has become so popular it’s almost a cliché.

However, this advice often does more harm than good. In fact, as the phrase “follow your passion” has gone mainstream we have seen a steady decrease in job satisfaction.

For the majority of my life, I was a subscriber to this passion-centered approach to finding work you love. I believed that in order to live a life of meaning and fulfillment all I needed to do was discover what my passion was and the rest would take care of itself.

I thought that there was some career out there that was destined for me and that I would wake up one day and just know what I was meant to do with my life.

The truth is passion is not something that can be discovered, rather it is something that develops over time as you gain mastery over your craft.

According to Cal Newport, author of the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, there are three components to a great job: creativity, impact, and control.

If you observe anyone working a job that they love, it is clear that it offers them some combination of the traits listed above.

Unfortunately, these qualities are not only valuable, but they are also rare. And, according to basic economic theory, in order to get something rare and valuable you need to offer something rare and valuable in return.

This idea explains why “follow your passion” is such bad advice. The qualities listed above are almost impossible to find in an entry-level job because we don’t yet have a skill set that makes us rare and valuable.

The passion mindset makes it seem that there is a career out there that is destined for us and that when we find this dream job there will be some magical moment where everything falls into place.

So, when our first job fails to meet these unreasonably high expectations, we grow disenchanted and move on assuming the job “just isn’t for me”.

But, in reality, if we had stuck around and focused on developing valuable skills we probably would have grown to love the career over time.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

It’s kind of similar to why arranged marriages are often so effective. Studies have shown that although love marriages start out with more passion, arranged marriages develop more compassion over time. And that makes sense.

People who marry for love often go into the relationship expecting sunshine and rainbows, so when the more unpleasant realities or married life hits them it makes them question whether they made the right choice.

On the other hand, couples in an arranged marriage expect to have to grow and adjust; they know that making the relationship work will be difficult, so when difficulties hit them, they are ready.

I’ve found that part of the reason this more pragmatic approach towards finding a career you love is so effective is that it embraces hard work. There is a reason why everyone doesn’t have a job they love一 it’s really difficult.

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash
Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

Not only does taking the time to master a skill make you a valuable commodity in the economy, the process of getting good at something, regardless of what it is, is satisfying in and of itself. Why, you ask?

Well, the process of learning a hard skill requires deep concentration.

In the early 1990s, K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, attempted to answer the question of what separates the experts in any given field from everyone else.

And, bringing together strands of research in the relatively new field of performance psychology, he arrived at a conclusion: deliberate practice.

Instead of the common belief that the difference between experts in any industry and normal adults is due to a difference in natural talent, Ericsson argues that this gap in ability actually reflects a “life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”

There are two main requirements for a practice session to be considered “deliberate”.

First, it requires that your attention be tightly focused on whatever skill you are trying to improve or idea you are trying to master. And second, you must receive feedback so you can correct your approach and keep your attention exactly where it is most productive.

Specifically, it’s the first trait that is relevant to this article. It tells that in order to get good at something we have to spend large amounts of time in a state of intense concentration and deep work.

This has many positive psychological benefits.

Research tells us that our world is the outcome of what we pay attention to. For example, Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina,

tells us that what we choose to focus our attention on after a negative event has a significant effect on our attitude going forward.

We can see this effect through research on gratitude. Research has shown that gratitude exercises have a significant positive effect on people’s mental health.

In fact, gratitude, which is essentially just focusing on the good in your life, was more effective than receiving counseling or writing about one’s negative experiences.

When we spend the majority of our workday immersed in deep and meaningful work our minds see the world as deep and meaningful as well.

Additionally, because such states of deep work require almost all of your concentration it prevents you from noticing the smaller and less fun realities of life.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Furthermore, one of the world’s best-known psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research tells us that the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. A state he calls “flow”.

“The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost,”

In his book, he explains that although most people assume relaxation makes them happy, this isn’t true. In fact, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time.

This is because they provide built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges一 all things that encourage states of flow. And, his research confirms that the more we experience states of flow the happier we are with our life.

Given all this, it is clear that simply getting really good at a particular skill, regardless of what it is, is the best way to find work you love, not blindly searching for your “passion”.

But, it’s not that simple. As with any rule, there are exceptions, loopholes, and conditions. In this next section, I want to explore some of the more practical questions and concerns of the ideas above.

First, let’s acknowledge the fact that “follow your passion” isn’t always bad advice. For certain people, it might be exactly what they need to hear. However, although this advice may work for a select few, it is not applicable to the overwhelming majority.

There are also cases where the advice to simply get really good isn’t enough. In his book, Cal Newport tells us that there are three disqualifiers from applying this strategy to your work life:

  1. it presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable,
  2. it focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world,
  3. or, it forces you to work with people you really dislike.

If one or more of these statements are true about the work you are doing it is probably time to start considering a career switch. But, this raises another question: how do you choose which career to choose?

If you already have a career that doesn’t fall into one of the pitfalls described above, your path forward is clear. The first step is to identify the skills that will make you valuable in your industry, then work on getting really good.

That value will then attract a series of opportunities you can follow in a quest toward gaining more creativity, control, and impact in your career and ultimately loving what you do.

Photo by Evie S. on Unsplash
Photo by Evie S. on Unsplash

However, if you don’t yet have a set career, this process gets slightly more complicated. Newport suggests that you simply choose any career at the intersection of your interests and available opportunities.

And, although this is sound advice in principle, it may be difficult to actually apply. As anyone who’ career searched before knows, it’s hard to commit.

There are also several other factors that need to be considered. For example, what kind of culture you want to work for, if you want to have a family, or if you have other goals outside of your career.

To combat this, I would recommend exploring potential careers through interviews, books, courses, internships, etc. Having a better understanding of your options can help make taking the dive easier.

Furthermore, I would remind you that your career doesn’t define who you are. Life is less about what you do and more about how you do it.

In conclusion, although “follow your passion” is great advice in principle it doesn’t work out so well in the real world. Instead, it is more effective to take a systematic, methodological effort to find work you love.

Instead of hoping for passion to find you, you can take charge of your own future and create your passion.

If you enjoyed the ideas presented in this article I would recommend reading So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash
Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

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