Why Following Your Passion Isn’t Always Enough

Here’s what to do about those slumps and dead-ends

Maybe you’re the kind of person who knew what you wanted to do with your life in childhood, from the first time you slipped on a pair of ballet slippers or hit the winning run in your little league game. Or maybe you’re still trying to figure out what you want to do when you “grow up” — even though you crossed the threshold into adulthood years ago.

Whether you’re already working toward your goals or you’re still trying to figure things out, there’s no denying that we live in a society that puts a major focus on “following your passion.” It seems like everything in our culture is geared toward helping us somehow unlock what we’re “supposed” to be doing with our lives. And if we, for whatever reason, don’t unlock that passion, we’re destined for an unfulfilled — and ultimately unsuccessful — life.

But the advice to “follow your passion” is pretty vague. What exactly is passion? How do you know when you’ve found yours? And what do you do if you have more than one passion — do you have to choose one and hope for the best?

And then there’s the part that comes afterwards. Is success guaranteed? And if your passion doesn’t lead to success, does that mean you’ve failed — or does it just mean it’s time to find a new passion to pursue?

It’s a lot to think about, and the truth is, following your passion can be a rough ride — and you’re bound to encounter some bumps and turns along the way.

Passion doesn’t necessarily guarantee a straight shot to success, but understanding the relationship between the two can help you navigate the journey — and discover new things about yourself, your passions, and what success really means along the way.

Passion: what it is and how to find it

Some define passion as a “strong and barely controllable emotion.” It’s the overwhelming feeling that you’re meant to do something, whether that’s creating gowns that make brides feel their most beautiful like Vera Wang, putting a smile on people’s faces (often through her killer dance moves) like Ellen Degeneres, or or playing some of the best hoops in history like Steph Curry.

Passion is a universal experience — but the way you find that passion varies from person to person.

According to “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert, there are two kinds of people in this world — jackhammers and hummingbirds. And the way they find, experience, and embody their passions is very, very different.

Jackhammers are the people with a sole passion that they pursue with single-minded focus. Once jackhammers land on a passion, they tend to stick with it, for better or worse. They usually find it early in life and devote every waking moment to it (for example, the MLB player who spent hours after school hitting balls in the backyard — and still spends 3 hours a day at the batting cages during the off-season).

Hummingbirds, on the other hand, flit from interest to interest, darting between a rich variety of life experiences. Hummingbirds are the kind of people who spend a few years working on Wall Street then leave to write a book only to decide they want to compete in triathlons before ultimately opening up their own hot chocolate shop at the base of a ski resort (side note: hummingbirds make excellent dinner party guests).

There’s no right or wrong way to find your passion. But understanding which camp you fall into can help construct a way to pursue your passion that feels true to who you are.

The recipe for success calls for more ingredients than just passion

But let’s be real — it takes a lot more than just finding your passion to be successful. “Passion pushes us to do what we want to do, but passion isn’t everything,” says composer, sound designer, and two-time TEDx speaker Akash Thakkar.

Dedication, talent, and persistence are also incredibly important factors. You’ll never be a successful musician if you don’t learn an instrument and practice every day. And if you lack any semblance of hand-eye coordination, your chances of becoming a basketball star are pretty slim. Regardless of how much passion, dedication, and talent you have, you still need to be willing to work every single day to get where you want to go.

What’s more is that you need the ability to keep moving forward when things get hard — because no matter how passionate you are about something, at some point, the road is going to get a little bumpy. “We feel the move of doing something, but when our brain tells us ‘this is hard’ we tend to give up,” says Thakkar. “That’s when we might feel, ‘I was wrong about my passion. This isn’t for me.’” In essence, just because you’re passionate about something, it doesn’t mean that it will come naturally.

When to keep on keeping on and when to throw in the towel

So there are “slumps,” or times when your passion feels more like a chore than something you’re excited about.

“We all will face moments when pursuing our passion feels hard, [when] the bright glow of arriving at the other end of the process starts to dim. Top performers…they get beyond that ‘slump’ moment, even though it’s not fun,” says Thakkar. “But the majority of people will quit when they hit the slump.”

And for good reason. “It’s as if life is set up to make you quit. There are always temptations, financial considerations, the realities of day-to-day living…” says Thakkar. “But going through the dip is worth it and you will be insulated to the competition on the other side.”

Pushing through a slump might not be easy (in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “When you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done”), but it’s totally worth it. Slumps are temporary; once you push through you get to rediscover your passion on the other side — and success is never too far behind.

That being said, you also need to recognize those times when your passion just isn’t working — those moments where you’re hitting a dead end.

“A dead end is when there is no opportunity for advancement,” says Thakkar. It’s when your passion has run its course, there’s nothing left to pursue, and your heart is telling you to go in another direction. And when you hit a dead-end, the best thing you can do for yourself? Quit.

That’s right. The dreaded “Q” word.

Quitting gets a bad rap, but sometimes it’s actually the best move you can make. “It’s quitting for the right reason at the right time. It makes us feel better and we can start working on what matters,” says Thakkar.

So, if you hit a slump while you’re pursuing your passion, the best thing you can do is work through it. But if you hit a dead-end, the best thing you can do is walk away, regroup, and find another route to success. However, slumps and dead-ends can look pretty similar, so how can you tell the difference?

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Is my desire to give up related to short-term stress or the fact that what I’m pursuing isn’t sustainable in the long-term?
Do I still feel excited about what I’m doing? Am I excited to keep learning and growing in this field? Am I excited about what’s next?
Does the thought of quitting make me feel panicked or at peace?
Am I doing this for the recognition I hope to get as a result? If I was never recognized for this work, would I still be happy?
Is there any upward trajectory on this path?
How has my progress been up to this point? Do I see myself continuing to progress in the future?

Asking yourself these questions (and getting clear on the answers) is crucial for determining whether the frustration you’re feeling is just a speed bump on the road to success — or if it’s an indicator that you’re heading in the wrong direction and it’s time to find a different road to travel on.

There’s a lot more to being successful than “following your passion.” It’s understanding how to find your passions, which passions are worth pursuing, when you need to push through the challenges, and when you need to throw in the towel.

And when you really understand those things, success? It’s pretty much a given.

Have you ever had to work through a slump — or throw in the towel when you realized you were pursuing the wrong passion? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Written by Deanna deBara on June 25, 2018.