Don’t Follow your passion

Years ago, I was facing a question “what path I want to pursue after finishing my studies?”. After some thinking, the answer was a job I love to do. The first I said myself to do was to find an activity I’m passionate about. Then make it my job for the rest of my life. One day, I watched the famous commencement speech of Steve Jobs. Where his ultimate advice was “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” Internet is filled with those types of quotes and articles. I have even watched a Ted talk praising this Steve Jobs quote in particular. If there was a reason you failed in life, it’s because you didn’t follow it. This talk gathered more than 5 million views. I know that a lot of people agree about Steve Jobs quote. I started to look for the Holy Grail. This unicorn that will make me feel happy 24/7. The panacea for all my worries.

The saddest persons I’ve ever met in life are the ones who are empty and shallow inside. Passion is what makes an individual vivacious. Today, we have internet, computers and electricity 24/7. Science is prospering at a higher rate. All these accomplishments were achieved because some passionate persons dedicated their life. They worked to make a contribution to humankind. Richard St. John led a research during 7 years. He interviewed more than 500 famous people like Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling. He asked them one simple question, what is the secret of their success? After gathering their answers, they all have one thing in common: they love what they do. “I was sitting in my room being a depressed guy, trying to figure out what I was doing with my life” Bill Gates said relating his youth. But thanks to his passion for programming, it transformed him from an underachiever to a superachiever. Passion is the fire that ignites the soul of a human being. Mark Twain said “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

I kept searching for this thing called “passion”. After a while, I reached a level where I couldn’t progress anymore. I was stuck in a hole filled with anxiety. I kept pushing through. Nada. What is the problem? How did successful people find their passion? That’s when I figured something. “Don’t do what Steve Jobs said, but what Steve Jobs did.”

“Follow your passion” has become a defining piece of career advice.

Source : Google Ngram

This advice became more popular in the last decades. Why it had appeared now? The reason was corporation were emphasizing on the importance of salary more than anything. A U.S. survey was conducted on 18–25 years old persons. 81% answered that their #1 or #2 goal in life is to get rich. The only reason to deal with the high load of work is to get a good paycheck. Capitalism and imperialism were growing at an insane rate. But workers began to be unsatisfied. Some philosophers suggested that the proletariat have to overthrow the bourgeoisie. Communism was born. But communism didn’t go so well and people began to look elsewhere. A solution that would bring satisfaction in work without igniting to overthrow the country.

It was the 1970s. The hippie movement was at its peak. Steve Jobs was interested in Zen Buddhism. So, he traveled to India to do a spiritual journey. After his comeback, he was training at Los Altos Zen Center. At the same time, he was working with Steve Wozniak on selling model-kit computers to make quick money. Computer enthusiasts could assemble them at home. Jobs wanted to sell one hundred, total, which, after removing the costs of printing the boards, and a $1,500 fee for the initial board design, would leave them with a nice $1,000 profit each. From this point, however, the story shifted to become a legend. Paul Terell was one of the first personal computer sellers. He wanted to buy fully assembled computers to sell them in his store. Wozniak invented the Apple I. Jobs started to gather enough capital to found their startup. The rest is history. At the same time, he was passionate about eastern mysticism. If he had to listen to his advice “follow your passion”, then he would be a teacher at Zen Buddhism. But he chose instead to sell personal computers. Details of a story matter. This why do as Steve Jobs did, not as he said.

From this story, we can conclude two lessons:

Don’t follow your passion, follow your contribution

The key is not listening to a calling, but working to make a difference. The desire to create something will lead to values. It can be big as a company or a product. Or it can be simple like a software code or a piece of writing. Values that we can deliver through work. Steve Jobs saw a vision bigger than him. He worked on his startup because he saw it as an opportunity to change many lives and the whole industry. He was not passionate by computers per se, he was driven by other values like simplicity. He wanted ferociously to introduce computers to homes in an era where the industry was missing this value, simplicity. During that time, computers were only destined to scientists and computer science engineers. Jobs wanted to add his contribution into the computer industry. Making a difference is easy. First, you have to leave something better than it was before. Second, you have to leave yourself better than when you started. It’s not “quit your job and move to a company to make a six-figure salary while surfing”. Just you, doing something that holds your attention and serves the world.

Don’t search for your passion, cultivate it

Books and blogs that say “follow your passion” suggest one type of solution. The excerpt from Jobs advice summarize it:

“If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

It’s the word “find”. It highlights the first misconception about passion. We all have a pre-existing passion. We have to find the work that will match with it. So, we try to seek for this called passion. We hope to find it like Colombus discovered the New World. We keep searching like passion is a hidden treasure located somewhere. It’s a terrible advice. I have seen my peers fall into anxiety and jumping from job to job. We don’t have a one true calling. Passion is a creation we cultivate. Jobs poured his energy to build a company around selling personal computers. He cultivated passion; he didn’t follow it. Like a growing tree, we have to invest energy, time and sweat into it. That is the second misconception: we think passion is the solution that will make us happy 24/7. Thanks to success stories and social networks, we tend to see only the best in others and the worst in us. We assume their life is filled with peaches and rainbows. When in reality, their lives are probably the same as us, full with stress and occasional unhappiness. We lost the real definition of what passion is. We thought it is the solution that will make us feel ecstatic and reach the skies. In fact, passion is what it is worth the sacrifice. A work you find meaningful.

The third misconception

The third misconception is that we have one or only two passions. Once we find it, it has to be our career. We have to stick to it. In Arabic, we call the heart: “Qalb”. It comes from the verb “taqalub”, meaning to change. An exact word would be to swing, like a mood swing. Why I am talking about the etymology of this Arabic word is because it depicts the heart accurately. The heart will say red today, tomorrow it will say blue. That’s the nature of the human being. Passions change over time. The things you were passionate five years ago are not the same things you are passionate now.

To summarize it:

1. Look how you can make a difference in the world.

2. Don’t search for your passion, cultivate it.

3. Your passions will change over time.

4. If you can’t make it a career, practice it in your side time.