Study Hacks: Rethinking Passion

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As a child growing up smooshed in between the “Me” generation and the Millenials, I have always been told that I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up, and to follow my passion; pursue my dreams and the money will follow. After going to college, getting a real job, going back to college, and getting several other jobs, it started to dawn on me that this whole “pursue your dream” thing might not be the best strategy after all, (although I wouldn’t say I’ve completely abandoned the idea). So I was intrigued when I read this post from the blog Study Hacks by David Shenk, full-on condoning this sneaking suspicion I’ve had for awhile.

For the past couple years I’ve been advancing a controversial argument: “follow your passion” is bad advice.

I’m not against feeling passionate about your work — in fact, I think this is a fantastic goal. But from my experience studying this issue, passion is not something that you discover and then match a job to; it is, instead, something that grows over time along with your skills.

In other words, working right trumps finding the right work.

This viewpoint was also supported recently in a The New York Times article by David Brooks:

“College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to.”

more via Study Hacks » Features: Rethinking Passion.

It’s nice that “grown-ups” are finally acknowledging that we’re not all going to grow up to rock stars or astronauts. That there needs to be more behind “finding your passion” in order to succeed in a competitive capitalist market structure.

However, my vision is slightly skewed, because of how many people in my family DID follow their passions. My mom, my dad, two of my cousins, my husband, my mother-in-law, and multiple siblings-in-law, all of them made money at one point in their lives (or continue to) doing what they loved, following what was their “passion” at the time. Only a couple of them have made much money doing it, and many of them eventually got “real jobs.” But still, many of my family members were able to turn their passions into a career.

So I think there IS a part of the equation where passion is important; if the subject matter doesn’t interest you, then you’re asking for a looooong slog. The difference between their success and others’ failures, I think, is that they weren’t just “following” their dream; they all actively pursued it! They wrote up business plans and proposals. They sold their cars and slept of friends’ sofas and lived off of beans and rice while they got started. Maybe they were only able to pursue it part-time because they had to take a “real” job to pay rent. When more training was needed they got it. When long nights were needed, they put them in.

I think the idea is we are more motivated to put these long hours in if we are passionate about something. However, I do think both Brooks and Shenk are also right in that it is NOT always fun, it is NOT always easy, and there is realistically more value in dedicating yourself to what you are doing right now!

Another factor is prioritizing what’s important to you, including your time. In the world of the desk job and remote access, there is more flexibility. I think it is harder to be dedicated to something than simply passionate about it. Stenk has a great post from last year about how to love your career. I’m sure I’m butchering the message, but basically it comes down to

  • feeling like you have control of your own destiny,
  • you’re making a difference (in any small way),
  • and that you’re good at what you do.

That certainly matches up with the most successful entrepreneurs in my family. They valued the autonomy over their lives, and they were GOOD at what they did, but it came from years of training and hard work.

It definitely adds some much-needed perspective to the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”