So Should I Follow My Passion or Not?

Matt Tanner
Aug 3, 2018 · 8 min read

When I was in the 7th grade we all had to take a class called Careers. The point of the class was, ostensibly, to help us prepare for the Real World, despite the fact that most of us did not yet think we needed to be wearing deodorant (we did) and none of us could be trusted to walk to the bathroom without supervision.

Prime candidates for gainful employment we were not.

The details are fuzzy, but I remember Careers taking place in a trailer with the impossibly old and crotchety Mr. Cameron. A typical day in this class involved watching VHS tapes that explored different careers (you know, jobs that would definitely always be relevant and necessary like travel agent and photo lab technician). Mr. Cameron would usually pop in a video, tell us to shut up, and then he’d doze off.

One day though, he brought in a guest speaker. I cannot remember what her background was or much of what she talked about because I was in the 7th grade and was probably thinking about girls or basketball or pogs the entire time she talked, but one thing she said did lodge in my brain forever:

If you follow your passion you will never actually work a day in your life.

— Some Nice Lady

Whoa, this was big.

As someone that really only wanted to play basketball and think about (but not actually talk to) girls, this seemed like a pretty solid plan. Watching Mr. Cameron’s videos about what it took to become a brain surgeon or a farmhand or telephone pole climber made all of this “work” stuff seem pretty damn hard. Here was someone that seemed credible enough, offering up an alternative plan: not working.

Sign. Me. Up.

I had always viewed work as a guillotine hanging over my head, ready to drop the moment this mystical thing called “college” ended. But this new outlook represented a chance to stave off my execution. I resolved in that moment to figure out my passion and make it my career.

Such thinking would end up guiding my decision-making for the next decade.

What 7th Grade Me did not realize was that our guest speaker that day was simply repeating a common refrain.

You’ve probably heard it thousands of times-more if you’ve ever sat through a graduation ceremony or spent any time on Pinterest. In fact, the mantra of “follow your passion” has been around for so long, that no one really seems to know where it originated. I went online in an attempt to find out and saw it attributed to everyone from Confucious to Mark Twain to Tony Bennet.

Lately though, the pendulum seems to have swung the other way. It has become increasingly fashionable to espouse the exact opposite of this mantra:

‘Follow your passion’ is terrible advice.

— A lot of people, lately

I don’t know who said this first either, but in the thought leadership echo chamber, it has really taken off. Mark Cuban said it. So did Cal Newport in his (admittedly excellent) book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. Recent articles on Fortune, Forbes, and The Minimalists all make the same claim.

Fast Company claims Steve Jobs told Stanford Graduates to follow their passion in his iconic speech, but that he actually did the opposite throughout his illustrious career.

So which is it?

Defining Passion

To figure this out, I thought it might help to define what passion even is.

There are a lot of different definitions in the dictionary for passion such as “the state of being acted on by external agents or forces” and “an intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction”.

But what I believe most people mean when they talk about passion is this definition:

A strong liking or desire for, or devotion to, some activity, object, or concept.

The most appropriate synonym I can think of then, is love.

The Follow Your Passion crowd is really saying that you should figure out what you love doing, and make that your job. This can be restated as the equally motivational poster-ey “do what you love”.

But I don’t think the Passion is Nonsense contingency is saying you shouldn’t love your work. Rather, I believe the counter argument is that instead of “do what you love”, you should simply “love what you do”. Or, put another way, do the work and the passion (love) will come later.

Okay that backfired, I might be even more confused now.

Let’s move on.

The Case For

I will concede the fact that the advice might be a bit overly simplistic, but the idea of following one’s passion to find work does seem pretty logical.

If you absolutely love doing an activity, then getting paid to do it is just icing on the cake, right?

I used to hear people talk about jumping out of bed excited to go to work and think they were either lying or insane. Sure, maybe professional athletes or astronauts, but the rest of us? No way. Work was something you had to do, part of the contract we all unwittingly entered into in exchange for being a part of society.

But then I actually found work that I loved. Instead of the Sunday Night Blues, I was excitedly planning my week. I stayed late not because I had to, but because I didn’t want to leave. I had finally found work that I was passionate about and was kicking myself for ever settling for anything less.

So considering that experience, I can absolutely make the case that it’s worth it to hold out for your passion, even if it means making little to no money for awhile. Spending every waking day doing what you love just seems worth it. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone on their deathbed crying “if only I had made a little more money!”.

