Earlier this week I posted a blog article about the whole concept of “passion” and what it really means to follow your passion. I wrote the article after coming across a whole whack of stuff on the internet saying that following your passion was the worst advice anyone could ever receive. And I have to say, that really kind of annoyed me and I might have gotten up onto my soapbox a bit with that article (what can I say, it happens once in a while.) And while that article was strongly in favour of following your passion, the article was mostly concentrated on defining what passion really is (there were a bunch of examples and stuff). But today, I wanted to actually take a look at the downside of it all; is it ever wrong, or a bad idea, to follow your passion?
Why it can be bad advice to follow your passion
There are, admittedly, a few downsides that can I see with this whole passion thing. And one of the biggest problems with the advice to follow your passion is that it can lead to an overwhelming sense of panic. It’s an awful lot of pressure to put on yourself to think that you have to find the thing you’re passionate about or you’ll never ever be happy. Because there’s two things that tend to happen when people start thinking about their passion: either they have no idea what they’re passionate about, or they’re passionate about a lot of things and have no idea which one they should pursue. Either way, the pressure to find the “right” passion can lead to paralysis, where you just end up doing nothing out of fear of doing the wrong thing.
Another thing that can happen is that people start making rash decisions (like quitting their jobs) out of the fear that they’re going to be trapped forever doing something that isn’t their passion at all. But choosing to follow your passion doesn’t mean you have to do anything crazy like quitting your job or abandoning your family to go farm coconuts in Fiji or something. You can still be working your 9 to 5 and following your passion. As long as you get yourself clear on what your passion really is: it’s the underlying why for what you think you want; the touchstones or underlying principles that really resonate with you and make you tick. The surface form that following your passion takes can change, and can be fulfilled in many different ways, even if your current day job is not everything you’ve ever wanted in life.
Does passion only come with expertise?
Which brings us to the next question of why so many people are so disillusioned, unsatisfied, and unhappy in their jobs. According to Cal Newport, author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and the guy that most of the passion-bashers out there tend to cite, says that all this unhappiness is the result of the follow your passion movement. He says that it is this advice to follow your passion that leads to job dissatisfaction, and that feeling passionate about your job only comes after you’ve developed expert level skills in it; after you’ve spent so many years doing it that you’ve “become so good at it that they can’t ignore you”.
Passion, according to Newport, comes after putting the time and effort into becoming an expert, and not before it. But I disagree because I’ve been in jobs that just got worse and worse the longer I was in them. Not because I sucked at them (I was actually very, very, good at all of those jobs and only got better the longer I was there); no, it was because I hated them. There was no meaning in them for me. Just because I’m good at something, or even an expert at it, does not make me passionate about it. And in fact, the longer I was in those jobs that I hated, the harder it was to drag my sorry ass out of bed every morning and face yet another day of soul-sucking misery and frustration.
In contrast, I’ve been in jobs where I had to hit the ground running, with nothing but a novice-level knowledge and understanding about what the job entailed and having to learn it all as I went along. Some of those jobs were the ones I actually had a fair amount of passion for, even though I didn’t know an awful lot going in.
So is it a good idea to follow your passion or not?
I think following your passion has always been a good idea, as long as you understand what it actually means and don’t confuse those deeper level needs with what’s happening on the surface. If your touchstones are to help others and make a difference in the world, there are many, many ways in which this can happen.
Yes, you can do it by running off to a third-world country and dedicating your life to eradicating hunger (and that is a very honourable and good thing), but you can also make a difference and help others by teaching, by working in a food bank, by working in finance and showing other people how to manage their money properly, by farming organic produce, by organizing a soccer club for kids in your community, by volunteering in the office of whichever political candidate you feel is most likely to effect the kind of change you’d like to see, etc. You can follow your passion in any number of ways, and, in my books, it’s something you need to do, in whatever way works best for you, in order to live the life and achieve the things you most want to.
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