It’s graduation season, so brace yourself! It’s time for all the “Follow Your Passion™” posts. You’ll find most of these posts quoting Steve Jobs, assuming you have unlimited time/resources, and coming from positions of privilege. I went through a time where I soaked up these posts. I’m an Apple user, had no family (at that time), and am a straight white male, so BING-BING-BING – I was a perfect candidate to join the passion cult!
As appealing as “follow your passion” advice sounds (find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life, amirite?), that way of looking at work left me more frustrated and discontent than anything else.
Problems with “following your passion”
I personally struggle a lot with “follow your passion” advice. I suspect there are a few others who feel the same way, so I hope that talking through my problems will help you as well.
I have a lot of passions!
I can’t follow a passion, because I feel like I have too many passions! Which one do I even follow? I sit down and try to focus and figure out what my passion is. I talk with my wife, my family, and my close friends and ask them for input on which passion I should choose. And I don’t get much clarity. I’m currently working a job that has nothing to do with my education at all (and I’ve earned a PhD in that field!) - and I’m absolutely loving that job. Part of me wonders, what’s wrong with me? Another part is immensely grateful I’ve got a good job in a good industry. Yet another part wonders when/if I’ll put my educational investment to career use. I can’t follow my passion because I don’t have just one.
My passion isn’t worth money.
One of my passions is pizza. I know, that’s kind of a dumb passion to most people. In my defense, I’m not passionate about Pizza Hut or Papa John’s at all: I do love finding the really good local pizza places, the ones with fresh ingredients, creative recipes, and great atmosphere. I love both NY-style and Chicago deep-dish pizza. My wife and I know which pizza places to order which kinds of pizza from: one of our local places has a fantastic fennel sausage, another one has a really good cracked pepper recipe. But… no one’s interested in paying me to drive around and eat pizza. Well, no one that I’m aware of, anyway: if you are, let me know. I’ve pursued other ways of making money (printable art, wedding sites, freelance web dev) that haven’t panned out. That’s not to say I lost my shirt on them; they just didn’t turn out to be stable enough to support my family. A lot of my passions make great hobbies or side projects, but not sustainable careers. I can’t follow my passion because not every passion pays the bills.
My passions change really frequently.
I’ve got a passionate and somewhat distractable personality. I find a new “favorite thing” and pursue it hard for … it depends: a few weeks, sometimes months, occasionally years. I don’t think this is bad. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun diving into something new, learning the heck out of it, and then repeating that process with something else in a few months. But I’m also realistic: I can’t build a career on the subject of one of those passions! (I mean, with as many tools and technologies as there are in web development, I’m probably in an OK field for this.) I can’t follow my passion because they change too often.
Some better advice…
Since “Follow Your Passion” doesn’t always work, I’ve thought through some alternate bits of advice. Here are some of the principles I follow as I think about career choices, passion, and long-range plans.
Focus on providing value to others.
There’s a degree to which “follow your passion” can be really selfish advice. Not necessarily malicious or arrogant advice, but self-focused and potentially self-consumed. It’s easy to let a focus on my passion cloud my ability to think about others and practice humility. At the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction to be found in serving the needs of others. Rather than making career decisions based on “what am I passionate about?”, try thinking through the question “what can I do to provide value to others?” If you can be content spending your time working at a job you know provides real value to people around you, you’re in a good place to let go of pursuing illusive “passion.”
Personally, some of the worst frustration I’ve felt at work has been when I was doing the kind of work I really enjoyed, but I wasn’t convinced I was doing anything to contribute anything truly meaningful to the world. We all have a different idea of what makes work “truly meaningful” or what constitutes “providing real value” and that’s fine. I’d suggest that providing value to others is at least as good a reason to pursue a career path as following your passion.
Make time for passions on the side.
Like I mentioned earlier, some passions would make bad careers, but they’re awesome hobbies. If one of my friends asks about wedding invitations and a matching site, I’ll look for some weekend time to carve out for that. If I get an idea for a new print to put on Etsy, I’ll take an evening or two to work on it. I treat these “side-passions” like pizza or cheesecake: I love them and I want to enjoy them regularly, but it really wouldn’t work out well for me if I were to have them full-time.
It’s important to have creative outlets, to make time for fun projects, to have a weekend/evening thing. Especially if you feel like your passions won’t make you any money. This puts them in a place where they don’t have to be judged on their financial viability; you can simply enjoy them for what they are.
Plan to grow and change.
This advice is particularly for you if your passions change frequently, but it works for most other as well. Most of us aren’t statues. We’re not static characters; our default is to be changing constantly. So plan for that.
In job interviews, you can be up-front about this: “I’m an incredibly nimble learner. I pick up new tools and tasks quickly and easily. I love to do the kind of work that gives me freedom to explore and grow.” There are probably some interviewers who won’t know what to do with that transparency, but I bet there are a lot who would love to know they have someone like that on their team. And as a side note, if that’s you, you won’t be happy working for someone who expects to manage a bunch of automatons, so a rejection from him is a win-win.
“Follow Your Passion™” doesn’t work for everyone or in every situation. There are some legitimate reasons that following a passion may not be right for you. If you find yourself juggling multiple passions, struggling to see how a passion can support you, or shifting passions frequently, you’re just fine. Instead of trying to bend your life and personality to passion advice, consider factors that work better for you. Look for work that gives you satisfaction that you’re providing value to others. Keep your “unprofitable” passions around for side projects and hobbies and enjoy them. Plan for inevitable growth and changes; look for a job where being nimble is an asset.