Blog

‘Follow Your Passion’ Is Awful Career Advice

By Gerald Walsh ©

I just finished reading an excellent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport in which he discredits the firmly-held belief that ‘follow your passion’ is good career advice. This book is a great read and I highly recommend it if you’re feeling stuck in your career.

It reminded me of Steve Jobs’ controversial commencement speech to Stanford University graduates in 2005 which sparked a hot debate.

Basically, Jobs told the students to keep looking – and don’t settle – until you have found work that you love.

Notwithstanding Jobs’ great success at Apple, his speech drew heavy criticism from those who felt his words directed many young people into a life of under-employment while they sought the work they “love.”

Newport – like Jobs’ critics – believes that we do not have pre-existing passions that are waiting to be uncovered and that there is no ‘right job’ out there that will instantly give your career great meaning.

Instead, he argues that the best way to discover your passion is to try many things, build your skills, and develop what he calls “career capital.” A key part of that is developing a ‘craftsman mindset’ in which you become really good at your craft.  And as you become better and better at something, your passion for it will grow.

It’s a concept that I totally support. 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 jobs yet?

Take, for example, a passionate amateur chef who loves cooking and hosting big dinner parties. Is persuading that person to follow her passion and open a restaurant good career advice?

Possibly.

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.

In fact, she will likely discover that running a restaurant is more about being good at customer service, marketing, accounting, business planning, human resources, 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. In fact, she would wear a different outfit every day for months – all clothing that she had made herself. 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.

Instead, Sophie got into banking because of a call from a friend who convinced her to apply for a teller’s job at the local bank, something she would never have considered. But instead of just staying for a year or two, as she first thought, she ended up staying for 40 years.

As Sophie explained, it turned out she had a real talent for communication, sales, service and leadership. She discovered that her passion was learning and building teams.

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.” 

So, is following your passion a good thing?

My take on this topic is this: If you are one of the lucky few who can find work that you’re passionate about and make a decent living – go for it!

But don’t waste a lot of time searching for your passion.

You will be much better off if you seek work you like first, then master your trade. Get really good at it. Build that “craftsman mindset” like Newport said in his book.

If you do this, you will find your passion may grow in a totally different way than you might have first envisaged.

For example, I know hair stylists who see their work – not as simply cutting and colouring hair – but as making people feel better about themselves. I know people in the construction trade who see their work – not as laying bricks or hanging drywall – but as creating affordable homes for young families.

The bottom line? The better you are at your trade, the more passionate you will be about your work.

 

To share your thoughts on this blog post, please write me at walsh@geraldwalsh.com


Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and author. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 15,000 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.