Following your passion presupposes that you have one. But many people don’t.
Develop a passion, don’t follow it.
It’s what kids do.
When someone in your life is asking the important “What should I do with my life?” question – have you ever told them “Just follow your passion”?
If so, please stop doing that. Yes, completely, and forever. Because it’s garbage advice. Among the worst out there, right next to the original food pyramid and playing hard to get after a date.
A recent Stanford research paper (a good summary is here) identifies the main flaw of this undead trope: “Finding your passion” presupposes that interests and passions are fixed, rather than fluid and evolving as we age and gain wisdom and experience. Those who follow the fixed mindset are much more likely to give up when obstacles arise. As the authors say, “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”
This advice is ubiquitous in parts of our culture that value short-term emotional comfort above other mental states. By putting emotion (“what activity do I enjoy doing most?”) on a pedestal, we are perpetrating various major and minor crimes against reason and common sense:
Following your passion presupposes that you have one. But many people don’t. While everyone has a unique combination of talents, most people’s inner orchestra does not coalesce into playing a tune they can hear and dance to. So when you tell them to follow some mystical inner voice that just isn’t there, you’re leaving them feeling unnecessarily inadequate.
It ignores the market. Unless you have a trust fund waiting for you, you’ll have to feed yourself and others. But by putting your interests before market demands, you’re more likely to end up driving an UBER than a Maserati. I know what I’m talking about: My first startup was a case study in putting the cart before the horse. Armies of students studying pointless degrees like Gender Studies or Sociology are another good example of putting interests above market exigencies. Or as Harry Briggs, Venture Capitalist and former Partner at BGF Ventures, puts it: “If you just want to pursue something you enjoy, that might be a sign of laziness rather than genuine passion.”
It will turn a passion into a job. Paul Archer, founder of Duel, a Customer Advocacy Marketing platform, learned it the hard way: Passionate for travel, he trotted the globe in a cab, wrote a book about it, got sponsors – and all that made it less enjoyable as a career path. Now he says “I can still fulfil my passion and travel to far-flung parts of the world and do it for myself, not for anybody else. I don’t have to film it. I don’t have to update my social media to ensure I have enough clicks and likes.”
Harry Briggs, Paul Archer, Heather Russell
I could go on. But more interesting than dismantling the passion principle is to ponder the question what to replace it with. What SHOULD your advice be as your loved one grapples with the purpose monster?
How to choose your career
I don’t have a good unified field theory of career selection, but here are three useful frameworks. See what resonates with you.
1. Learn from Startups
There are many good lessons big companies can learn from startups. What’s less well known is that the startup approach to market validation and product-market fit has something to teach people picking their career:
Identify needs in the market that are currently not being well met. In this step, be critical: Is there really demand there or am I deluding myself? If you’re starting out, chances are that your ideas are dead wrong. The absence of an app that alerts you when to cut your fingernails is not a surefire sign that you’ve uncovered a lucrative niche. Similarly, asking yourself what the heck you’ll end up doing with that Comparative Literature degree is a day well spent. So as you’re starting out, be conservative and identify certain niches that definitely exist and are growing. There are worse fields you could specialize in than, say, robotics, artificial intelligence or online marketing, to name a few.
Assess your strengths: Are you good or can you develop skills in something that can meet that demand? This is where passion, talent, your interests DO play a role. Whatever is easy for you that most others have a harder time with, that’s a worthy option: If you’ve excelled at organising events, there’s a hint. If you’ve been coding since age 12, there’s a hint. The cardinal sin of the passion principle is that it ONLY considers this point, without ever taking Step 1 and 3. And that’s how philosophy graduates end up working in call centers.
Match up these two in a constantly iterative process: Unfortunately, work’s not done after 1&2. You’ll have to eat humble pie, start at the very bottom of the hierarchy and through a constant cycle of getting smarter, building experience and trying out different business models — Should you be an employee? An independent contractor? Or is there even a startup opportunity you can raise investment for? — you slowly get the hang of it. Or you get the hang of it very fast and become very successful at age 25, and we all hate you. For most of us mere mortals, this process takes many years if not decades, and may contain many late nights battling fear and anxiety — so buckle up.
