Why “follow your passion” is bad advice, and what to do instead

Jennifer didn't know what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I did hours upon hours of research into different fields I thought I might be interested in,” she says. “I thought I might want to do supply-chain management, but I wanted to have hours where I could be home to cook and clean and be the stereotypical housewife.”

Finally, she decided to become a financial adviser. “I realized that working one on one with couples in their 20s to remove or stay out of debt is my passion.” But becoming a financial adviser meant giving up the flexible schedule that was so important to her. “When financial advising came into the picture, those [schedule] restrictions were thrown out the window, and the job hunt began.”

Seven months later, Jennifer was still “trying to figure it out.”

“I read numerous blogs, did all sorts of stupid psychometric tests, went to a career counselor, and…I even went to a psychic!” she says. “Yikes. I was very frustrated and disappointed with myself.”

So what was Jennifer doing wrong?

“Follow your passion” is bad advice

The problem was that Jennifer was following very popular career advice that's also very bad career advice. She was trying to follow her passion.

It sure sounds like a great idea. Who wouldn't like to be paid to do what they love?

But as Jennifer found out, “follow your passion” is problematic for a couple of reasons.

First, do you really know what your passion is? Jennifer didn't, and it set her back seven months. “We assume that we really know what our passions are upfront,” says Ramit Sethi, who wrote the New York Times bestseller “I Will Teach You To Be Rich” and teaches a course on how to find your dream job. “Can you tell just by thinking about it? The way it really works is that you have to get good at something, then you become passionate about it.”

Cal Newport came to the same conclusion in his book So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

“When I studied people who love what they do for a living, I found that in most cases their passion developed slowly, often over unexpected and complicated paths. It's rare, for example, to find someone who loves their career before they've become very good at it — expertise generates many different engaging traits, such as respect, impact, autonomy — and the process of becoming good can be frustrating and take years.”

Second, it may not be realistic to follow your passion. “We don't consider the barriers,” says Sethi. “Like what if your passion won't pay? Or what if you don't actually want to turn your hobby or passion into a full-time career? Or what if your passion leads you down a road that means you'll actually make less of an impact?”

If  “follow your passion” is bad advice, then why do people like Jennifer follow it?

Two reasons people keep trying to follow their passion

There are a couple of reasons people still think following a passion is the golden career ticket, even when it's getting them nowhere.

One reason is that we hear this advice everywhere! “We're told this is the way that people succeed,” says Sethi. “Just follow your passion and the money will follow. Our culture celebrates dreamers who stick with it and overcome all odds. But that's just a story, it's not how the vast majority of people succeed or become passionate about their work.”

Another reason is that it makes us feel good. “It feels good now,” says Sethi. “People don't like to put in the hard work upfront to become excellent and indispensable. They'd rather play around with things they love and just hope that the world rewards them for it.”

So how do you find a job you love (at least most of the time)?

The real way to find a job you love

Sethi says the key to finding a career you're passionate about is to set up a system.

“A system lets you focus with strategic tunnel vision on what you need to be focused on right now,” he says.

When you have a system for finding a dream job, you can “stop trying to figure it all out in your head,” says Sethi. Instead, you can “get specific about what you want, then go out and test your ideas. Find out what the job is really like.”

Using a system can save you a lot of frustration and weeks, or even years, of effort. “Many people want to turn a hobby into a career, only to find out that the professionals in that category often spend more time on business development than doing their ‘hobbies,'” says Sethi. “Other people find their ‘passions' are not realistic careers, but find similar or related careers that also support the lifestyle they want. Win-win.”

Ready to ditch the passion-based job search and set up a career search system?

How to search for specific jobs you can be passionate about

Setting up a system is easy, and shouldn't take much time at all. That's because all your time should really be spent talking to people.

First, get extremely specific about what you want. And when you think you've gotten specific enough, dig even deeper.

Sethi often hears goals like “I want to work with innovative, growing companies that add value by leveraging my unique management skills.”

“What does that even mean?” asks Sethi. “Do you know the actual job you want?”

Start by spending a few minutes writing down 10 specific job titles that interest you. An important caveat is to not disqualify a job simply because it has a single aspect you don't absolutely love. Once you get “so good they can't ignore you,” that one negative aspect can often be ignored.

For instance, an average financial adviser may not be able to negotiate a flexible schedule. However, Suze Orman can take all the flex time she wants. So don't be too picky at this step.

Second, choose one job title to pursue. “Pick one and just go down the rabbit hole,” says Sethi. “You'll learn 10 times more from picking one and executing than sitting in a room and trying to come up with your dream position on your own.”

