Why you shouldn't follow your passion

Why you shouldn't follow your passion

Are you barking up the wrong tree by leading with what you love in life, rather than what you're good at?
Jun 01, 2013

How often have you heard someone say, "Follow your passion," the implication being that at the end of the passion rainbow sits a pot of gold full of happiness, health and prosperity? It seemingly makes a lot of sense. How can you go wrong doing what you relish? Take a few risks, dedicate yourself to a goal and all will be great, grand and glorious, right? Well, not surprisingly, I have a contrary perspective—in fact, I want to call total baloney.

Rarely is it that simple. For one thing, most of us don't have clearly determined passions and even fewer of us understand what passion really is. How can we follow something we can't identify? To follow our passion would require that we identify it as such or rely on blind luck to lead us. Not so easy given that passion is really an emotion and fluctuates with age, opportunity and influence from others.

Built on a shaky premise

As Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (Business Plus, 2012), says, the advice to follow your passion "assumes that you have an identifiable preexisting passion, and if you match this passion to your life ... " well, it isn't so easy. It becomes an old saw built on a shaky premise.

The thing is, being passionate about something doesn't mean we'll be any good at it. Instead we must study, practice, strengthen and build on what we do and shape those skills into a passion for our work. It means becoming passionate about what we do, not just doing what we have a passion for.

"Follow your passion" may actually be some of the worst advice you can take or give. I know it sounds good—who doesn't want to get paid for doing what they love? The reality, though, is that first you become really good at something and then you grow passionate about it. The reverse rarely works.

Something magical will happen

Here's a personal example: When I was a youngster, I loved baseball. I knew batting averages, ERAs and team rosters three layers deep. I learned to stand like the great Mickey Mantle and copied Whitey Ford's pitching form. Few kids were more passionate about baseball than me. But there was one small problem: I sucked at the game. So my passion quickly turned to indifference and my new passion became football. And then later it was music—ultimately all with the same unfortunate results.

You see, it hadn't occurred to me that I actually had to practice. I was passionate! I figured something magical would happen. Unfortunately, you can search the halls of Cleveland, Canton or Cooperstown and you won't find my name. Had I understood the chicken-and-egg concept of passion and excellence, I might have looked into sportscasting or writing with better results.