Why “Follow Your Passion” Can be Bad Advice

Following "your passion" could just mean getting fat unless you have a plan...
Following “your passion” could just mean getting fat in the case of these Argentine alfajores…

Do you like your life?  Are you where you want to be right now?  Are you living where you want to live?  Is your job a good match for your interests?  Are you fulfilled?

In the Fall of 2012 my answers to most if not all of the above questions were “no”.  Then my wife Jammie and I made some drastic changes (we quit our jobs, traveled the world for a year and found new jobs that we liked better.) I can honestly say that my “no” answers have now switched to “yes”.

Some would say that the reason I can now say that is that I “followed my passion”.  I don’t agree.  “Follow your passion” can be horrible advice if it is used as an excuse to avoid hard work or the inevitable pain of growth in an area (even an area that you love).

At the recommendation of my uncle I just read a book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work Love.  The author, Cal Newport, argues full-force against what he sees as a “follow your passion” epidemic where people obsess about pursing work and a life they are passionate about.  Calport says people spend their lives hopping around and feeling unfulfilled because they never quite find their passion and they never invest in any job enough to gain the satisfaction of mastery.  I think he makes a good point.

Although I definitely believe that you should lead a happy, meaningful life, I want to add some major caveats to the “follow your passion” conventional advice:

Do some careful planning – I get nervous when people hear our story and use it as a justification to think they should quit their job on the spot, throw caution to the wind and pursue what they supposedly love.  I admire courage and going for what you really want but there are good and bad ways to pursue passion.  Thinking that you can get by on passion alone is crazy.  You need a plan.  Jammie and I planned financially for our move for several years.  As in we put aside money and laid the groundwork for more revenue streams.  We also made sure that we had job opportunities that we could take when the time came for a longer term (1-2 years) relocation.

There’s nothing wrong with doing things just for the money - Unless it is unethical or your work makes your miserable, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being practical and doing things just for the money.  My dad gave me excellent advice when I was about to head out to college and thinking about how to create an income stream for pocket money: “Just get a job.  Nobody cares what job you have in college, just get something so you have spending money.”

So I sucked it up and took unglamorous jobs at the university cafeteria (one was particularly horrible and involved walking around in a huge freezer at 6:00 AM).  It worked and I was able to finance what I really enjoyed: hanging out with friends and traveling.  After a year of working in the food service I found better work as a news and PR writer for my remaining three years in school.

Be prepared to not like a lot of what you do – Even great work is work.  And there are parts that are not fun whatsoever.  Jammie and I love freelance writing, for example.  We are good at it and we like the writing process.  But a lot of the related tasks are less cool: finding the business, chasing late payments, writer’s block – I could go on and on.  But this is part of it.  I recognize that but I am not even vaguely tempted to try to go get my old job just back because there are parts of my new life that I don’t like.  Reality is messy.  It pays to understand that and have some patience.

Stop trying to find yourself – If you don’t feel like you are living a life that you are passionate about it is easy to freak out and wonder why you “don’t have direction”.  One of the most common things driving the travel industry is people out there traveling the world and trying to “find themselves”.  With all due respect to the “Eat, Pray, Love” crowd, that is a very flimsy mission.  Recognize that life is fluid and that interests and passions evolve.   Life is a process of discovery and there is absolutely no point spending your days mourning your lack of absolute certainty in life.  If you are miserable about your life direction, start taking steps to correct course but realize that absolutely bliss is not going to manifest.  I am much happier for having planned and executed a lifestyle reinvention but I certainly have my moments of doubt and soul searching.

I will always have more dragons to slay.  There will always be course corrections to make when I misstep.  I will always feel like there is something better just over the horizon.  But I am not going to be anxious about the fact that I haven’t arrived.  Nobody ever does.  I just want to focus on taking the best “next step” possible.

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11 thoughts on “Why “Follow Your Passion” Can be Bad Advice”

  1. Yes, yes, YYEESSS !!!! Bjorn – this ‘follow your passion’ advice seriously pisses me off!

    Some people DO know what they want to do, which is great for them. But for the rest (including me), it is definitely a case of trial and error.

    I’ve found that I’ve tried something, gotten good at it, and it’s become my ‘passion’ of sorts because I’ve started to really enjoy it.

    There won’t be a epiphany moment in life when the clouds part, the sun shines through and the angels start to sing. Waiting for it is a fools game. It’s all about listing what your skills and interests are, and testing which ones are the most effective at getting results … and the passion will follow.

    – Razwana
    Razwana recently posted…Taglines. Taglines. TAGLINES !My Profile

  2. YES! When I decided to travel for a year everyone’s reaction was “Oh, you must be lost… you must be going to find yourself.” I never felt like that. It was another year of learning in a lifetime of learning. It was amazing, but it also sucked. There was elation, but there were also tears. Try telling my that a 76 hour bus ride is from Lima to Colombo is all giggles and I will tell you to have your head examined. Having the money in place and at least having a few contingencies is CRUCIAL. If you don’t have these things in place, you will need an inhuman amount of flexibility and patience (which are both good virtues to learn i suppose). The road is a cruel and unflinching teacher, but perhaps one of the best teachers.

    1. Wow… that 76 hour bus ride from Lima to Colombo sounds brutal… I’ve been hearing your travel stories from others, I can’t wait to hear directly from you… Looking forward to a post!

  3. “Life is a process of discovery and there is absolutely no point spending your days mourning your lack of absolute certainty in life.” I like it, Bjorn. Very true.

  4. As part of the Eat, Pray, Love crowd who has taken journeys to find myself, I appreciate this article, Bjorn. I knew that trip was part of a greater trip to self-understanding. It was almost like I had to follow my passion in traveling and wanting to experience cultures so I could cultivate that passion when I got back.

    I know passion is over-rated and there’s lots of follow your passion advice out there. there is a case to be made for the practicality of passion and you’ve done so here. But I also know that sometimes passion for the sake passion produces fulfilmment and meaning.

    1. Maybe I should have re-thought my Eat, Pray, Love line:) I’d love a guest post from you on your last point sometime soon, bro:)

  5. Thank you for the article,

    true fulfillment is not lived through adventure or experiences. Those help us find ourselves in the same way that tasting toothpaste as a baby helps you learn that it isn’t food – you’ve eliminated a wrong lead.

    True fulfillment comes from a sens of sufficiency as a child of God, created for and capable of authentic relationships with others. That is the kingdom of God. Fearless adventure is living this out on a day to day basis and helping others come to this realisation… that’s my two cents anyway ;)

    Even for an international do-gooder like yourselves, I don’t see any other way to truly help people then by teaching them how to hold each other, depend on each other and love each other. This is especially true today, in this world where suicide and depression are the new global epidemics (where 1 billion people smoke) and where the worst injustices like trafficking and exploitation stem from fractured communities. These things can only be fought by rebuilding genuine community and The Message of the Kingdom is the only thing strong enough to counter the antisocial, unsatisfied world we live in.

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