Heather Russell, founder of Biscuit, a tool that uses AI to understand institutional real estate portfolios, is a staunch detractor of the passion principle: “Was I passionate about real estate when I started? Absolutely not. However, we found an opening in the market and decided to build a solution for it. And then I had to develop a passion for all the things associated with that market.”
Further reading on this topic: Eric Ries: The Lean Startup, Robert Greene: Mastery and Ray Dalio: Principles – Life and Work
2. Develop a passion, don’t follow it
Cal Newport’s seminal book So Good They Can’t Ignore You is the leading intellectual ammo for us passion principle deniers. Cal’s central thesis is that developing rare and valuable skills will lead to far greater career satisfaction because they make you financially stable and give you lots of control over your time. And slowly, you develop passion for a field you have profound expertise in.
A corollary to this approach is Cal’s blog post about reverse-engineering your lifestyle: Know how you want to live, and then fit a career around that vision. Your choices will need to be different if you want to live quietly in the woods vs if you want to jet-set around the world.
Developing your passion sounds more fun than it is because learning and developing skills is inherently painful. Falling off your bike hurts. But once the air gushes through your hair at 20 miles an hour…
Cal also points out that those raised on a passion diet switch direction often. As passions bump up against obstacles in the real world, those afflicted are more likely to give up and jump towards the next shiny object than if they were guided by rational considerations, the authors of the Stanford study say.
This is an urge we have to learn to combat. Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, provides a useful mental model to overcome this tendency: “One of the skills that you must develop in life, if you care not to be a dilettante, (…) – is to learn to substitute nuance for novelty.” (my emphasis). (source: Freakonomics podcast)
3. Money talks
A profoundly deplorable archetype is the starving actor who borrows money from his parents, neglects his family financially, but refuses to get a job because he loves his art, even though on most nights, there are only 7 mildly bored people in the audience. I have one guy like that in my extended family.
Few transgressions are as morally offensive as going full Anna Karenina and abdicating your duty because of your “passion”.
I’d like to propose an adapted Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. Humbly, I’ll call it the Bohanes Hierarchy of Career Fulfillment.
The Bohanes Hierarchy Of Career Fulfillment
Step 1 is obvious. You cannot run a machine that is in dire need of repair, so make sure you operate at peak performance.
Step 2 is the bitchslap to the starving actor: If the alternative is borrowing from your parents beyond age 25 or having your family living on Weetabix bought in bulk, screw your passion. Even if it means digging ditches, get an income first.
Step 3 is Cal Newport’s advice “fix the lifestyle, then work backwards”. Once the basics have been taken care of, create a plan for your life that will maximise your feeling of purpose and wellbeing. Part of it will be to develop a rare and valuable skill through deliberate practice and to match demand and supply through constant iteration and trial and error.
And then, and ONLY then, comes the time for following your passion – Step 4. Then go ahead and write that brilliant musical about animated breakfast cereals.
Or get that Gender Studies degree.
When I was starting out in my career, I, as millions of others, was inspired by Steve Jobs’ “connecting the dots” Stanford Commencement speech where he extols the virtues of following your bliss. Now I realize that it’s part of this flawed passion narrative and is one of the unhealthiest carb fillers the Youtube-bound meaningvore chokes on. Although Jobs doesn’t mention the word passion, his message is the same: Do what you love.
I wish he had had the humility to say This has worked for me, but I’m just one guy. And a freaking genius, at a scale the world sees about once every two or three generations. So find your own path.
It is true that some people hear a calling and indeed can follow their passion. They’re in the minority, and they don’t need to hear the “Follow your passion” advice, they’re doing it anyway and never ask themselves the “What should I do with my life?” questions that most of us struggle with in regular intervals. Steve Jobs was one of those people.
The positive counterpoint to Jobsian narcissism (simply assuming that your recipe can be universalized, not acknowledging that most people don’t have a passion to follow when they’re starting out) is Ben Horowitz’ far less well-known Commencement speech in which he says, at the 10:50 mark:
Following your passion is a very “me”-centered view of the world. When you go through life, what you’ll find is what you take out of the world over time — be it money, cars, stuff, accolades — is much less important than what you’ve put into the world. So my recommendation would be follow your contribution. Find the thing that you’re great at, put that into the world, contribute to others, help the world be better and that is the thing to follow.
That sounds like a far more durable blueprint for career success and life happiness. On that road, you’ll develop that passion you are now trying to find amidst the rubble of conflicting priorities.