Finally, list 10 companies you're interested in that have the exact job title you're looking for, and schedule informational interviews with people actually doing the job you're pursuing. “It's more effective to spend a few minutes writing some options, then go out and take people to coffee and test your ideas,” says Sethi. If you're not sure how to find these people or what to say, check out this article.

If you run into a dead-end or decide it's not the career for you, “great,” says Sethi, “you have nine other options to pursue.”

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Louise
Louise
7 years ago

This blog post is basically a rehash of what Ramit Sethi wrote. I think readers would be better off just reading the original article he wrote. No offence, but this post didn’t bring any new information or perspective – it just restated the same informatin.

LeRainDrop
LeRainDrop
7 years ago
Reply to  Louise

As soon as I started reading this, I knew it sounded familiar. JD actually posted about it this past November with a link to a FABULOUS video of Cal Newport speaking on this topic at the World Domination Summit last year. I would recommend reading JD’s post and then watching the video. http://www.jdroth.com/cal-newport-on-careers-and-passion/ Contrary to the assumption of many, Newport argues that Steve Jobs did not follow his passion when building Apple Computer into a world-wide brand.

Tom
Tom
7 years ago
Reply to  LeRainDrop

Did you read his book? I picked it up after seeing the talk.
I thought he makes nice points, and well-researched, though found it a little humorous/ironic that he was writing a career advice prior to actually starting his career as a professor.

LeRainDrop
LeRainDrop
7 years ago
Reply to  LeRainDrop

Tom, no, not yet, but thanks for the suggestion. It looks like an interesting read.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago

I think part of the problem with the “passion” business is a semantics problem. Too many people aren’t passionate enough about their choices, and don’t want to pay the price for them, yet call it a “passion.” Said “passions” are simply something people “like” and are willing to abandon at the drop of a hat. They aren’t driven. That’s not passion. Passion is something you can’t live without and that you’d do even for free or even if it gets you killed. Take Martin Luther King– he was willing to get himself killed for his ideas. That’s passion. He didn’t… Read more »

Mark S.
Mark S.
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

There are two distinct things here. There is what are you passionate about and what can you make a living doing. If they are the same thing, then great. But don’t assume that they will be and don’t insist that they have to be.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  Mark S.

Exactly! I was raised to understand that sometimes people find their passion and focus at work and sometimes they find it outside of work. (Or any combination thereof.) Nothing wrong with either path so long as you work hard and take pride in what you do.

The world needs all kinds of workers, but for some reason we think following one’s passion is the superior path. I’m more of a “love what you do” than “do what you love” type of person, and I think that’s made a big difference.

Johanna
Johanna
7 years ago

A seven-month setback in the search for a career seems to me not to be the worst outcome in the world. And we never do learn what career Jennifer settled on instead.

TB at BlueCollarWorkman
TB at BlueCollarWorkman
7 years ago

Pretty sound advice. The “passion” thing has always bugged me. Have I always been “passionate” about being a carpenter and fix-it dude? Not really. But over the years I”ve gotten darn good at it, and the author is right, I sorta like it now. I don’t have the flexible schedule or salary I want, but it’s better than it used to be. *shrug* Sometimes that has to be enough.

shawn
shawn
7 years ago

depressing.

Sophie
Sophie
7 years ago
Reply to  shawn

I don’t find that depressing at all! I think it’s totally okay for your job to be a means to an end when it’s not the most important part of your life. I’m sure most parents would think that their family is waaaaay more important than whether or not they love their job. For other people, they have passions or hobbies outside of work that bring them happiness or fulfilment – and their job is just the mechanism for paying the bills. Now, if you absolutely hate your job, or it’s the most important thing in your life but you… Read more »

Violette
Violette
7 years ago

I’ve often wondered how many bankruptcies and failed businesses started with the advice to follow your passion.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  Violette

I don’t know, but I’m sure it was less than the number of people who were doing things only for the money and gave up when things got tough.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  Violette

Not sure what U.S. stats are like, but I remember reading that just over half of new Canadian businesses succeed within the first five years. (In other words, nearly half of all new businesses fail within the first five years.) On an international scale, that’s a high success rate.

No one ever talks about success/failure rates in PF blog posts about starting your own business or side gig. Obviously the posts are written by people who succeeded 🙂

Jacq
Jacq
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

The problem with the failure rate “guess” is that they base it on how many people started and then stopped a business. You might have stopped not from financial failure but for other reasons. So the statistics are deceptive.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

You’re right — “success” and “failure” are the wrong words. The stat is based on how many businesses make it to the five year mark or not.

