Why “follow your passion” is bad advice

Why “follow your passion” is bad advice

When I sat down to take my AP Computer Science exam at the end of high school, I knew it would be bad. As a class, we had no idea what we were doing for the entire year. Our teacher was in his last year of teaching and had already given up on us.

We entered the gym hopeless, a ragtag bunch made up of students who really just wanted to avoid taking statistics. The test began, and immediately three boys in the first row put their heads down for a nap.

I stared blankly at the first free-response question:

“Recorded sound often begins with silence. Write the method trimSilenceFromBeginning that removes the silence from the beginning of a song.”

If Spotify were trying to get free labor from high school students in a hot gym, pencils scratching desperately, they were out of luck. I gave each question a half-hearted attempt, then passed the rest of the time writing sonnets in iambic pentameter. (At least they were computer science related!)

To my utter lack of surprise, I received the lowest possible score.

Based on this experience, I could have easily concluded that coding wasn’t for me. Maybe I didn't have a “logical” brain since it just didn't click with me. Maybe instead I should major in something that came easily to me, like psychology or English. I could have left computer science to someone who was naturally good at it, writing open source software in her free time and geeking out over dependency injection.

But I didn't.

Today, I am a software engineer because I didn't just “follow my passion“. I made it happen.

 

Why “Follow Your Passion” is Bad Advice

There are two theories about following your passion when choosing a carrer.

  • The “fixed” theory of passion posits that for every individual there are core passions that are set at birth. These natural inclinations are just waiting to be discovered. This is the one we trumpet from graduation podiums, encouraging young people to “follow your dreams!” and “do what you love!”
  • On the other hand, the “growth” theory posits that passions are cultivated over time. This idea is that passions are nurtured, watered by continuous work.

It might be slightly less inspirational shouted from the rooftops — “Do whatever. If you work hard, you will like it eventually!” — but the growth theory is great news for those of us who fail something the first time. Rather than waiting around for passion to show up, we can take matters into our own hands and make our own passion.

In a paper entitled “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?”, researches shared five studies that examined the difference between people who subscribe to the fixed theory versus the growth theory of interest. They found that people who believe that interests are fixed are more likely to:

  • Lose interest more quickly in areas outside their existing interests.
  • Anticipate that there will be “boundless motivation” when following a passion.
  • Give up more easily on a new interest if it becomes difficult.

One study had students read papers that explained that passions are either “fixed” or “grown”, and then they were asked to watch a video on Stephen Hawking's theory about black holes. Students from both groups reported fascination with black holes after watching the engaging and accessible video.

Then the researchers presented the participants with a gritty, technical article about black holes. Even though they had just said that they were fascinated by the topic, students who were exposed to the “fixed theory” reported a larger drop in interest.

Essentially, when students read that interests were fixed, they were more likely to give up on a new interest when it got difficult.

These studies show that typical advice about always doing what you love has led us astray. You won’t always love what you do. No career will offer boundless joy.

An animal lover working in a zoo still has tedious clean up to do, and a rockstar will eventually tire of the long stretches on the road while on tour. A software engineer will spend countless days tracking down a complex bug that ends up being their own stupid typo (ask me how I know).

If we expect that our work will always provide boundless motivation, we will be disillusioned when difficulty strikes. The authors of the paper put it perfectly: “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”

Coding Together

Grow and Develop Mastery

The problem is that we’ve conflated cause and effect. We believed that mastery springs from discovered passions. The truth is that we grow passionate in the process of achieving mastery. Passions aren't found; they’re developed.

This is good news for students picking a major, grads deciding their future, and anyone who doesn't quite feel like their career is the right fit. In fact, another study found that people who believe that passions can be developed over time “grow to fit their vocations better over time”.

In high school, I didn't take the failed test score as confirmation that coding just wasn't for me. I took it as a challenge. Even though every page of my Learning Java textbook sent me straight to sleep, I knew that I could learn it if I tried (and found a better book).

After graduating from university, I applied for a software engineering job. Slowly, day by day, I get a little better. My contributions increase, and with more mastery, I gain more autonomy and respect. Coding went from something for the nerdy student cloistered in the back of the classroom to something for me.

You won't just stumble into your dream career, nor wake up one day with the sure knowledge of your occupational destiny. But with effort and incremental progress, you will develop mastery in your field and in turn, grow your passion.

More about...Career

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
34 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
steveark
steveark
1 year ago

Interesting, F.M. I liked my major in chemical engineering from the start. And I was good enough at it I did not have to study much. But when it clicked in my head that I was way better than my competition at work I really applied myself and gained mastery. Which led to a career I mostly loved and was way overpaid to do.

Financial Mechanic
Financial Mechanic
1 year ago
Reply to  steveark

It really is rewarding when you gain mastery. Congrats on your success as a chemical engineer! When something is usually very difficult for the masses, and it comes easily to you, it makes sense to push to master it– becoming quite a valuable commodity!

Lusty
Lusty
1 year ago

And then there is the concept of “multipotentialite” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJORi5VO1F8) where you have many passions. Who says everyone has to master their chosen field?

