Why Following Your Passion Might Not Be Right For You

By Hunter Muse

The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” used to inspire so much excitement and dreaming; now it might make your palms sweaty and your heart rate soar. According to the latest Conference Board survey of U.S. job satisfaction, sixty-four per- cent of workers under the age of twenty-five say they are unhappy with their jobs. You’d like to avoid being part of that sixty-four percent. Now that you’re hitting your twenties, you’re staring into a daunting future with unlimited possibilities. But your options seem restrained, and you need one thing: good advice. A popular adage you’ve heard is this: follow your passion! Whenever I hear this, I feel sparks of enthusiasm bubbling up inside. The possibilities! However, soon after this elation I find myself back in the same position I was in before, with the same confusing questions, not sure what to do next.

This confusion sent me on a quest for better advice. I interviewed dozens of passionate professionals, studied career building, and experimented with different approaches to career moves. I learned a few important lessons. First, it’s vital to realize that crafting a meaningful career requires asking the right questions. Asking yourself what your passion is won’t cut it—in fact, it could lead you into what writer Cal New- port has called the ‘Passion Trap’. “The more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have.” The mantra to follow your passion is unhelpful and leads us to believe that work should be blissful. Passion for work isn’t bad; it’s essential fuel for overcoming tough problems. Yet putting passion above all else is misguided. Spending time thinking closely about the better questions to guide your career is worth the effort.

Let’s go through a few examples of poor questions to ask when deciding a career path and replace them with better ones. The purpose of these questions and theories isn’t to tell you what to think, but how to think about these decisions.

Poor Question:

What’s my passion?

Better Question:

What do I (1) love to do, (2) that someone will pay me to do and that (3) I am really good at doing?

This better question comes from Jim Collins, author of business classics Good to Great and Built to Last. One of his core concepts is the “Hedgehog Effect.”

Great companies (and great careers) focus on the  intersection of three questions: “What am I deeply passionate about?”, “What drives my economic engine?”, and “What can I be the best in the world at?” For individual careers, Collins re-words the last question as “What am I encoded to do?” He defines “encoded” as something that you excel at and perform well in. I like these questions better because they inspire career choices that can funnel into success.

Poor question:

What do I love to do?

Better question:

What skills do I want to develop?

This poor question assumes that you find your passion before building the skills to do it. How easy would it be to pick a favorite sport if you’d never played any of them? Familiarity with sports is like familiarity with a potential job. Both require practice and dedication before any preference can be discovered. Think you don’t have time? Think again. According to research, fifteen percent of what we know today is likely to be relevant in five years, so grab your laptop and start learning to take advantage of abundant online resources. Focus on mastering a rare a valuable skill and it will pay dividends because mastering skills will drive your career and your passion.

Poor  question:  

Where do I want to be in my career in 10 years?

Better question:

What do I want to do next?

David Brooks, a New York Times Bestselling author, describes the concept of a “summoned life.” The idea is that a person should not focus on asking “What should I do?” but rather “What are my circumstances asking me to do?” While dreaming big about a future career can be exhilarating and inspiring, it doesn’t help with decisions that need to be made right now. When you focus on what to do next, you find out what you truly care about. I am not saying that long-term goals are harmful or useless as they can in- spire you. Rather, I am saying that we miss incredible opportunities because we are so intent on the future goal. Emphasizing what’s next will bring all your passion and energy to the fore, allowing you to perform better and enjoy the moment for itself, instead of just a means to an end.

You may feel that you don’t yet have good answers to the  better questions listed above. That’s okay! Just as building a great career is a process that takes time and work, so does finding answers to these questions. Here are three things you can do today to find these answers:

  1. Take notes on yourself in a “bug book.” To  find his career path, Jim Collins took notes on himself throughout his twenties, making objective observations about what he liked and disliked. He called this book the “bug book” because he was ob- serving himself like a scientist ob- serves a bug. This allowed him to identify activities that he enjoyed doing, and those that he disliked. This technique not only helps if you don’t know what you like, but it also helps to identify activities you should avoid in order to find your career.
  2. Reach out and inter- view people you admire. This can be as simple as connecting with people on LinkedIn and setting up a phone call. You can easily find people whose careers inspire you and ask them some questions. Ask them about their work lives and what they like and dislike. If you think nobody will talk to you because you’re a stu- dent, you’re wrong. Most people will take time to talk to you be- cause you are a student. This process will help you bridge the gap between what you think you want and what you actually want.
  3. Don’t just dream about what you want to do—go do it. Identify what you want to do right now and do it. Don’t have the skills? Take a class that teaches the skills. Don’t have the experience? Do an on-campus internship. Don’t have the money to start a business? Visit the Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. Opportunities and re- sources are available for you to build a fantastic career. Don’t think of your time in life now as a means to an end—make it an end right now!

Your time is precious. Don’t let the dream of distant goals rob you of thriving now–start thinking, connecting, and skill-building today. As you identify the skills you want to develop and the next step you’re excited to take, go all in. Use the techniques described to take con- trol of your path and live passionately now. Using the perspectives shared will require you to take decisions one step at a time. Instead of knowing the end from the be- ginning, you’ll embrace a mindset of being open to the career opportunities that present themselves to you. Next time you hear the adage follow your passion, you’ll know that you have the tools to do it.

Books to Explore More:

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

How Will You Measure Your Life?By Clayton Christensen

Deep Workby Cal Newport


Newport, Cal. “The Passion Trap: How the Search for Your Life’s Work is Making Your Working Life Miserable”. Calnewport.com. http://calnewport.com/blog/2010/10/16/the- passion-trap-how-the-search-for-your-lifes- work-is-making-your-working-life-misera- ble/ (accessed March 4, 2019)

Newport, Cal. “Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do”. Calnewport.com. http://calnewport.com/blog/2010/01/23/ beyond-passion-the-science-of-loving-what- you-do/

Brooks, David. “The Summoned Self ”. Ny- times.com. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/03/opin- ion/03brooks.html

Collins, Jim. “The Hedgehog Concept”. Jim- collins.com.

https://www.jimcollins.com/concepts/ the-hedgehog-concept.html

Ferriss, Tim. “Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Jim Collins”. Tim.blog. https://tim.blog/2019/02/20/the-tim-ferriss- show-transcripts-jim-collins-361/

Thompson, Karl. “What Percentage of Your Life Will You Spend at Work?” revisesociology.com. https://revisesociology. com/2016/08/16/percentage-life-work/

Wiseman, Liz. “The Power of Not Knowing”. Speeches.byu.edu. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/liz-wiseman_ the-power-of-not-knowing/

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