Businesses can end for any number of reasons, but some commenters are saying people should pursue their passion “no matter what” and not giving up when the going gets tough. I’m not sure how realistic that is!

Lizzie
Lizzie
7 years ago

“an average financial adviser may not be able to negotiate a flexible schedule. However, Suze Orman can take all the flex time she wants.” God, this is so true, and I really wish more women would keep this in mind. Sheryl Sandburg has explored this idea, so it’s not like it’s a completely new concept. I’m 38 and spent years as a career slave in a very male-oriented career path. In my 20s there were plenty of multi-day meetings where I sat on a back bench taking minutes. In my early and mid-30s, I burned midnight oil writing proposals and… Read more »

Sherry
Sherry
7 years ago
Reply to  Lizzie

Hard work and putting in the time is so true. Too many people think that it should come easy but nothing worth doing or having comes easy. I just watched a talk by writer John Spooner and his main point was to go the extra mile, stand out from the crowd and work hard to make yourself indispensable at whatever job you do. It helps to love what you’re doing but your job doesn’t have to be your passion.

Jay
Jay
7 years ago

I’m sorry, but what a horrible post. Finding your passion and ‘what if it doesn’t pay’ are incongruous. Do you think if someone like Bill Gates or Michael Jordan didn’t follow their passion they would have been equally successful in another career – like business process or as an insurance agent or financial adviser? They followed their passion and found a way to be wildly successful, beyond their craziest dreams or expectations. This is what is *exactly* what is missing in this world. Folks settling for a paycheck and stable income. I get it – it’s great for many, but… Read more »

kat
kat
7 years ago
Reply to  Jay

I’m sorry but you will be so disappointed one day to discover that you’re neither Bill Gates nor Michael Jordan.

Jason
Jason
7 years ago
Reply to  kat

That was not my point. Whatever your version of Bill Gates or Michael Jordan is, find it. Passion is a positive force in life…’no’ is not.

Rya
Rya
7 years ago
Reply to  Jay

Nope, they just lucked out. Has nothing to do with passion.

Meika
Meika
7 years ago

I agree with Louse in the first comment. I read Ramit’s blog because I think he has a lot of good stuff to say – but why summarize his work here? If YOU are writing an article about passion that’s more than just personal experience, it should include multiple sources – what do you know about passion? What have you observed? Is there data on this? What do other people have to say? Rehashing someone else’s work just doesn’t feel right to me.

Kristin S
Kristin S
7 years ago
Reply to  Meika

And this is the second time its been done on this site. I’d rather read what Ramit says directly…

Children and money
Children and money
7 years ago

Following passion is good advice. Ofcourse you have to know what your passion is and how to apply that passion to what you are doing [ as in career, business and so forth]. The reason people fail when following passion is becuase they ussually love things that they can not convert into a viable profitable business. When I was a kid my mother said playing with computer codes was a waste of my time – but it is proven to be for some very lucrative. My mother also told me playing video games was a waste of my time, but… Read more »

maria
maria
7 years ago

I appreciate this post. As someone who has never really known ‘what she wants to be’, it is nice to see a truthful article. Truth is, I am good at a lot of things, but that doesnt mean I am passionate about them – it just means I am a hard worker and have varied interests. In contrast to your article, I am no longer looking for my ‘dream job’, but instead am focusing on the dream of NOT working a job. My goal for 2013 is to be on a path to double my salary in two years. This… Read more »

Rachel L.D.
Rachel L.D.
7 years ago
Reply to  maria

Everyone is confusing passion with purpose.
Choose a purpose(job) that resonates with you, that you feel you can improve at, something you can apply skill and ability and talent to…..then pursue that purpose with passion by diving in, practicing. It takes years to become great at something. The only way to become great is by doing it with passion. Becoming great is what makes you love your work.

tas
tas
7 years ago

the problem with ‘follow your passion’ is not that it’s bad advice, but that it’s not followed up by a concrete discussion of how to then monetize one’s passion. (h/t to a book i’m currently reading: the education of millionaires) and i guess to the problem with this example is that no one is asking kids to innovate or to try new things bc we’re so busy testing the knowledge out of them…

My Financial Independence Journey
My Financial Independence Journey
7 years ago

Assuming that you are actually good at what you are passionate about, if you follow your passion, you’ll probably wind up succeeding. Unfortunately, succeeding at your passion doesn’t equate to having work/life balance, or bringing in enough money to pay the rent. There are plenty of non-marketable passions out there. Some people recommend chasing the money. What job pays the most? But too many people who follow this path wind up with high paying jobs that they hate. This is not a situation that you want to be in. I’d recommend trying to find a career that interests you in… Read more »