But here’s the thing, you don’t even have to stubbornly “hold out” for your passion.

Following your passion does not mean you need to quit your job tomorrow to become a painter full-time. This romanticizing of the starving artist is just irresponsible and delusional. Instead you can (and should) take incremental steps to follow your passion.

This might mean waking up at 5 am everyday to write for 2 hours before taking the kids to school and going to work. Or maybe it’s staying up into the wee hours of the night after you get home from the late shift to build your website. Whatever form it takes, you can carve out a little time each day to follow your passion in a disciplined manner.

To do this, you might have to give up some things like Netflix, going to the gym, or seeing your friends as much. You will probably be really tired a lot of the time. Other people are definitely going to think you are weird.

I realize that all of this sounds really hard, but it shouldn’t actually feel that hard. This approach makes for a nice litmus test too, because if it really is your passion, it should make you feel more alive than ever as you go after it.

What could be better than that?

The Case Against

Here’s the big problem with following your passion: it really limits your options.

When I was a kid, my passion was sports. Playing sports, watching sports, reading about sports-it’s all I wanted to do all day. I knew pretty early on that I was not going to be a professional athlete though, so writing about sports seemed like the next best thing.

In high school I decided that I would be a sportswriter and told everyone I knew. I joined the newspaper staff and eventually became editor. I went off to college, determined to get a journalism degree, but when I ran into some obstacles there (namely, not studying enough to get into the journalism school) I was ill-equipped to deal with the disappointment. I bounced around between various majors but I was ashamed and crushed that I would no longer be “following my passion”.

I had framed my career pursuit as all-or-nothing. Anything short of being a sportswriter was going to feel like work, so I was going to hate it.

The year I graduated, Elon Musk started Tesla. If he had walked into my graduation party and offered me a job as his Vice President I would’ve shrugged and said “yeah but its not sportswriting”. So, after my actual graduation, I took this misguided doggedness and managed to talk my way into a newspaper job without a journalism degree or any real experience.

And herein lies the other big problem with blindly following your passion: once you get your Dream Job you are almost certainly going to be disappointed.

When I got into a newsroom I enjoyed a lot of it, but I had built it up in my mind into something that would bring me limitless joy, every second of my day until the end of eternity.

Alas, this was not the case.

It wasn’t the long nights, the pressure of deadlines, the loneliness or the pitiful salary. All of that was fine and mostly fun in a “badge of honor” kind of way. It was just that, in the moment, I was rarely overwhelmed with emotion and ecstasy. There were no angels singing when I walked into work each day.

It was an impossibly high bar and, not surprisingly I was disappointed.

I know a lot people with similar experiences and I bet you do too. People that landed a job doing something they were passionate about but were still unhappy. While this can be shocking (and soul crushing), the reason is pretty simple. There are all kinds of things that go into workplace satisfaction such as opportunity for growth, autonomy and flexibility, and even how much you like the people you work with. None of that has anything to do with passion.

Claiming that following your passion is all you have to do to be happy at work is criminally oversimplifying the challenge.

The Verdict

A little bit of both-thanks for reading!

Just kidding, sort of.

I do believe that being passionate about what you do is still critically important, I just don’t think you have to start there. I believe that you can cultivate passion in just about any line of work, and in fact, this might even be harder to do in a job that is tangentially related to your Dream Job.

For example, if you are passionate about acting and get a job on a movie set, it is going to be really hard to muster the passion to haul equipment around and order famous people lunches. It just might be more fulfilling to get a job in sales where you can “perform” every day. Maybe you can feed your acting passion in the community theatre, without money clouding things.

The thing I learned about passion was that I had more than one. Once I realized I could never feed them all, it was a huge relief.

I am still passionate about sports and writing, and I think being a sportswriter could have eventually been an amazing life, but I am also passionate about helping people, learning, and teaching. I get to do all of those things now and I feel incredibly fulfilled and engaged, most days.

Hell, I’m also passionate about making really good spreadsheets and I get do that too. 7th grade me would have never understood this, but that’s okay, he smelled kind of funny anyway.

Go ahead and follow your passion, just not blindly.

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Matt Tanner

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Talent Strategy @Mailchimp. Previously HR @KingOfPops. New posts every Friday. Get my “52 Books to Boost Your Career” reading list here