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Can You Afford To Follow Your Passion?

By Gerald Walsh ©

It’s hard to argue with Steve Jobs’ success but he certainly sparked a hot debate with his follow-your-passion commencement speech to Stanford University graduates in 2005.

In that speech – which focused on three stories from Jobs’ personal experience – he said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, don’t settle.”

Some people will tell you that Jobs’ proclamation of “keep looking, don’t settle” has directed many young people into a life of underemployment while they sought the work they love. That’s probably an overstatement, but it did start a worthwhile debate about whether “following your passion” is good career advice or not.

One thing is for certain: those who preach follow-your-passion are almost always people who took a risk and through a combination of hard work, determination, commitment, brains and luck, they achieved great success.

What you’ll never see is the opposite. You won’t hear the more frequent stories of people who followed their passion and failed. They certainly won’t be telling you to follow in their footsteps. Dilbert creator, Scott Adams, the author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, has an interesting spin on this subject – as only Dilbert could. He says successful people don’t want to say they are smarter or more talented than the average person. That wouldn’t sound good, even though it may be true. Instead, these very successful people usually say that passion for their work is their reason for success. It sounds plausible – but it implies that anybody can do it.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of anyone who credits passion for work as their reason for success. But I can’t help but wonder if this advice can inadvertently send people – especially young people – down the wrong path.

In fairness, how are you supposed to know if you will be happy as a graphic designer, teacher or banker if you haven’t actually tried any of these careers yet?

Take, for example, a passionate amateur chef who loves cooking and hosting big dinner parties for friends. Is telling that person to follow her passion and open a restaurant good career advice? Perhaps so – if it ends up that happy customers are lined up out the door, business is booming, and the owner is having fun. On the other hand if the new owner finds herself working 18 hours a day, seven days a week and having difficulty attracting paying customers and good employees, there is a good chance that owner will lose her “passion” for cooking quickly.

Peter, a former sales rep in the restaurant supply business, summed it up well. He told me about a meeting he had with the director of the restaurant association. When Peter asked why restaurant start-ups and closures seemed so common, the director responded that when you ask aspiring restaurateurs why they want to open a restaurant, most would express their passion for cooking, their pride of owning a business, and their love for hospitality and serving people. Few, he said, had “considered accounting, business planning, human resources, marketing, and a multitude of safety, hygienic and employer compliance standards.”

Passion Comes and Goes

Passion for work changes over time with more knowledge and experience. Let me give you an example.

Sophie, a recently-retired banker, told me that in her twenties she would have said her passion was sewing. “I would wear a different outfit every day for months – all clothing that I had made,” she said. Today she does not own a sewing machine and can barely stand to sew on a button. Had she followed her passion, she believes she would have ended up as a seamstress working for a low wage. Sophie got into banking because of a telephone call from a friend who convinced her to apply for a teller’s job. She would never have considered applying for a job at a bank. But instead of just staying for a few years as she first thought, she ended up staying for 40.

As Sophie explained, it turned out she had a real talent for communication, sales, service and leadership. “I found out that my passion was learning and trying new things,” she said. And she has certainly lived that passion. Starting with only a high school diploma, Sophie went on to obtain an undergraduate degree, MBA, and Chartered Financial Planner (CFP) designation – all funded by the bank – in addition to numerous other courses in coaching, mentorship and leadership. And during her career with the bank, she held 20 different positions including senior management roles domestically and internationally.

“Careers are a journey of discovery,” she says. “The more open we are, the more we learn about ourselves and the opportunities available.”

Anne-Marie, a professional accountant working for a membership association, provided sage advice when she told me her thoughts on the subject of passion for work:

I am a pragmatist from a hardworking Dutch immigrant family and so my views are formative. Following one’s passion in life or career is everyone’s dream but in the end, we have to sustain ourselves and our families with good careers, long-term employability and, at the same time, contribute meaningfully to our communities.

With that platform, we create a foundation from which pursuing our life’s passion can ultimately be realized. This is when our passions and hobbies may turn into new careers. It’s a longer-term view. Not many individuals have the financial means, support, or life circumstances – that foundation – to pursue their passions from the beginning. There are always those extraordinary exceptions of course.

So, in my view, following one’s passion may or may not be good advice, career or otherwise. But for most individuals taking a planned, responsible and reasoned approach with the right foundation will increase the likelihood of success. Our lives are long and we can achieve all of our goals, including our passions in life, by taking a longer-term view and never losing faith.

So, is following your passion a good thing? My take on this topic is this: If you can find work that you’re passionate about and make a decent living – go for it! That’s the dream job.

But if you are like most people, try to find work that you like first, then, master your trade. Like Sophie, your passion may grow in a totally different way than you might have first envisaged. And your perspective will change too. For example, I know hair stylists who see their work as making people feel better about themselves – not just cutting or colouring hair. I know construction workers who see their work as creating affordable homes for young families to live in – not just laying bricks or hanging drywall.

The more successful you are at your trade, the more passionate you will be. As Scott Adams says, “We humans tend to enjoy things we’re good at, while not enjoying things we suck at.” That’s typical Dilbert candour.

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Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and writer. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 10,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn