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Why Following Your Passion Is Bad Advice

Do what you love; find your calling; follow your passion: a relatively new and prevailing perspective has emerged, one that’s gripped the minds of young adults. And it success due to its most seductive quality - simplicity. 

If only it were true that all of us possessed one calling, one true passion, and our life’s mission is to pursue this passion. For the last decade, various spokespeople of our culture - such as Steve Jobs, Kobe Bryant, Oprah Winfrey, and Barrack Obama - have repeatedly espoused the mantra ‘follow your passion’. Their own achievements seemingly solidify the utility of this perspective.

Such advice attempts to solve a common dread that gnaws on the minds of young adults entering the world of work - how do I make sure that I love my career? But the central issue with the ‘follow your passion’ argument is that it puts the cart before the horse.

Many commentators, particularly Cal Newport, author and associate professor of computer science at Washington’s Georgetown University, have pointed out that, contrary to popular opinion, passion is developed not followed.

Take Jobs, for example. His address to Stanford University’s graduation ceremony in 2005 remains to this day, according to CNN, one of the most watched Commencement Addresses, on YouTube. Jobs states: “You've got to find what you love... If you haven't found it yet, keep looking and don't settle." To many eager and energized students ready to take on the world, this claim would do nothing but invigorate them. The issue, though, is that Jobs did not follow his passion. He followed what he was good at.

Jobs had a passion for taking psychedelic drugs and Zen Buddhism. His detour from the hippy lifestyle was not due to his passion for technology and marketing strategies. It was because he was incredibly good at them, particularly marketing. His epiphany, this time not induced by LSD, was that he could make a living out of doing what he was good at. It was by following what he was good at that Jobs in turn became passionate.  

The birthplace of Apple was a small garage, where two ambitious young men, Jobs and business partner Steve Wozniak, expressed a strong desire to make money. Through dedication and intelligent division of labour, they became successful and rich. Their passion for their craft came came later, developed through relentless hard work, which allowed them to become masters in their field. Their ‘passion’ developed as a result.

The advice to ‘follow your passion’ holds harmful consequences for young minds. For most of human history, the dominant ‘passions’, have been to provide, protect, and survive. We can easily imagine our ancestors being passionate about not being eaten by a Sabre-toothed tiger. Now, with the comfort and dizzying freedom of the 21st Century, we have a plethora of creative opportunities and lucrative career paths, but no apparent hungry Sabre-toothed tiger chasing us down.

Except we still do have a sabre-toothed tiger… of sorts.

Our greatest fear, and thus greatest motivator, should be that we never fully realise our potential; that we don’t release our talents and skills onto the world, and use them in service of those around us. The 21st-Century Sabre-toothed tiger is the fear of not becoming the best version of yourself. It's the guilt we feel when we know that we could be doing more. 

Many ambitious young adults have been misled into believing that one day, their true calling will reveal itself to them, and the blinding scales that once covered their eyes will fall, leaving them with a clear path, heavily lit by their passion.

Our one true passion does not exist; at least, it is not innate to us. One might feel passionate about all sorts of activities: watching a film, going to the gym, having a well-earned pint after a heavy work week. The underlying presupposition of ‘follow your passion’ is that you possess one singular passion that operates as your pre-chosen career path. If our focus is on choosing a career path that we might be passionate about, then we should focus on the development of our skills and innate talents.

The exciting reality is that you can be the architect of your passion. People become passionate about what they do when they become good at it. Take a child chess prodigy, for example. The young child beats every one of his or her opponents and realises their talent for chess. Of course, they will become passionate about chess! The child will wish to further facilitate that talent and continue to succeed.

Most of us might not possess prodigious talents or skills, but we can develop them. We can practice and aim to master a certain field. The path to becoming great at something involves long and draining hours of relentless and arduous practice. One must not rely on passion to become great. A champion boxer who only trained when they were passionate would never have become a champion. The passion one feels is developed through becoming great at what they do.

The greatest advice, especially to young adults, is to pick something, one thing, and give it your all. Consciously add ‘passion’ to the development of a skill, become great at it, and then use it in service to those around you.

Focus on becoming great at something, and the passion will follow.

By Christian Hotten

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Tags: Philosophy Psychology Steve Jobs Self Improvement


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