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Wait, Is “Following Your Passion” Actually a Really Bad Career Strategy?

Yves Klein Archive

Follow your passion. It’s become such a commonplace directive that we rarely think to question it. Not sure what you want to do after graduation? Easy: Follow your passion. Don’t love your current job? Just quit and follow your passion!

This three-word phrase has become so universally accepted that it’s nearly unassailable. But is it actually sound advice for those trying to build their careers?

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What good old hard work was to past generations, “following your passion” is to mine. And yet, despite the freedom this catchphrase affords, there still seems to be a lot of confusion and dissatisfaction in the air. Here are a few problems that no one seems to want to discuss:

Problem 1: What if your passion doesn’t actually translate to a career?
I’ve always envied people who knew exactly what they wanted to do because medicine or photography or architecture were their true passions. But although I’m a writer by trade, I can unequivocally say that hours on end of writing is not my passion—being on vacation is. But even I—cunning fox that I am—have not found a way to make vacationing into a career. You might think, “Just be a travel writer!” Well, I’ve attempted that and quickly learned that the best way to drain the fun out of traveling is to have to “report” on the experience and package it into a piece of easily digestible media. No, there is no career that equates to being on vacation, so if I really followed my passion day-in and day-out, I’d be out of a job pretty fast.

For some of us, it’s time to accept that we can pursue our passions in our off-hours, but work is work—and that’s okay. When I lived in France, there was a much clearer line between work and play. Pretty much no one expected their jobs to thrill them every day—that’s what evenings, weekends, and vacations are for.

Problem 2: With expectations like these, everyone feels like a failure.
When you grow up in a culture where Oprah is telling you to just find your calling already, it’s easy to feel like a total loser. Particularly in the years right after school, it is very rare to find a job that makes your soul soar, because entry-level jobs are tough! Perhaps we should be telling our young people to keep at it, be persistent, be strategic, and work hard—rather than unhelpfully urging them to find their professional spirit animals and simply do their bidding.

We have become a culture that talks out of both sides of its mouth. We still value hard work, but we also tell our youth, “Do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” So which is it? Is working hard an essential part of life, or is it something we should aim to avoid? I would argue that getting comfortable with hard work makes more sense than somehow trying to “outsmart” it by squeezing your passion into the shape of a career.

Problem 3: If everyone followed their passions, society would not function.
Sorry to be a downer, but the notion that everyone should follow their passions discounts the important work being done by the vast majority of the American workforce. We need janitors. We need garbage collectors. We need farm workers. But do we really dare to tell those folks that they should feel joyful every moment of the workday? Our incessant touting of the catchphrase “Do What You Love!” devalues so many of the jobs that make our society run, as Miya Tokumitsu points out in her piece for Jacobin magazine.

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Perhaps, rather than relying on the P-word, we should encourage young professionals to follow their curiosity, build their skill sets, and explore their aptitudes. Perhaps we should tell them that they don’t need to love everything they do at work. Perhaps we should tell them that frustration is normal, and career-building is a process, not an “aha” moment. They should not panic if they don’t feel “passion” on a daily basis. In work, as in love, you cannot always command passion to happen. Sometimes, the harder you pursue it, the more it eludes you.

As far as I’m concerned, “follow your passion” is simply the latest iteration of the “American Dream”—a concept that inspires many, but is only a reality for a privileged few. Perhaps it’s time to change the conversation. In a culture where you’re supposed to Follow Your Passion and Lean In and Do What You Love, maybe it’s actually enough just to Get a Job, or in the words of my favorite CEO, simply to “show up.”

– Tory Hoen


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