Here’s what to do instead
“Pursue your passion” is a modern, career advice mantra. From (person) to (person), the career advice that best exemplifies our modern culture is “pursue your passion”.
This advice is dumb and immoral.
“Pursue your passion” is dumb and immoral because of its natural consequences and some massive flaws in its assumptions.
There are, in general, two consequences that naturally follow from “pursue your passion”.
“Pursue your passion” is really the beginning of an if-then argument. If you pursue your passion, then you will be successful/happy/ultimately fulfilled. Most of the “pursue your passion” proponents are really talking about economic success not being a drag on your personal motivation. When you read between the lines of their self-help books and podcasts, you discover that they are recommending “pursue your passion” in order that the listener/reader is both economically and spiritually fulfilled simultaneously.
A second related consequence is then pretty clear: you should do WHATEVER it takes to be happy, therefore you should do whatever it takes to pursue your passion. Side gigs, 20-hour days, waiting tables, literally whatever you have to do in order to “make it work”.
And “pursue your passion” has some built-in assumptions:
1- You know what your passion is.
2- If you don’t know what it is, you are capable of “finding” it.
3- Passion comprises a core component of natural ability.
4- Passion is innate to a person and not determined by outside factors.
5- The work you do defines who you are.
Does this sound like good advice? If it does, read on, so that I may disabuse of that notion.
Time to take down some of the assumptions.
Natural ability and passion are rarely “natural” alone; they come from being nurtured at a young age through practice.
And now the moral component: humans have fundamental value not linked to economic value.
I love hockey. Literally. I live 9 time zones away and I still don’t miss a New York Rangers game even though they usually start between 4 and 5 am (thank you, NHL Center Ice and coffee!) I love playing hockey. Skating is like flying, playing on a team is like being a part of a quirky family with massive dental problems, and I love basically every aspect of the actual playing of hockey.
But, here’s the thing…
I really suck at hockey.
There are some natural limitations at play here — I’m 5’11’’ with narrow shoulders and a loooong neck. Not exactly built for the game.
Then there’s the contextual limitations — playing hockey well at an elite level is a consequence of having parents and communities that get you to skate and play hockey at a very young age (usually 3–6 years old). You practice and practice and practice (and learn constantly) in these environments. Not everyone in these environments becomes a professional hockey player, but most (if not all) professional hockey players come from these environments.
I grew up in New York City to immigrant parents. I didn’t know what hockey was until my older sister introduced me at 6, wasn’t allowed to go skating until I was 10 (there wasn’t a rink nearby so I couldn’t just go on my own), and didn’t play in any type of organized league until I was a 16, that is, the age at which most NHL prospects are first being scouted.
I was, in other words, roughly 12 years behind. Let’s say that, at 16, someone said to me “pursue your passion” and I took their advice. And let’s say I put in as much (or more) effort as those who were setting themselves for professional hockey at 16 and spent the next 9 years pursuing my passion with the hope that, at 25, I would be at the level of the 16 year olds.
Who in their right mind hires a 25 year old professional hockey player with limited natural ability and the skill of a 16 year old?
In what world would pursuing my passion have made any sense?
Build on your strengths
What if, instead of spending 12 years focusing on my passion, I spent it on getting better at what I was already good at?
At 16, most of us had a pretty good sense of our natural abilities (at least I did). I could write well. I could synthesize lots of information. I was a pretty good public speaker. I didn’t hate any of these things. In fact, I enjoyed (sometimes) all of these at one time or another. But I wouldn’t describe any of them as my “passion” (that was hockey).
And I couldn’t tell you at 16 (not honestly at least) what job I could do with these skills. In part because I was 16 and what the hell did I know? But it’s also a skill set that allows you to do a lot of different things.
Doing what I’m good at has kept me gainfully and steadily employed for a decade. I’ve gotten better at it which is also better for my students and my employers (and probably society too). I’m not rich, but I am financially stable and living (by my own standards) a life that I enjoy with the time to watch my Rangers games.
And the truth is that, for most people, getting better at what they are good at is the best advice. Be good enough at something that someone will pay you to do it and, hopefully, pay you well enough that you can have some stability in order to live your life as you like the rest of the time.
Some people are passionate about what they are good at — for them, the pursuit of their passion is great advice because it aligns with their strengths. I’m sure that professional hockey players are, for the most part, passionate about hockey.
But I would imagine there are at least some hockey players who are passionate about other things (maybe even more than hockey). But they are REALLY good at hockey. Should we tell Henrik Lundqvist, the winningest goalie in Rangers history, that he should quit hockey to go play in a band, in order to “pursue his passion”? That seems like pretty terrible advice for him and it is for you too.
Passions are worthwhile pursuits and can make you happy (but they need not make your money)
Hockey has no economic value for me. In fact, it probably doesn’t for most fans, even the most passionate amongst us. Our capitalist society downgrades and shames all pursuits that are not economically valuable. But humans don’t need to do things that are economically valuable to have fundamental value. And the things we do often make us better people, irrespective of whether they have economic value. In that context, “pursue your passion” is great advice for how to live your day-to-day life. It’s just not that helpful in creating a career.