Why Following Your Passion Is Bad Advice

Almost every student has struggled with figuring out what they want to do in life. The fact that the work landscape is shifting fast and that you are no longer limited to a normal 9 to 5 job has made it a lot more difficult to pick a career. There are a lot of people out there who proclaim that you should just “follow your passion” as if that is just a simple thing to do and that nothing else matters for a fulfilling career except your “passion”.

There are several reasons why following your passion is bad advice.

Just because you enjoy doing something doesn’t always mean you can get paid for it. Most college students who say they have a passion have it in something related to sports, music or the arts. Unfortunately, those fields provide only a small fraction of the total jobs out there. If everyone followed their “passion”, society would collapse.

Passion isn’t the only thing you need for an enjoyable job. Even if you really enjoy doing something for fun as a hobby, the reality of what it is like to do that particular thing as a job is probably quite different. You like developing video games? Cool. If you want to do it as a job, I assume you also like being overworked, underpaid and working on some game feature you don’t actually care about because someone who isn’t that knowledgeable about video games (i.e. your boss) told you to do it.

You don’t just stumble onto a passion and you aren’t born with one. You usually have to try a lot of things before you find something you like. And then you need to actually become good at that thing and develop your skills until you stop being awful at it and start truly enjoying it. Simply trusting your intuition to tell you what you will enjoy doing in the future is a bad strategy.

It’s okay to have more than one passion. It just means you like a lot of things and you’ll have to decide between them. You can do this by using a rational approach to figure out which career will be the most fulfilling for you instead of relying on your instincts.

What do you actually need for a fulfilling career?

So what is this rational approach that will help you find the most fulfilling career? It’s simple. You just have to take into account the ingredients that make a dream job which according to the research done by 80,000 Hours are:

Work you’re good at. When you do something you’re skilled at, you’ll not only be happier with your life, you will also be able to negotiate higher pay and get more fulfilling projects at work. This doesn’t mean that you should only pursue something you’re currently good at but it does mean you should pick a career where you have a decent chance of improving and becoming really great at what you do.

Work that helps others. In other words, if you do something that you believe is meaningful, you will be more satisfied with your job. Helping others is a key ingredient for life satisfaction as well as a key ingredient for being a good human being.

Work that is engaging. Engaging work is usually work where you have more freedom to decide how to do your work, when the tasks you have to do are clearly defined, there is variety in the types of tasks you do and you get plenty of direct, regular feedback on how you’re doing. Hopefully, all of us have been in situations when we were doing something so engaging that we totally lost ourselves in the activity and lost track of our time and our surroundings as we did the one thing that mattered. This mental state is known as “flow” and has often been called the secret to happiness. A fulfilling job is one in which you can achieve this state often.

Work with supportive colleagues. A job where you hate your boss and the people you work with is bad for your mental health. So when selecting a job, make sure that you’re working with people who you’ll get along with and that the workplace makes it easy for you to get help and support when you need.

Work that meets your basic needs. Even if you have a job with all of the above factors, if you have to face a long commute, long work hours, not getting paid what you think you deserve or job insecurity, your work life is going to be very unpleasant. You can keep this in mind when you’re deciding on a major. Yes, you shouldn’t only make your pick based on how much you’re going to earn in the future but a little consideration of how easy it will be to find a good job with your major will certainly be helpful.

“But passion is important!!!”

It is true that most successful people are truly passionate about what they do. However, their passion evolved because of them becoming good at what they do and doing something meaningful for the world.

A lot of advocates for the “follow your passion” advice bring up Steve Jobs. However, Steve Jobs’ early passions were in zen buddhism, western history and dance. His first brushes with technology were because he wanted to make some extra money. His passion grew because of his success and not the other way around. So if you pick a career based on what helps others and what you are good at, you are also likely to become passionate about what you do.

Further Reading

There are several things you can read to learn more about this topic. One resource is the aforementioned 80,000 Hours website that actually has a lot of good and sensible career advice for people at various points in their career: 80,000 Website

Another is the book So Good They Can’t Ignore you by Cal Newport which I highly recommend for people making career decisions. Here’s the link to Cal’s website: http://calnewport.com/books/so-good/.

Both resources are based on a lot of factual research and were highly influential in writing this post. I hope you’ll have a look at them.

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