5 Lies About “Following Your Passion”

Nearly everything people think is true about living their best life is wrong. Here’s how to follow your passion without burning out.

A few years ago, when I began to focus more on my writing career, my mom, a former writer herself, gave me a book titled Passion: Every Day. It was filled with inspiring quotes like “I dare you, while there is still time, to have a magnificent obsession” and “follow your desire as long as you live.” The book is part of a larger canon that argues that the key to a good life is just magically finding your passion — a word often vaguely used to describe a general enthusiasm, drive, or intensity for something — and then following it wherever it leads. You might recognize this type of language from hokey Instagram posts.

There’s only one problem: in researching, reporting, and writing my new book, The Passion Paradox, I learned that nearly everything people think about passion is wrong. So, let’s bust some myths.

What People Say: “Find Your Passion”

The reality: You don’t find it. You cultivate it. Expecting to find something that feels perfect right away sets you up for frustration, constant seeking. Lower the bar from “perfect” to “this is interesting” and choose activities that offer these big three traits linked to long-term passion, performance, and life-satisfaction:

  • Autonomy: having control over what you do.
  • Mastery: the ability to make clear and tangible progress.
  • Belonging: a sense of community.

What People Say: “Quit Your Day Job”

The reality: Bad idea. The research shows that individuals who pursue their passions as side-gigs and gradually ramp up are much more successful over the long-haul. This is because there’s less pressure, so you can take more risks. Don’t quit your job too fast.

What People Say: “Go Big or Go Home”

The reality: Dumb! People with that attitude tend to end up home. They get injured or burn out from doing too much, too fast, too soon. Much better to take small and consistent steps, which lead to big gains.

What People Say: “Follow Your Passion”

The reality: Definitely wrong. You want your passion to follow you. If you follow your passion, you set yourself up to go down a slippery slope of craving, chasing external validation. That’s why obsessive passion is associated with anxiety, depression, cheating, and burnout.

What People Say: “Be Balanced”

The reality: Passion and balance are antithetical. Aiming to be balanced as a driven pusher is just fighting against yourself. That’s no fun. Better than balance: developing astute self-awareness so you can prioritize and make wise tradeoffs.

My hope is that The Passion Paradox gives you practices to implement in day-to-day life to develop passion and then channel it in a productive manner. That’s why I wrote the book. Passion can be a gift or a curse. What direction it takes depends on you.

Brad Stulberg writes about mastery, performance, and wellbeing. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg and consider supporting his work by checking out his new book, The Passion Paradox.