Is “Follow Your Passion” Really Bad Advice?

If work were supposed to be fun, they wouldn’t call it work.
— My Mother

Work is hard. Not every day is fun. Building the skills that ultimately lead to a compelling career can take years of effort.
— Cal Newport

When you read too much a lot, you’re bound to come across conflicting views. No two people are the same and two people could have a totally different take on the same experience.

But recently, I read something that sent my mind reeling. It was the article Why “Follow Your Passion” is Bad Advice by Cal Newport.  In it, he states that the advice to “follow your passion” has two strikes against it.

Strike 1

The first strike against this advice is the lack of scientific evidence. Motivation and satisfaction in the workplace is a major research topic, as happy employees are better employees.

It’s difficult, however, to find studies that argue the importance of matching a work environment to a pre-existing passion. Most studies instead point to the importance of more general traits, like autonomy or a sense of competence (see, for example, the voluminous research literature on Self-Determination Theory for more on such findings).

These traits are agnostic to the specific type of work performed, contradicting the idea that you must find the exact right job to be happy.

Reading this made me stop and think. It’s true that I know many creative people who have “followed their passion” and ended up complaining as much about their “dream” jobs as the people I know who think they are unhappy because they aren’t following their passion. These people have included actors who were making a living acting, successful  graphic artists working for agencies, and staff writers working for international magazines. Whenever they complained about their work and wished they were doing something different, everyone else would frown and ask “But you’re an actor/writer/graphic artists. How can you not like your job?”

But maybe the problem was that their need for autonomy, or something else wasn’t being fulfilled in their work environment. The writers I know, for example usually dreamed of quitting and writing a novel or setting up their own company that still used their writing skills. Actors I’ve know quit the stage to teach.

In contrast  think of the story of the fish market that created such a great atmosphere that everyone loved their jobs.

Different people are looking for different things in their work, but in general, if you study people with compelling careers, they enjoy some combination of the following traits: autonomy, respect, competence, creativity, and/or a sense of impact.

Ok. So, yeah, Strike 1 makes sense to me. Matching a work environment only to a pre-existing passion is not enough.

Strike 2

The second strike against this advice comes from the anecdotal evidence. If you study the career paths of people who end up loving their work, you’ll find that clearly identified pre-existing passions are rare.

Some people do figure out early on what they want to do with their life, but most follow much more complicated paths on which passion emerges slowly over time.

His point here is that people need to cultivate, or build the skills they need to have work that they enjoy. He thinks that it is bad to tell people to follow their passion because that implies you have a pre-exiting passion and he thinks that pre-existing passions are rare.

This has not been the experience of the people I know, but that is my experience.

The article has made me think about the people that I have known who did “follow their passion.” I think being happy in this instance also involves having a sense of autonomy, respect, competence, creativity, and/or a sense of impact. Without that, you’ll be just as unhappy as if you had taken some other type of job. Following your passion alone is not enough (this goes back to Strike 1)

Whether it’s choosing a career, finding the right place to live, or working on our personal productivity, what we thought we wanted may be quite different from what we actually need and what makes us truly happy.
— Elizabeth Grace Saunders (Time Coach)

If we accept the notion that people don’t know what they want to do early on in life, then the message that passion:

is not something that you “follow” (which implies you can identify it in advance). It’s instead something you have to purposefully cultivate over time,

makes sense to me and I think this is a good strategy to live by.

Work is hard, but that’s why they call it work.