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.”