Financial Mechanic
Financial Mechanic
1 year ago
Reply to  Lusty

Interesting, I hadn’t heard of a “multipotentialite” before. Of course, we don’t always have one passion– we can keep learning and growing in a bunch of different ways!

S.G.
S.G.
1 year ago

I think “fixed theory” also leads to people other not so good outcomes, such as investing too much in something that you really shouldn’t. Specifically I am thinking of borrowing way too much in student loans because it’s somehow worth it because it’s your passion, or that school is better at teaching your passion, not because it’s a rational investment in your future.

Find something you don’t hate to do that you’re reasonably competent at and do it well.

dh
dh
1 year ago
Reply to  S.G.

Great point, S.G. And people should really have a plan b, as most passions won’t work out. It’s one in millions that you’re going to be a professional blogger, video game player, actor, YouTuber, artist, director, science fiction writer, cartoonist, entrepreneur, inventor, fill in the blank. Yes, somebody always wins the lottery, but chances are it ain’t gonna be you.

I second what S.G. said — just find something practical you don’t hate too badly, then do your passion on the side.

Financial Mechanic
Financial Mechanic
1 year ago
Reply to  dh

It’s interesting to think of ‘winning the lottery’ in a career and monetarily with stock picking. Like dh says, chances are it ain’t gonna be you! Good points from both of you.

catherine byrne
catherine byrne
1 year ago

I enjoyed reading this well-written and interesting post. The comment, “This is good news for students picking a major, grads deciding their future, and anyone who doesn’t quite feel like their career is the right fit” resonated with me. When I graduated as a physical therapist I didn’t really like the work at first. Then I found my niche, became good at it and then I have thoroughly enjoyed my job ever since.
I worry about students urged to follow their passion because job security is left out of the conversation. I anticipate more articles like this one!

Financial Mechanic
Financial Mechanic
1 year ago

We often underestimate the time it might take to develop mastery and find our niche. I have some friends in their early 20s that despair of ever finding something they enjoy doing.
Job security is an important thing to consider for sure. Thank you for your encouragement!

One Frugal Girl
One Frugal Girl
1 year ago

As kids we are told to follow our passions, but without exposure we might not know what we can be passionate about. I graduated with a degree in English Literature, because my teachers kept telling me I had a knack for writing. (I was never introduced to computer science in high school.) Thanks to Y2K I landed a job as a software developer even though I had absolutely no experience coding. When I found the world of computer science I fell in love with it. For years I loved to write and code! I think it’s important to keep a… Read more »

Financial Mechanic
Financial Mechanic
1 year ago

It’s great to hear from someone with a degree in English Literature who made it into computer science! I’m glad for you that you found yourself loving it off the bat. Good points about multiple passions– I have a new big passion every couple of years, and it keeps life fun. And your thoughts on ‘pushing through’ are very apt as well.

Grokking Money
Grokking Money
1 year ago

Oh Boy!!! This really connected with me since I fell in love with programming after I got to know about it and it wasn’t like I was born to “follow it as my passion”. I’ve seen a lot of people run out of steam when they said they loved doing something, only to give up on their “passion” later down the road. I am firm believer that you should try your hand at a lot of things before settling down with something as your career. I have been software developer for over a decade now and the thought of writing… Read more »

Financial Mechanic
Financial Mechanic
1 year ago
Reply to  Grokking Money

It is sad to see people give up on something they once deemed a passion once it gets tough. I understand because a lot of careers aren’t what they seem to be from the surface (or by media coverage). There are so many jobs out there that we would never conceive of until we start to do it!

I’m happy for you that what you do still ‘ignites the fire’ and motivates you to continue doing what you love. Good job on cultivating that passion!

Erickson Perado
Erickson Perado
1 year ago

I think “Follow your passion” is great advice if we really know what “passion” means. The meaning of the word “passion” evolved over time into something “we like doing”, “we are interested in” or “we love to do” that’s why people use it loosely when they say “this and that is my passion.” When in fact, the word “passion” came from the latin word “pati” which means “suffer”. Remember the movie The Passion (Suffering) Of The Christ? If we take the word in this context, it totally makes sense to say that our “passion” is something we are “willing to… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
1 year ago

I agree with this definition of passion: when we love the goal. I have had a few different careers, work situations, and types of positions, but I always get satisfaction from my work environment and jobs from the same types of things. For me, respect, a sense of contribution to making lives better, a huge learning curve, being part of a team, and the feeling that something is hard in a way that I can contribute to with my abilities. Those passions are portable, in a way. It seems like it’s the counterpoint to “what’s your favorite flavor of s***… Read more »

Rama
Rama
1 month ago

Even a hobby can be a passion. You suffer working hard at a job in order to make money and fund engaging in your hobbies. This is also another point of confusion, follow your passion is absolutely the best LIFE advice, but it may not be the best CAREER advice. A career is simply one part of your life it’s not the whole thing. Sometimes the passion is not your career itself but rather your career supports and allows you to provide for your passion.