AMW
AMW
7 years ago

Well said #15! The rub comes with finding something your good at AND like. Many of us think we know what we will like and then it doesn’t live up to our expectations. Sometimes we discover our “passion” later in life. I have found that for me, a serial career is a great way to go…life is too interesting to do one thing your whole entire life There are many things I’m passionate about and I don’t want to limit myself.Every 10-15 years I change my path. This is easier and more profitable if you’re self employed. I am in… Read more »

Peach
Peach
7 years ago

Very well said, My Financial. Some writers take a whole book to say what you did in just one post.

Kimberly
Kimberly
7 years ago

I’m so glad that I didn’t get this message when I was 19 or 20 (although I would likely have ignored it). I knew in junior high that I wanted to be a writer, and that’s how I’ve now made my living for 20+ years. Not everyone knows early what their passion is, and many people have multiple passions and careers, but I can’t imagine toiling away at some ho-hum job. What an awful way to live! Having said that, you have to be practical. I’m in a great writers’ group, and we strategize with each other to make our… Read more »

Kiefer
Kiefer
7 years ago

this is not true.. everyone has will to follow their passion for their fulfillment of dreams..

Rachel L.D.
Rachel L.D.
7 years ago

Purpose and passion are completely different. Decide what your purpose is, and then do it with passion.

Any job, career, activity(purpose) can be done with passion: learn, practice, engage, share ideas, make connections, share your energy with the world. That’s passion.

You grow to love your job by doing it with passion.

Goldeneer
Goldeneer
7 years ago

There can be many careers where passion and money can easily be combined but this requires luck and a good vision. Sometimes it requires taking your career and education in a different direction until you can reach or find your goal.
I got lucky that my engineering education turned into my passion which is entrepreneurship.

David Landen
David Landen
7 years ago

Following your passion sounds great but I agree that it can also be problematic. Is following your passion going to pay the bills? Possibly but you need a back up plan in case your passion doesn’t work out!

Lewis Saka
Lewis Saka
7 years ago

Cal Newport’s new book has really opened my eyes, for a long time I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t know what my really passion was. This led to a lot of procrastination, and soul searching. None of this lead anywhere. If I’d just applied myself to my current situation and worked diligently and intelligently, opportunities would have opened up.

Lewis

catherine
catherine
7 years ago

““When I studied people who love what they do for a living, I found that in most cases their passion developed slowly, often over unexpected and complicated paths. ” This is so true! I think, as that article states, that instead of looking at passions in a broad way, like “I love taking pictures-I’ll be a photographer” you might be more successful if you analyze what you like about taking pictures and figure out how your developed skills play into that. Jennifer White talks about the disconnect between passionate work and profitable work in her book “Work Less, Make More.”… Read more »

kat
kat
7 years ago

I’m really passionate about family. I’m really good at other things (like science, math, engineering) but I’ve always been good with kids (big family) and my family is very close and that is the most important thing in my life. Unfortunately I don’t yet have a family of my own. And unfortunately being good about what I’m passionate about, having a family, does not make a career. Following my passion to be a full time stay at home wife and mother is NOT an option unless I marry a billionaire. So I like my job, and I have a lot… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
7 years ago

“Follow your passion” is absolutely the worst advice anyone can give a 17 year old kid. What a great way to end up in with student loans in a field that one thought they were interested in, but can’t afford to work in. Here’s some practical advice: Get a job. Find out what you enjoy most about it and are best at and then find a way to do more of that at your next job and the job after that and the job after that. Changing jobs doesn’t require changing employer. Think about what you’re going to earn before… Read more »

Dan
Dan
7 years ago

I agree wholeheartedly with this post. I followed my passion (classical singing), and it brought me nothing but debt and stress. And no, I didn’t suck at it–I sang at some well respected regional opera houses, plus a full ride to a decent graduate school. I’m 31, changing careers, and now entering a field which I feel great about in the health care industry. If working a job that you consider your passion is making you miserable, then obviously that is not your passion. I think better advice would be to envision a lifestyle that you would consider ideal, and… Read more »

Rachel L.D.
Rachel L.D.
7 years ago
Reply to  Dan

Dan, you are so right. I can relate to your story somewhat. We all have various gifts that we can apply to almost any job which would afford us a nice life. It took some living in order for me to learn that, how to apply myself to something worthwhile while engaging my various gifts, and collecting a nice paycheck.

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