Why “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Career Advice

Follow your passion is dangerous career advice. It works in very few cases. Instead, turn your focus towards developing valuable skills and career capital.

Rational Hustle
May 19, 2020 · 6 min read
Rational Hustle: Follow Your Passion

When I was 16, I had a real dilemma regarding the choice of my career. Should I continue running the business that I started when I was 15? Should I follow my passion and study filmmaking? Or, should I abandon both ideas and study finance instead to earn more money?

It was difficult to choose because I kept asking myself these questions: What is important to choose a career? Should I choose money or passion? Can I have a successful career if I follow my passion? What if I choose money and regret not following my passion?

These questions are not only relevant at the start of your career. They are also relevant when making career moves as you get older.

What Follow Your Passion Advice Tells You (the Passion Hypothesis)

If you search on Google for career advice, you will find lots of contradictions. However, a common theme that shows up is advice to “follow your passion”.

Below is a chart from Google Ngram that shows the frequency of the phrase “follow your passion” in books from 1970 till 2007.

Google Ngram

Following your passion is an attractive message and it’s gaining popularity. I also have read books on this topic and felt inspired to follow my passion. Just commit to following your passion, and you’ll have a great career. Who wouldn’t want that, right?

The logic behind the passion hypothesis usually goes like this:

  1. Identify a pre-existing passion
  2. Find a career that matches your passion and interests
  3. Pursue this career no matter what

Typical “follow your passion” advice also says that by following your passion:

  • You’ll be happier
  • You’ll naturally become more persistent at work if you are passionate
  • This strategy works for many people — look at Steve Jobs
  • You’ll add more value to the world
  • There is a greater likelihood that money and success will follow
  • Work won’t feel like work anymore
  • No obstacle will stop you from achieving success
  • You will have more control of your time

And the list goes on…It’s very compelling, right?

But there is a problem with the advice “follow your passion”. It promises all the things you want in life but it shows no strategy on how to achieve them. It simply assumes that by following your passion, you will work harder than others and achieve your goals. If it was that simple, 98% of actors would not work at a Starbucks or some other non-acting, low-paid job.

The truth is, “follow your passion” advice works for some people. However, for most people, following your passion is a bad idea. Especially if your passion is not a good career in the first place.

“Telling a young person to follow their passion reduces the probability they will end up passionate”. — Cal Newport

Why “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Career Advice?

Let me make one thing clear. There is nothing wrong with the goal of ending up passionate about what you do. The problem is with the strategy of starting with a pre-existing passion and then finding a job. It gives you an illusion that you should love your work from the very first day.

Some of the key problems with this strategy I have highlighted below.

The Magic “Right” Job Is Waiting for You

Follow your passion advice convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them. If they find this job that matches their passions and interests, they will be happy, productive and successful at their work from the start.

The reality is often quite different. The beginning of careers tends to be hard and can be frustrating. It takes time to become very good at something and in most cases, passion develops slowly as your skills, autonomy and confidence increases.

If you followed your passion as career advice, chances are you will be very disappointed with your job. The problem starts when you can’t find this “perfect” job. This often results in job-hopping and self-doubt.

Passion Does Not Necessarily Result in a Great Career

For many people, their pre-existing passions are not great careers. In a survey of 500 Canadian students, 90% of respondents stated that their greatest passions were sports, music, dance and art. If we look at the Canadian job market, we see that only 2.23% of all jobs are in the arts and entertainment industry (very competitive industry). This shows that even if only 1 out of 10 people followed their passion, the majority would still fail to have a successful career.

Pursuing Passion Without Valuable Skills Is Dangerous

The story that stuck in my mind was from Cal Newport’s book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. He compared two people in the middle of their careers (around 40 years old). Both of them worked in advertising and marketing and were not entirely happy with their careers. What happened next?

Story 1 — From a Decent Career to Food Stamps (Following Passion Blindly)

She (lets name her Kelly) was tired of corporate life. Her passion was yoga. She enrolled in an expensive yoga course and obtained a certificate. With the certificate in hand, she decided to open a yoga studio and quit the corporate life for good. She took a loan against her house and started a business.

For a short while, things went well. Even though she made significantly less money with yoga than in advertising, she felt good. After all, she was her own boss and was doing what she loves.

The main problem was that she transitioned into an unrelated field where she had very little to no amount of valuable skills. If you compare her skills with someone who has been teaching yoga for 20 years, it is clear that she can’t compete nor stand out in the crowd of yoga studios.

As the 2008 financial crisis appeared, her business went bust. By the end of 2008, she was living on food stamps.

Story 2 — From a Decent Career to Buying a Ski Resort (Developing Valuable Skills)

He (Jim) was also tired of corporate life. He was very passionate about art and was tempted to leave his current job and pursue his passion. However, instead of quitting his job, he started to acquire skills that allowed him to transition from working for someone to having his own business.

He focused on a niche in advertising for a long time — company logos (where he could use his passion for art). He worked with clients like Coca Cola and Sony. After 20 years of working in advertisement and focusing on company logos, he had the necessary skills, contacts and clients to start his own business.

When he quit his job, his venture was successful from day one as he was one of the best logo men in the world. When he decided to retire, he loved what he did. He also purchased a 100-acre land and created his own ski resort (skiing was his other passion).

Passion is a side effect of mastery.

So What Should You Do?

Put aside the question of whether your job is your true passion or if you should follow your passion in case you are just at the beginning of your career. Instead, turn your focus toward becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

The traits that define great work (creativity, control, wealth and impact) are rare and valuable. If you want these in your career, you must first build up rare and valuable skills (career capital) to offer in return.

You should assess your career capital first and start from there. Learn what people are ready to pay for and what valuable skills you need to obtain. If the skills are flexible and can be used in various tasks/industries even better.

And valuable skills don’t just show up out of nowhere. You have to work deeply and deliberately, smart and be patient.

Finally, MAKE MANY LITTLE BETS. They either succeed or fail, but you get important feedback to guide yourself through your career. Use these bets to explore things around you and to maximize your chances of success.

Valuable skills first! Only then passion follows.

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Rational Hustle

Written by

This blog is about personal finance, side hustles, investing and the daily struggles that we all face to keep our business going www.rationalhustle.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

Rational Hustle

Written by

This blog is about personal finance, side hustles, investing and the daily struggles that we all face to keep our business going www.rationalhustle.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

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