Ken
Ken
1 year ago

I beg to differ, with all due respect. I think you’re conflating passion with interest.

If you have an interest in computers and coding – a bad test score won’t deter you from engaging in the subject. Rather, it might push you harder to understand where you did wrong and work harder in the future.

In this sense, you have a “passion” for that subject and are willing to double down on your learning.

Without this “passion” you would’ve never lasted that long at your job as a software engineer too.

Financial Mechanic
Financial Mechanic
1 year ago
Reply to  Ken

Hi Ken,
When I say “follow your passion” I mean the passion that people talk about at the podium, which, yes, I think is tightly linked to interest. (For example, you could replace “follow your passion” with “follow your interest” and it essentially means the same thing.)

What you are talking about is “grit.”

Grit is certainly an essential piece to develop mastery, and without it, people won’t last long when the going gets tough. I agree with you that one needs grit to push through.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
1 year ago

I ran a web search on the terms and found this little page:

https://humanities.byu.edu/passion-vs-reason/

According to David Hume and the professor who gave the lecture reported in that page, we all follow our desires, whether we admit it or not.

But yes to hedging wild bets, and setting stop losses, and preparing to be wrong, and growing up, and discovering things through effort.

Brian
Brian
1 year ago

This is the basic premise of the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Financial Mechanic
Financial Mechanic
1 year ago
Reply to  Brian

I’ll have to check it out!

Marie
Marie
1 year ago

My problem was I went by this logic to begin with. I followed plan B, because pshaw! How can I be a writer? In the last four years I was a full time writer and content manager. While I work risk adjustment to pay my bills I’m slowly turning back to my original passion (without writing for someone else)because I excel at it. I wonder where I would be if I had followed my passion in the first place.

Joe @ Retire by 40
Joe @ Retire by 40
1 year ago

Follow your success is a better advice for me. Try different things and see what you’re successful at. Then put a lot of effort into it. Yes, you can develop mastery in many things, but it’s probably best to stick with the things you’re successful at.
I’m passionate about music, but I’m not any good at it. No point trying to make money there.

Gasem
Gasem
1 year ago

Went to cheap state college in the early 70’s and had a blast. Played in a band. Did 3 majors and several research projects, taught physics. Popped out of the academic toaster as an engineer and got a job teaching electronics at a jr college on the side and had a little consulting business. Got a girl friend who required more money than I was making, so took a year and studied for the MCAT and scored in the top 1% nationally. Never really wanted to be a physician, but it fit me like a glove. Went to med school,… Read more »

12345
12345
1 year ago

The “growth” theory sounds interesting, but how do you differentiate between losing interest in a pursuit due to adversity or slumps as opposed to genuine disinterest?

Financial Mechanic
Financial Mechanic
1 year ago
Reply to  12345

Good question! It would be great to see a study on this, because I don’t know the answer!

FoxTesla
FoxTesla
1 year ago

To the author – when in high school, was coding/programming a passion or interest for you? Why did you choose this educational and career path? From my reading, the only reason I see of why you took the AP class to begin with was “to avoid statistics.”

Financial Mechanic
Financial Mechanic
1 year ago
Reply to  FoxTesla

No, neither coding nor programming was even on my radar in high school. I took AP Calc BC my junior year, and the only available “math” class left aside from stats was computer science, so I took comp sci with a couple of friends. My passion and interests were in English and Psychology, but I majored in engineering and eventually got a job in programming. I think I was successful largely because I worked hard and developed a passion.

Janette
Janette
1 year ago

Hello JD, Where are you?
Following my passion of checking up on people. 🙂

J.D. Roth
Admin
1 year ago
Reply to  Janette

I’m here, Janette! I’m working on a long, introspective piece! If it doesn’t go up today, it’ll go up tomorrow. 🙂

Janette
Janette
1 year ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

See you on the plane (or at least I will be reading your work).

Michael King
Michael King
1 year ago

I find myself on the fence on this one. I think you need to follow some level of passion but initially, you need to find your passions/get past the introduction phase. I also think you need to be somewhat a realist, for instance, I bet a ton of people have a passion to play video games or sports but you need to be in the 1% to be able to make that a career. I do think sometimes people are told this advice and in a sense dont really follow passion but conceive passion around things which require little work… Read more »

Janani
Janani
1 month ago

Wow.. this totally is a different view on ‘passion’. What you say is true.. I had left behind so many opportunities offered by many people close to me since college, just because I didn’t feel that call from within (that’s what I learnt from the Youtube videos and quotes, to follow your passion etc..). And after many days of pondering now I got to realize this, and ended up in this article.. Thanks for sharing 🙂

Rama
Rama
1 month ago

This is a point of confusion. Follow your passion is the absolute best LIFE advice but not necessarily the best CAREER advice. A career is simply one part of your life it’s not the whole thing. Sometimes the passion is not your career itself but rather your career supports and allows you to provide for your passion. For example, if you love making independent films but it is not something you are good enough at to make money with it, then go find a job or career that will allow you to make the most out of your skills then… Read more »

shares